Back in 2005, Boris Johnson wrote that among geopolitical gloomsters, China was becoming the ‘fashionable new dread’. They were obsessed with the idea that this ‘incubator of strange diseases’ was angling to become ‘the next world superpower’ — ‘China will not dominate the globe’ he concluded.
The China question is now the most fashionable new dread in Boris Johnson’s Tory party. Within the space of a few short years, the country has gone from a mid-level concern, via Cameron and Osborne’s ‘golden era’ to becoming an existential rival. And where once the country was of interest only to a few dusty old Sinologists, now it is the cause célèbre for ambitious backbenchers hoping to make a name for themselves.
The latest showdown with the government is the so-called genocide amendment — an attempt by backbenchers to use the London High Court to torpedo any trade deal with a country ruled to have committed genocide. The aim is clearly to send a message to China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. The amendment is set to return to the Commons next month after the whips managed to see off a vote earlier this year using obtuse parliamentary procedure, averting a government defeat with just 15 votes to spare.
There was more than a hint of frustration in the briefings that followed. Senior MPs, Foreign Office officials and the whips office were all accused of unpleasant behaviour. One of those involved suggested that the whips had told young MPs that they would have resources withdrawn at the next election if they failed to back the government. Another told how a disagreement between two senior China hawks became so heated that one of them burst into tears.
One hawkish MP was less than impressed: ‘If your principles collapse because you have a telephone call with a whip or are told it may harm your career, I’m pretty sure you’ve not got much in the way of principles in the first place.’
Beyond the grumbling, the vote exposed two things.