It came as Downing Street insisted that the UK had to be “in the room” with China, and Rishi Sunak argued that “speaking frankly and directly” with Beijing was in the country’s national interests.
Jeremy Hunt also backed the approach to China, despite the revelation that a British citizen in his late 20s who worked with senior Conservative MPs with access to highly sensitive or classified material had been arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. The researcher has denied the claims.
Speaking on Monday, the Chancellor said: “Diplomacy is about talking to everyone, and Britain will always understand that.”
The timing of the leak about the alleged spy, who was arrested in March, has prompted some suspicion that it was intended to derail a perceived warming in relations between London and Beijing.
Last month, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, became the first senior British politician to make an official visit to China in five years, and Mr Sunak has backed away from a pledge by his predecessor Liz Truss to officially label Beijing a threat to Britain.
During her 49 days in Downing Street, Ms Truss was moving to formally declare China a “threat”, but Mr Sunak has used softer language, talking instead about “an epoch-defining challenge”.
China also remains invited to the UK’s Artificial Intelligence summit later this year.
Senior Tories challenge approach
Ms Truss was among a string of prominent Tory backbenchers to vehemently challenge the Government’s approach in the wake of the spying row on Monday.
The former prime minister called China “the largest threat, both to the world and to the United Kingdom, for freedom and democracy” and asked why the UK Government had not designated the country as such.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, warned there was a potential “espionage cell” in Westminster and demanded to know when the Foreign Office knew about the latest suspect.
Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP who has been sanctioned by China, said the Government’s approach was “clearly not working” and warned that the country posed “a threat”.
He called for a “full audit” of Beijing’s influence, adding “the tentacles of the regime extend now to Parliament, company board rooms, in schools, in campuses and local government up and down the country”.
Mr Cleverly was also under pressure to reveal whether he brought up the alleged China parliamentary spy case when he visited Beijing last month.
The Telegraph understands he did not bring up the specific case with Chinese counterparts, but did more broadly warn against interference in UK democratic institutions.