Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Boris Johnson is under growing pressure from his party to reset the UK’s relationship with China. 

Conservative Members of Parliament told Business Insider that the party’s attitude to Beijing had “hardened” after the Chinese government had “consistently lied” about the coronavirus pandemic.

The Conservative chair of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said the pandemic would inevitably change Johnson’s government’s attitude to China.

Senior members of Johnson’s government have previously warned that there will be a “reckoning” with Beijing after the crisis and said the UK could not go back to “business as usual” with China.

Conservative critics of China within Johnson’s party have set up a new grouping designed to pressure the government on the issue.

Johnson risks a major rebellion from his party if he pushes ahead with plans to allow the Chinese telecoms company Huawei to develop the UK’s 5G network.

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Boris Johnson is under growing pressure from within his own party to reset Britain’s relationship with China and axe the UK’s controversial deal with Chinese telecoms company Huawei.

Influential Conservative MPs say attitudes towards China within Johnson’s party have “hardened” in light of the coronavirus crisis, after Beijing “consistently lied” about the pandemic and failed to “face up to its responsibilities.”

The First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, who is deputizing for Johnson while he recovers from the coronavirus, warned last week that the UK’s relationship with China could not return to “business as usual” after the pandemic.

Now Raab’s colleague, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said Beijing’s behavior meant that Johnson would inevitably have to reconsider the UK’s relationship with China.

“I think it’s hardened many views in the parliamentary [Conservative] party,” Tugendhat told Business Insider.

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Tugendhat, whose committee is currently investigating claims of Chinese asset stripping of a UK tech firm, predicted that Johnson would revisit the controversial decision to strike a deal with Huawei for Britain’s 5G network.

“I can’t see how it doesn’t change that. Clearly, it’s going to have implications,” he said.

“It makes the Huawei position hard.”

The UK prime minister had already suffered one parliamentary rebellion over the decision to let Huawei develop the UK’s 5G when almost 40 Conservative MPs voted against the government in a House of Commons vote last month.

One senior MP and former Conservative minister, who did not wish to be named, told Business Insider this week that opposition to the deal in the party had grown since the onset of the coronavirus crisis. 

“I’ve had texts from a number of colleagues who weren’t part of the rebellion [House of Commons vote in March], who were saying they won’t vote for it next time. The view is hardening,” they said.

“There were some pretty key supporters of Boris who were rebelling [in March.] If that attitude is hardening, you can assume some more of the new intake will vote against the government. They’re supposed to be Boris’ soldiers.”

They added: “China is still going to be the predominant economic power, and there are some colleagues who say they understand the short-term anger, but we need to look into the medium term.

“However, my sense from colleagues I’ve spoken to, is that there is a definite hardening of attitude and definite concern that China has failed to face up to its responsibilities in the whole context of coronavirus.”

Tom Tugendhat MP.

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Tugendhat is one of several senior Conservatives to accuse China of lying over how many of its people have caught the coronavirus and died as a result of it. Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, last week revised its death toll up by 50%. China denies allegations of a cover-up, and says the revision was due to a reporting lag.

“It’s a fact that many countries are struggling with reporting. That’s totally unsurprising,” Tugendhat said.

“But what’s more concerning with China, is that we know that they have consistently lied about their figures in the past, so we should actually be very cautious about accepting their word.”

Lord Patten, the ex-Conservative party chairman who served as the last Governor of Hong Kong, this week told the Financial Times that China was “dangerous for the whole world” and urged Johnson to “face down” its government.

“This can’t go back to the groveling business as normal, which was signing up to ludicrously one-sided business deals and the suggestion we were enjoying a ‘golden age’ with China,” he said.

“We know how this crisis started, and the costs of Chinese mendacity and the cover-up are clear.”

Conservative MPs launch the ‘China Research Group’Xi Jinping Coronavirus China

REUTERS/Aly Song

Tugendhat told Business Insider that now was the time for the UK to “redesign our relationships globally.”

“We need to think very hard about what we are trying to do,” he said.

“From the UK’s point of view, that means defending the rules-based, international system as much as possible, and making sure that we are standing up for the issues which really matter.”

In a sign of the party’s growing unease over China, Tugendhat and eight other Conservative MPs today launched the China Research Group, to “promote debate and fresh thinking about how Britain should respond to the rise of China.”

Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, the group’s secretary, told Business Insider he felt that Westminster was not thinking hard enough about how to respond to China’s growing global power.

“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the growing influence of China and issues that raise,” he said.

“Looking at other countries like Sweden, Germany, and the US, the debate about responding to Chinese industrial and technological policy in those countries is a bit more advanced than it is here.”

The group plans to invite speakers from across the world, and has received interest from lots of Conservative MPs, O’Brien said.

“There will be more and more issues that relate to China as we go forward,” he told Business Insider.

“Given their ever-increasing share of the world economy, their technological sophistication, and strategy and reshape the world in their image, we are more and more going to run up against issues where the question of China is essential.”

The UK is heavily reliant on Chinese medical supplies

Johnson’s UK government may be reluctant to tear up relationships with Beijing as long as the UK remains reliant on Chinese medical supplies during the COVID-19 crisis.

One senior Conservative MP told Business Insider: “The only problem for the government is that there aren’t that many other suppliers of the equipment they want. They’re in quite a tricky position.”

Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, also made this point to the UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday.

“China is one of the biggest sources of such critical equipment in the world,” he told MPs. 

“The embassy in Beijing has procured more than 4,200 ventilators. China has donated 118, and over 750 have been shipped to the United Kingdom. You can see that China is central to all aspects of this crisis.”

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