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Published: 01:08, October 28, 2022 | Updated: 09:33, October 28, 2022
Recalibrating China-UK relationship is in everybody’s best interests
By Grenville Cross
Published:01:08, October 28, 2022 Updated:09:33, October 28, 2022 By Grenville Cross

The United Kingdom’s Conservative and Unionist Party is, with origins dating back to the English Civil War, the world’s oldest political party. In its current incarnation, it was created in 1834 by Sir Robert Peel, and it has governed Britain for the bulk of the last two centuries. Although an establishment party, it has always moved with the times, and its phenomenal success is attributable to its ability to stay ahead of the game, as well as its ruthlessness. 

When it has suited it, the Conservative Party has been a trailblazer. At a time when it was dominated by the aristocracy, it welcomed Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish novelist and outsider, as its leader, in 1868, and he gave it power. Then, in 1975, it elected Margaret Thatcher as its first female leader, and she did likewise, and it has now produced three lady prime ministers all told, while the opposition Labour Party has yet to come up with one.

On Oct 24, the Conservative Party smashed yet another glass ceiling, when it elected its first person of color, Rishi Sunak, as its leader, and, hence, prime minister. His predecessor, Liz Truss, was brutally dispatched after a mere 44 days (she remained for a further five days while a successor was chosen), such being the price of failure. Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is a Hindu who took his parliamentary oath on the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, and his appointment will undoubtedly facilitate the UK’s ongoing efforts to strike a trade deal with India.

Sunak realizes that, as its third prime minister in less than three months, the Conservative Party is now in the last-chance saloon. If he messes up even half as badly as his predecessor, it will face annihilation at the general election, due by 2024. In the polls, the Conservative Party lags way behind Keir Starmer’s rejuvenated Labour Party, but, if he gets things back on track, he may yet save its bacon.

As he prepared to enter No 10 Downing Street, Sunak said it was time “to unite or die”, and most of his party will agree with that. He made clear that he plans to end the Conservative “psychodrama”, and pledged to prioritize “politics not personalities”. Whereas Truss surrounded herself with ideologues, all mechanically regurgitating identical platitudes, Sunak wants a more-broadly based government, and is reaching out to different factions of his party.

The chaos of the ill-fated Truss premiership could have been avoided if, once Boris Johnson resigned, the decision over his successor was taken by the Conservative members of parliament (MPs), rather than by its rank-and-file members in the country. In the initial stages of the contest, on July 20, the majority of the MPs, who worked daily with Sunak and Truss and knew them better than anybody else, backed Sunak with 137 votes to Truss’ 113 votes. Unfortunately for the British people, theirs was not the last word.

Once the main campaign got underway in the constituencies in late July, Truss, determined to win by hook or by crook, told the party members whatever they wanted to hear. By contrast, Sunak risked unpopularity by telling them what they needed to hear, explaining that tough decisions were unavoidable and that her economic plans were a total “fairy tale”. He was, of course, absolutely right, and, after she was elected on Sept 2, with 81,326 votes to Sunak’s 60,399 votes, Truss imploded, lasting 49 days all told, the shortest and most ignominious premiership in British history.

Quite clearly, those arrangements will have to include the deepening of the economic and financial ties between the UK and China. After all, China is Britain’s third-largest trade partner, accounting for almost 7 percent of the country’s global commerce, and huge opportunities are opening up in China for British businesses

Indeed, her campaign for the party membership’s votes was highly unedifying, and she even resorted to accusing Sunak of being “weak” on China (as well as Russia). As chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), Sunak had, in his Mansion House speech in 2021, set out his vision for a “mature and balanced relationship” with China, adding, “We can pursue with confidence an economic partnership with China in a safe, mutually beneficial way without compromising our values or security”, and Truss sought to punish him for this.

It was, moreover, revealed, on July 28, through a Treasury leak published in The Times, that Sunak had been close to signing a new economic agreement with China that aimed to “deepen trade ties” and make the UK the “market of choice” for Chinese companies. Truss, of course, weaponized this information against him, and he then had to try to pacify party xenophobes by painting himself as a China “hawk”, although it did him no good.

As a careerist, Truss originally appeared very keen on improving ties with Beijing while serving in the government of the former prime minister, David Cameron, who pioneered the “Golden Era” of Anglo-China relations. Once Cameron departed, however, his policy fell into disfavor, and Truss quickly changed tack (just as she did over Brexit, which she originally opposed). Thus, in her contest with Sunak, she played the China card whenever she could, announcing her plan to designate China for the first time as a “threat” to the UK, rather than as the “systemic competitor” her government had described it in 2021.

The British people will pay a heavy price for Truss’ blunders, and the Conservative Party may never be forgiven for the needless anguish she caused. Her election came on the back of an appeal to the basest instincts of party members, with her obvious shortcomings being disregarded. As foreign secretary, for example, her previous role, she was incompetent and superficial, even telling Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that two Russian provinces were not part of Russia, and then advising Britons that they could go to fight in Ukraine, although this was a criminal offense. She was only ever as good as her next sound bite, as the entire world, to Britain’s shame, now knows.

That somebody so manifestly unsuitable could climb to the top of what Benjamin Disraeli famously called the “greasy pole” is testament to just how far a once-great political party has fallen. It will now be up to Sunak to try to turn things round, and this will involve sound fiscal planning, a balanced budget, and sensible trading arrangements to make a reality of “Global Britain”.

Quite clearly, those arrangements will have to include the deepening of the economic and financial ties between the UK and China. After all, China is Britain’s third-largest trade partner, accounting for almost 7 percent of the country’s global commerce, and huge opportunities are opening up in China for British businesses. The annual trade between the two countries currently amounts to over 93 billion pounds ($108 billion), which is sharply up on the figure of 58 billion pounds in 2015, when David Cameron was the prime minister.

Although some of Truss’ backers favored economic decoupling from the world’s second-largest economy, it is now, with her exit, time for the zealots to make way for the realists, and for British national interests to be prioritized. On Oct 25, moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said China wanted to “advance ties with the UK”, expressing the hope the two countries could work together on “a basis of mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, and Sunak will hopefully reciprocate.

As chancellor of the exchequer, Sunak acknowledged the importance of promoting trade links with China as the UK capitalized upon its post-Brexit opportunities, and, as prime minister, he will now hopefully have the courage to see his vision through to fruition.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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