When Theresa May revealed to the House of Commons that Russia was behind the Salisbury poisonings, many were left aghast at Corbyn’s reluctance to believe outright the involvement of the Russian state. It was an issue that – as Melanie Onn, former MP for Grimsby told me – cut through and helped lose support for Labour in the 2019 December election. It also revealed a significant chasm between the UK’s two major parties over foreign policy. With the election of Kier Starmer, this difference has dramatically narrowed and a new consensus has formed, particularly over China.
Labour’s Lisa Nandy supported the government over Hong Kong and even urged them to go one step further, asking why Britain was not offering aid to those wishing to travel to the UK. When today the Government announced that Huawei will have to be removed from the country’s 5G networks by 2027, Labour’s Chris Bryant spoke of unity amongst MPs in opposition to further involvement by the Chinese telecoms company. Indeed there were multiple Labour MPs joining forces with a sizeable group of Tory backbenchers demanding the date for the end of Huawei to be brought forward.
Although there are signs that Labour is wishing to outflank the Tories in being more opposed to the actions of the Chinese state, it should not be dismissed how significant this new consensus is. With a unified position among British politicians, matching the views of many of our allies around the world, there is a real possibility of successfully checking the growing power of China.
This, however, is the easy part. For the Government cross-party support for its strategy over China may never be as high as it is now. For instance, what happens when, as many expect, China responds and punishes Britain for taking such a stance. In the face of a cyber attack or the pulling of trade and investment from British companies, Labour will be quick to attack the Government.
Crucially opponents will ask why the Government has allowed Chinese involvement to become this entrenched. And this is where it becomes politically dangerous for the Tories. It was Cameron and Osborne that began the great push towards greater Sino relations, believing the economic opportunities were too good to be missed and that China would eventually become more democratic and ‘western’. They were wrong. Today’s decision is the Conservative party admitting this, and yet again reversing a decision made in the Cameron era.
Whilst in Whitehall there needs to be a series look at what has changed since they forecasted a more amicable China, for Boris Johnson this is yet again another attempt to distance himself from past Conservative Governments. He has managed to do this successfully over austerity (coalition years) and Brexit (May) – can he do it a third time? Kier Starmer’s ratings in the polls exceed them of the Labour party revealing a still damaged party brand. In contrast, support for the Conservative party significantly exceeds Boris Johnson’s approval ratings. When the backlash from China comes it will be an opportunity for Starmer to try to damage the Tory brand, and close the polling gap. It is the Conservative party that holds responsibility for allowing China to become this entrenched in British infrastructure. Admitting they got it wrong in the past and electing new leaders to rectify their mistakes, is a unique but brutal quality the Conservative have. The question now: is whether history will catch up with them.