Thanks to Tony Blair’s infamous “ethical foreign policy” we know that you can’t reliably divine a Government’s priorities and beliefs by its words. Actions speak louder, as the saying goes.

Here are what seem to me to be the key moments of the last three years in British foreign policy:

  • Committing to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid
  • Blocking an EU treaty change intended to bail out the Eurozone
  • Intervening alongside France and others in Libya
  • Committing to an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership
  • Attempting to intervene against the Assad regime in Syria (but being forbidden to do so by the House of Commons)
  • Criticising the human rights abuses of the Sri Lankan government

So far, that’s all fairly in line with the broad principles of moral priorities tempered by pragmatic considerations laid out by Cameron as early as his first conference as leader in 2006, when he said:

“I’m not a neo-conservative. I’m a liberal Conservative.

Liberal – because I believe in spreading freedom and democracy, and supporting humanitarian intervention. That is why we cannot stand by and watch further genocide in Darfur.

But Conservative – because I also recognise the complexities of human nature, and will always be sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world.”

Those seem to me to be sensible, good principles – though I may not always agree with the decisions the Government have made (I supported intervention in Syria, for example, but disagree with an arbitrary target for aid spending).

And generally they have stuck to them.

This weekend, though, those ideas have been thrown into some chaos.

On his visit to China this week, it’s reported, the Prime Minister will distance himself from the Dalai Lama and the serious abuses of human rights in China and Tibet. He will ditch those issues of freedom and democracy explicitly in order to win trade favours from the Chinese Government.

It’s a stark departure from the principles he laid out seven years ago and has even gone to war to uphold in the past. As someone who thinks freedom around the world is in Britain’s interests as well as morally desirable, I find it rather alarming.

The Free Tibet campaign published polling on Friday which found that 69 per cent of the British public think that “protecting human rights in Tibet is more important than or as important as maintaining good trade relations with China”. That’s a credit to the decency of Britons.

Presumably the Government is betting that people won’t care so much once the trade is delivered and the Tibetans are forgotten – but it’s a distasteful wager.

Where does this leave the Government’s foreign policy? Will it become standard practice to exchange the freedom of others in return for trading rights, or is China a special case?

If it’s the latter, how badly weakened will Britain’s case be the next time we talk about “spreading freedom and democracy”, when tyrants can respond by pointing to our relaxation about China’s behaviour?