LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “appalled” by reports of Chinese espionage in the British parliament — as hawkish Conservative MPs demanded to know who knew what and when about the unfolding scandal.
The revelation that a former House of Commons aide has been arrested over claims he worked for the Chinese state dominated discussion in Westminster Monday, riling up lawmakers from Sunak’s governing Tory party.
Speaking in the Commons after returning from the G20 summit in New Delhi, Sunak said the “sanctity of this place must be protected,” adding: “We will defend our democracy and our security.”
The Sunday Times this weekend reported that police arrested a parliamentary researcher with links to several senior Tory MPs, including the foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, under the Official Secrets Act back in March.
In a statement released through his lawyers on Monday, the person at the center of the allegations rejected the claim he spied on China’s behalf, and said to do so “would be against everything I stand for.” Under British law, it is not common practice to name suspects before any charges are formally made.
Sunak said he had been “emphatic” in his G20 meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang in India that actions to undermine British democracy are “not acceptable and will never be tolerated.”
Tory hawks circle
Just before Sunak spoke, his deputy, Oliver Dowden, faced a grilling from angry Conservative MPs about the affair, including a pointed question from Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss.
Truss described China as “the largest threat both to the world and to the U.K. for freedom and democracy,” and asked if the government “would agree with this.”
Dowden stopped short of endorsing that description, repeating only the government line that China is “the number one state-based threat to our economic security.”
Iain Duncan-Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party and a consistent critic of Beijing, said it was “appalling news that we have a potential espionage cell operating in and around Westminster.”
But he added: “I don’t suppose it should come as perhaps any surprise, [parliament’s intelligence and security committee] warned that the government was ill-prepared for this and the security measures that were necessary were not available.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant said ministers still “flip flop all over the place” on China, moving from hawkish to dovish positions. “The foreign secretaries: one minute they want to suck up to China the next they’re wanting to have robust words with China,” he charged.
Dowden did not directly comment on the specific claims of Westminster espionage that have animated his party, saying only “it is right that they are being thoroughly investigated by the police and relevant agencies.”
His caution follows a statement from Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the house, who warned MPs that on “an ongoing, sensitive investigation,” they should “understand that public discussion would be wholly inappropriate.”
“The extremely small number of people who needed to know were immediately briefed under a strictly confidential basis,” Hoyle tried to reassure them.
Andrew McDonald contributed reporting.