Labour MP has accused the Foreign Secretary of being a “Chinese stooge” over a possible trip to the country after his ministerial colleague was sanctioned by Beijing.
James Cleverly asked Chris Bryant to withdraw the “discourteous” and inaccurate” comment during an angry exchange before the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The minister was being questioned by MPs on a wide range of issues including a visit he is reportedly expected to take to Beijing, when Mr Bryant suggested: “China plays the tune and you dance.”
It comes after security minister Mr Tugendhat, one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese government in Parliament, was banned from entering the country in 2021.
You’re just a Chinese stooge then. You just do what they want … You’ve said because China has sanctioned some MPs, you wouldn’t be prepared to take them
Asked whether he would consider taking his Foreign Office colleague with him on any trip to Beijing, Mr Cleverly replied: “The idea that the Foreign Secretary interacting with another government is anything other than my duty and my responsibility is nonsense. It is literally my job.”
“You’re just a Chinese stooge then. You just do what they want … You’ve said because China has sanctioned some MPs, you wouldn’t be prepared to take them,” Mr Bryant said.
“I don’t take ministers on visits with me,” the minister replied.
Mr Cleverly accused the MP of deploying a “nice headline” without evidence to back it up and called on him to withdraw it.
“The fact is it’s the job of Foreign Secretary to engage with foreign governments, including ones we disagree with,” he said.
“Unless you can give evidence to back up your assertion, I would suggest politely that you withdraw it because it is not just inaccurate, it is also really quite, I think, discourteous.”
Political discourse surrounding China has grown heated in recent months amid disputes over the right approach to an increasingly assertive Beijing.
The Foreign Secretary has adopted a less hawkish stance towards the country than some in his party would like.
Some senior Tories including Iain Duncan Smith have called on ministers to go further in distancing the UK from China and want the Government to be more outspoken in criticising the Far East country’s leadership.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Liz Truss has accused Western leaders meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping of displaying “weakness”.
It comes after China was at the forefront of the agenda on Rishi Sunak’s trip to Washington last week, when he agreed a new partnership with Joe Biden to bolster economic security in response to the country’s growing influence.
MPs at Monday’s committee session also criticised the Government for failing to expel Chinese diplomats over the assault of a protester outside the nation’s consulate.
Chairwoman Alicia Kearns said the group of MPs was “unified” in its view that “not enough was done” over the attack on Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner Bob Chan.
China pulled out six officials wanted for police questioning over the assault in Manchester last year, insisting the departure of the consul general was a “normal rotation”.
Labour MP Graham Stringer told the Foreign Secretary: “You just had a nice quiet, cosy word. For meaningful action, you could have said ‘you’re behaviour is unacceptable’ publicly and diplomatically expelled them from this country … Because it was China, you took a very weak, cosy position.”
Mr Cleverly said he viewed the incident as an example of “effective diplomacy” because the diplomats ultimately left the country and no British officials were removed from China in a tit-for-tat response.