Dozens of the Conservative Party's most senior MPs have joined a rebellion against the Prime Minister in an attempt to block the Government from signing trade deals with countries accused of genocide.
Although the Government won a narrow victory in the House of Commons, several former ministers and other senior MPs lined up to urge Boris Johnson to put more pressure on China over its alleged human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Thirty-three Tory MPs supported an amendment to the Government's Trade Bill, proposed in the House of Lords, which would have prevented the Government from signing a free trade agreement with any country the High Court ruled was committing genocide.
The scale of the opposition from across the Conservative Party puts Mr Johnson under pressure to adopt a different approach to China in the coming months and years, in the wake of the pandemic. The vote came hours after the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, accused China of genocide and crimes against humanity for the first time.
Mr Pompeo said the region had become a “a proving ground for an Orwellian surveillance state”, and condemned “re-education camps” that have detained more than a million people since 2017.
Writing on Donald Trump's last full day in office, Mr Pompeo concluded: “Not every campaign of genocide involves gas chambers or firing squads.”
In Westminster, Conservative MPs who defied the Government were led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, and Nus Ghani, a former minister.
Damian Green, Caroline Nokes and Tracey Crouch, all former ministers, joined Tobias Ellwood and Tom Tugendhat, chairs of the defence and foreign affairs select committees, in refusing to follow Mr Johnson's three-line whip.
Sir Iain said the UK needed to use Brexit to “have a global vision about the morality of what we do” and to “shine a light of hope” to victims of genocide.
He asked MPs: “If this country doesn't stand up for that, then I want to know: what would it ever stand up for again?”
MPs voted to remove the amendment from the bill by 319 votes to 308, leaving Boris Johnson with a majority of just 11.
Ministers said the amendment would have given the courts too much power in trade negotiations, but were accused of trying to block it out of fear of enraging Beijing.
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The Tory rebels have now vowed to bring back a tweaked amendment next when the legislation returns to the Lords after making changes to address constitutional concerns about the role of courts in striking trade deals.
They are understood to be unconvinced by a compromise option drawn up by ministers, leaked to the Telegraph, for the Government to conduct broader human rights impact assessments on countries prior to trade talks.
On Tuesday night Government sources said that ministers now intended to engage in "proper dialogue" with Sir Iain and Ms Ghani, the ringleaders, in a bid to avert a bigger rebellion in the next vote.
Ministers would not rule anything out before the talks had taken place, they said, but maintained that the Trade Bill was the wrong place to address MPs' concerns about human rights abuses.
"What we will be doing now is speaking to MPs about scrutiny arrangements," a source added.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, last week branded the treatment of the Uighurs “torture” and introduced new restrictions on UK businesses operating in the region, but stopped short of describing it as genocide.
In the Commons on Tuesday the Government also saw off an amendment that would have given Parliament a veto over any future trade deals.
Ten Conservative MPs voted for the veto amendment, including David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary.
As MPs debated the Trade Bill, which deals with future agreements the UK can sign after leaving the EU, Brandon Lewis denied that photos of empty supermarket shelves were caused by a post-Brexit goods arrangement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said any delays in food imports to the country were “linked to Covid and some of the challenges we've had at Dover”, rather than because of issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
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