China hawks suffer a setback

9 February 2021

10:22 PM

9 February 2021

10:22 PM

The House of Commons was due to vote on the so-called ‘genocide amendment’ to the Trade Bill later today. The proposal gives British courts the right to decide if a country is committing genocide and was on course to trigger a major Tory rebellion — with China hawks ready to take a stand. However, that plan has been made much harder. The government intervened last night in a bid to avoid a possible defeat.

With the UK now free to forge its own trade deals, new legislation is passing through the Commons on the framework for future dealmaking. There is growing support across the House for a principled approach — with a focus on China top of the list. Although the UK isn’t currently planning to do a trade deal with China, backbench MPs are keen to send a message; Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs will not be ignored.

The crossbench peer Lord Alton put forward an amendment that would create a process for blocking trade deals should a potential partner be accused of genocide. Currently, it is the remit of international courts to decide whether genocide has taken place. Under Alton’s amendment, those seeking to block a deal would be able to take their case to the High Court in London. Should the High Court rule that a genocide had taken place, any potential trade deal would then face further parliamentary scrutiny and could potentially be blocked. Campaigners cite flaws in the current international system — pointing to China’s ability to put a stop to that process by using their veto on the permanent security council at the United Nations.

However, the government is opposed to the so-called genocide amendment, arguing that trade decisions are for politicians rather than judges. Ministers are worried that it could be used to prevent trade with lots of countries — for example, activists could attempt to undermine any future relationship with Israel by bringing a genocide case over alleged poor treatment of Palestinians. Climate activists too could attempt to stretch the definition of genocide in order to block a deal with major polluters. (Supporters of the amendment insist that such attempts would almost certainly fail as the bar for genocide is set high).

This is why the government has come up with what they describe as a compromise amendment — but critics call a wrecking amendment, with Iain Duncan Smith describing the action as ‘arcane procedural games’ given it denies the would-be rebels a straight vote on their amendment. This alternative proposal, brought by the MP Bob Neill, would instead allow the Foreign Affairs Committee to hear evidence and then advise parliament on whether a genocide had taken place. China hawks are unhappy as they think this isn’t much of boost for parliamentary power given a select committee’s findings could be ignored by ministers.

Those involved on the backbenches had been bullish that they had the numbers — with those involved insisting to Coffee House that they were confident the genocide amendment would have passed. The last time the proposals came before the House of Commons, the rebels were just 11 votes short after Labour backed the suggested changes.

But frustration was mounting last night, with briefings against Bob Neill suggesting he was only bringing his compromise amendment after making a deal with the government. The Attorney General is set to go on maternity leave later this year — Neill, a trained barrister, is supposedly keen to fill the post, expecting to become a QC in the process.

The China hawks have become increasingly hard to control from a No. 10 perspective. Members of the 2019 intake are getting into the habit of rebelling while old-timers such as David Davis are seen as very hard to predict or get back on side (the Times recently calculated that Davis is the most rebellious Tory MP, having gone against the whip 25 times since the 2019 general election).

While the whips have managed to avoid a straight vote on the genocide amendment, they still face significant backbench discord when MPs do vote on the compromise proposals. Expect these tensions to play out in the chamber and potential abstentions when the proposals come before the House.

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