Rishi Sunak was blasted for his response to China today following the arrest of a parliamentary researcher accused of spying for Beijing.
Iain Duncan Smith took aim at the prime minister after meeting with Chinese premier Li Qiang over the country’s “unacceptable” interference in British democracy.
According to The Sunday Times, the Briton was arrested by officers for allegedly breaching the Official Secrets Act.
The researcher has had links to several senior Tory MPs, including security minister Tom Tugendhat and foreign affairs committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns.
A Number 10 spokesperson said Sunak had raised “significant concerns about China’s interference in the UK’s parliamentary democracy.”
He told broadcasters: “We discussed a range of things, and I raised areas where there are disagreements.
“And this is just part of our strategy to protect ourselves, protect our values and our interests, to align our approach to China with that of our allies like America, Australia, Canada, Japan and others, but also to engage where it makes sense.”
Sunak insisted his confrontation with Li was a more effective approach than “just shouting from the sidelines” as he defended foreign secretary James Cleverly’s recent visit to China.
He added: “There’s no point carping from the sidelines – I’d rather be in there directly expressing my concerns, and that’s what I did today.”
The prime minister has faced increasing criticism from senior Tory MPs in recent months for pursuing a relationship with a China that they view as an increasing threat.
The prime minister has rowed back from officially recategorising China as a “threat”, saying he views the country as a “systemic challenge” as part of a major review of British foreign policy.
Appearing on Times Radio, the former Tory leader said: “Frankly the government, the British government and this establishment is so desperately thinking about China as a business problem, they fail to realise how dangerously threatening China really is becoming.”
He described Sunak’s talks with the Chinese premiere as a “pathetic monologue”, adding that the arrest of the parliamentary researcher prompted “big questions” around the security of Parliament.
He added: “There are big questions to be asked about parliamentary security, about the vetting of people who work for different groups that are made up of parliamentarians.
“I think we are deeply penetrated by the Chinese because of our ambivalent attitude towards them. Therefore, people tend to turn a blind eye.”