Liz Truss and other senior Tory MPs have lined up in the Commons to pressure Rishi Sunak to designate China as a “threat” to the UK following the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
The so-called China hawks on the Tory benches did not hold back after Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden gave a statement on the arrest and insisted China represented a “systemic challenge” to the UK.
The former prime minister Ms Truss, joined by the likes of Tory former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and veteran MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, raised to their feet to urge the Government to specifically label China as a “threat” to the UK.
The researcher at the centre of the row, who had links with senior Tories including security minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns, was arrested back in March – but this went undisclosed until the Sunday Times reported it over the weekend.
The individual said he is “completely innocent” and that he spent his career highlighting the “challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party”.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, which oversees espionage-related offences, are investigating.
Speaking in the Commons, Ms Truss said: “These are extremely worrying reports about the level of infiltration of Chinese-supported forces into our democracy.
“Does he (Oliver Dowden) agree that what we need to do is to recognise that China is the largest threat, both to the world and to the United Kingdom, for freedom and democracy?
“And does he not agree that the Government should designate it as such?”
Mr Dowden replied: “She is absolutely right that China represents a systemic challenge to our interests and values, and it is also the case, for example, in respect of our economic security, it is the number one state-based threat to our economic security.
“What I would say to her is that the Government is absolutely clear-eyed about the threats that this nation faces and robust in taking action, indeed that is why I personally took the decisions in respect of banning Huawei from our 5G networks, in respect of Chinese CCTV technology, and indeed in relation to TikTok.
“We will continue to take whatever steps are necessary based on appropriate advice to provide that protection for our nation and our democratic institutions.”
Meanwhile, Sir Iain said: “It’s appalling news that we have a potential cell operating in and around Westminster, an espionage cell, and I as a sanctioned individual alongside many of my colleagues are particularly perturbed by this particular news.”
He added: “When did the Foreign Secretary get told about this investigation? Was it before he went to Beijing, and if he went to Beijing with this knowledge, did he raise it with his counterpart in Beijing, because it’s very important to know whether we have already said it.
Sir Iain noted: “The problem lies in the mess we’ve got into over what we define China as in respect to us. Are they a threat or are they not? If they are a threat, why don’t we call them a threat and take the relative action that is necessary to deal with them on that basis and sanction some people?”
Mr Dowden said the Government does not provide a “running commentary” on intelligence matters, adding that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly “regularly raises electoral interference and interference with our democratic institutions” with his Chinese counterpart.
He said: “It would not be the case, and it has not been the case generally, that specific cases – particularly those that are subject to an ongoing police investigation – would be raised.”
MP for Harwich and North Essex Sir Bernard echoed his colleagues, saying: “Why is the Government so squeamish about not just talking about threats from China, but by calling China a threat?
“What is the difference between a challenge and a threat?”
Mr Dowden reiterated the Government is “absolutely clear about the threat that China represents”, adding: “But at the same time, it is right that we engage with China and that is the approach that we are taking alongside working very closely with our allies.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer later pressed the Prime Minister to reveal whether the Foreign Secretary raised reports of Chinese spying in Westminster during his August visit to the country.
Sir Keir asked: “Given the arrest happened in March, can I ask the Prime Minister if the Foreign Secretary knew about this incident before he visited China last month, and if he did, did he raise it on that trip?”
Mr Sunak responded: “I am sure he will appreciate that as there is an ongoing investigation, as you have also said Mr Speaker, I am limited in what I can say specifically.
“But I have been emphatically clear in our engagement with China that we will not accept any interference in our democracy and parliamentary system.
“This includes sanctioning of MPs and malign activity, such as the type of activity alleged to have taken place.
“I can absolutely confirm that the Foreign Secretary raised these issues on his recent visit and I also reinforced this in my meeting at the G20.”