OBSERVERS of George Osborne’s high‑profile trade delegation to China are divided. Some believe it is an imaginative and audacious attempt to secure commercial investment in the UK from one of the big economic powers of the world. Critics, by contrast, think that it is the Chancellor irresponsibly selling off British assets on the cheap in a blatantly choreographed prime minister‑in-waiting type tour.
Flushed with events, he has now flagged the possibility of a similar trip next year to a more overtly pariah state, Iran, if the country’s nuclear deal with the West is honoured and verified.
There is now much more flamboyance about Osborne, far more now than just “the numbers guy” who has been trying to bring Britain’s public deficit down.
Now all the talk is of Chinese involvement in Britain’s nuclear industry, possibly the HS2 new railway and Osborne’s pet dream of creating a “northern powerhouse” to be a counterweight to an economy still seen as being too skewed to London and the south-east of England.
Some will be queasy that he seems to be papering over the cracks of China’s human rights abuses and current soft territorial aggression in the South China Sea in a blatant dash for Britain’s commercial interests. They worry that morality is going out the window and, in a different play on Tony Blair’s priority, the current government’s focus is money, money, money.
The counter-argument is that Osborne is being pragmatic. This argument is that posturing over the political differences between the UK and China is sterile, hostile to our economic interests in a fast-changing world, and commercial links may pave the way for political change in China some way down the road.
The Chancellor is certainly not a shrinking violet on the issue. He calls his approach to China, and now possibly Iran as well, “bold at home, bold abroad”. He believes the prize of China bringing jobs and growth to the UK, and opening its borders to British financial services (from which Edinburgh’s Standard Life is an early beneficiary), is too great a prize to be sacrificed for preciousness.
No-one doubts Osborne’s political antennae (particularly after the coup of foisting the national living wage on the business community in his last Budget and stealing Labour’s clothes and cufflinks).
And for him to choose the Shanghai stock exchange as one of his stops was cute. Coming after a summer of volatility on that exchange in response to the Chinese economic slowdown, it was a symbolic gesture of faith by the Chancellor in Sino resilience.
It has predictably gone down well in Beijing. Some would say it is quite a high-stakes gamble by Osborne because things could still go pear-shaped in China.
But back at the farm in Westminster, the Tories know they can afford a few gambles while the opposition parties are in disarray. «