Rishi Sunak is facing criticism from the rightwing of his ruling Conservative party over his “shameful” China policy and his failure to build more homes, as he tries to limit the fallout of last week’s dire Tory local election results in England.
The UK prime minister will convene his cabinet on Tuesday and seek to stem growing internal unrest in his party by urging his colleagues to pull together after the loss of about 1,000 Tory council seats last week.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith on Monday launched a scathing attack on Sunak’s “shameful” decision to dispatch his investment minister to Hong Kong, the first visit in five years by a British minister to the territory.
Domestically, divisions reappeared between Tory MPs over how to deal with Britain’s housing crisis, exposing a growing north-south split in the party ahead of an expected general election next year.
The visit of Lord Dominic Johnson to Hong Kong to drum up trade and “renew the UK’s investment ties with the city” has sparked outrage among China hawks in the Conservative party.
Johnson said he would talk to the Hong Kong administration about boosting trade and investment in fintech, financial services and other key areas, increasing collaboration across clean growth, arts and culture.
Duncan Smith said the visit was part of “project kowtow”, a reference to efforts by Sunak to engage economically with China despite Beijing’s repressive actions in Xinjiang and crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Johnson insisted the government “would not look the other way on Hong Kong or duck [its] historic responsibilities to its people. We will continue to stand up for them, call out the violation of their freedoms and hold China to their international obligations.”
Duncan Smith told the Financial Times: “It seems astonishing to me that a government minister is visiting Hong Kong after the Chinese trashed the Sino-British Agreement.” The 1984 agreement set the terms of the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“Our policy towards China has become weak, chasing business links and Xi laughs at us,” he said, referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping. the “architect of the crackdown on people in Hong Kong”.
Sunak also came under attack from the right of his party over his decision to drop housebuilding targets last year. Simon Clarke, a former cabinet minister in Liz Truss’s short administration, said Sunak had made a “major mistake”.
Clarke, an MP on Teesside, told the BBC the government had tried to pander “to the public’s worst instincts” and it had backfired in last week’s local elections.
“In these results there is one theme that stands out above all others for me is that we cannot out-Nimby the Liberal Democrats and the Greens,” he said.
But one Tory MP defending her seat in the south of England rejected Clarke’s conclusion. Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet near London, said: “These elections show how much people care about protecting their local environment from overdevelopment.”
Villiers argued that councils should have more control over where houses were built to ensure green fields were protected. Southern Tory MPs are concerned about the threat from the Lib Dems, who gained more than 400 seats last week.
Sunak is also being pressed by some Tory rightwingers to start cutting taxes, while many Tory MPs in the north want more public spending to deliver on the party’s promises to the “red wall”.