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Good morning. There is only one story everyone in Westminster is talking about today: the arrest of a British parliamentary investigator on suspicion of spying for Beijing. It has foiled all the positive headlines Sunak had hoped for from his G20. But more importantly, it highlights a major problem with the aims of British foreign policy more broadly. More about that below.
Inside Politics is edited today by Angela Bleasdale. Follow Stephen on X @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to email@example.com
Overshadowed by the news
“Overshadowed” is one of those weird words we political journalists like to use to mean “this story is much more fun or interesting than the story the government of the day would like to write about.” In this case, “the Sunday Times scoop that a British parliamentary researcher has been arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing is much more fun and interesting than Rishi Sunak’s time at the G20.” But this time the word really is appropriate, because the spy story really overshadows and damages Sunak’s agenda.
One of the areas where Sunak’s government represents a change in approach from Boris Johnson’s government is foreign policy. Close to Britain, he has given up the long-running battle with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol and has reintegrated Britain into the Horizon programme. Further on, he has diminished Britain’s Sinoskeptical side. His Foreign Secretary James Cleverly became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit China since Jeremy Hunt in 2018.
The exact political consequences of this story will be determined by what details emerge into the public eye and what happens next. But it has already strengthened the Conservative Party’s Sinoskeptical wing and undermined Sunak’s bid to reset Britain’s China policy.
But more importantly, it underlines one way in which global politics has changed since Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 – and not in Britain’s favor. Just eight months before Britain’s Brexit vote, David Cameron was able to pose with Xi Jinping and have a pint of beer, Xi met the Queen and the country announced a new strategic partnership, and while all this drew some criticism within the Conservative Party and in Westminster as a whole they were marginal. Now Sinoscepticism is the dominant school of thought in the Tory Party and, in many ways, in Westminster.
In June 2016, Brexit did not have to mean being outside a series of increasingly forbidding trade walls, with sharp limits on how British diplomats could interact. In 2023, yes. That, like the shift in public opinion on the stay/leave question, is one of the reasons why the shape of the EU-Britain relationship is, as Martin Sandbu puts it in a smart column today, “unfinished business” remains.
Try this now
I had a frustrating weekend, with a cold that was timed just right to knock me out from about 9pm on Friday to 5pm on Sunday. That’s a mercy logistically, but I was really looking forward to seeing it Passages.
Now I’m at that stage where I feel good enough to work, but not so good that it doesn’t feel antisocial to come to the office. (I’m not a homeworker by nature.)
The only part of my weekend plans that remained intact was reading the FTWeekend. I particularly enjoyed Ludovic Hunter-Tilney on the controversial memory of Amy Winehouse, Simon Willis on the threat to London’s plane trees and Anna Nicolaou on the remake of the music industry in the streaming age.
Speaking of streaming, let me know what to watch while I sniffle and sneeze on the road to recovery!
Top stories today
Trade relations | Rishi Sunak and Narendra Modi gave a bigger boost to trade talks between Britain and India, telling ministers and officials to work “at pace” to secure a deal as they met on the sidelines of the G20 on Saturday summit in New Delhi.
Leveling | For many years the main problem facing many towns in northern England has been the decline of their industrial base. In Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, the conundrum is different. The port city’s largest employer, BAE Systems, has a full order book for the next 30 years.
No pension commitment | Rishi Sunak has refused to commit to a so-called triple lock on pensions in the next Conservative election manifesto, risking a backlash among Tory MPs.
Boom to bust | Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, has enjoyed one of the country’s fastest economic recoveries from the pandemic, attracting record levels of foreign investment. But the boom is in stark contrast to the serious financial difficulties facing the Labour-led local government.
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