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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday demanded that Rishi Sunak conduct a “full audit of UK-China relations” following the arrest of a British parliamentary researcher accused of spying for Beijing.
Starmer said the prime minister’s approach to China was “at odds” with the hardline position urged by parliament’s intelligence and security committee in a damning report in July.
The government’s formal response to the committee’s report, which found the UK’s approach to China’s “increasingly sophisticated” espionage was “completely inadequate”, is expected on Thursday.
Sunak sought to portray the committee’s findings as out of date, relating to “a period of investigations in 2019 and 2020”, as he pointed to legislation and other measures the government has since introduced to boost protections against potential spying and interference by China.
In exchanges at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Starmer accused Sunak of “desperately playing catch-up”, having failed to “heed the warnings” from the UK security services on China.
Starmer also demanded to know whether foreign secretary James Cleverly had raised the issue of the alleged Chinese spy at Westminster with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during a trip to Beijing last month that was designed to repair relations between the two countries.
Sunak insisted Cleverly had tackled his Chinese hosts on the general issue of Beijing’s interference in Britain, but declined to say whether he had raised the case of the alleged spy.
Starmer’s question came after the Financial Times revealed that Sunak and Cleverly were informed shortly after the Metropolitan Police in March arrested a British parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for Beijing, but still proceeded to step up UK engagement with China.
Cleverly’s trip was the first high-level British government visit to Beijing for five years.
The former parliamentary researcher on Monday denied the allegations of spying.
Conservative MPs with a hawkish stance on China vented their fury at the government’s approach.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said he suspected Cleverly had declined to raise the alleged spy at Westminster with Wang on account of “embarrassment”.
Duncan Smith urged ministers to accept the conclusions of the intelligence and security committee’s July report and “toughen up our policy on China, listen to the security services about the threat posed”.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons defence committee, has stepped down from the role.
Ellwood resigned before he was ousted by fellow committee members, according to people familiar with the matter.
He was criticised after publishing a video in July that claimed security in Afghanistan had “vastly improved” and “corruption is down” after the Taliban seized power in 2021.
Despite a subsequent apology by Ellwood, MPs on the committee made clear the chair did not command their support and he opted to step down before facing a vote of no confidence.
Labour insiders tipped Sarah Atherton, a Tory member of the committee, as a frontrunner to succeed Ellwood, saying she could win the backing of opposition MPs.
Ellwood was contacted by the FT for comment.