Deputy PM Oliver Dowden set to brief MPs on cyber threat posed by China

Deputy PM Oliver Dowden set to brief MPs on cyber threat posed by China

MPs are set to be briefed on the cyber threat posed by China today, while a smaller group of parliamentarians will be told about specific threats against them.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden is applying to the Speaker’s office to make a statement to parliament about China on Monday, Sky News understands.

He is expected to tell parliament that Beijing is behind a wave of cyber attacks against MPs and peers, as well as accessing the personal details of 40 million voters in a hack on the Electoral Commission last year.

Meanwhile, three MPs and a peer are due to be told about recent cyber attacks against them.

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Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron is set to brief the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs on Monday evening as well, and the topic will likely be raised here.

Rishi Sunak has declined to brand China a threat, despite pressure from some wings of the party.

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A Downing Street source told Sky News: “The prime minister has always had a robust position on China; we call [their behaviour] out.

“We can’t cut all links with China – that would not be a sensible thing to do, not least on issues such as climate change – and we need to know what they are saying, what they are trying to do, working with partners and our Five Eyes allies.

“But there is no doubt we have an ‘eyes wide open’ approach.”

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China’s behaviour will come under particular scrutiny this year with the UK, the US, India and a swathe of other countries holding elections.

Speaking to Sky News, Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: “I think politicians have to be concerned and also vigilant at all times.

“The reality is that hostile states will try to undermine our democracy, even in peacetime – if you want to call it that.

“This is the year where most elections around the world will be taking place as the biggest number of people to vote in one year ever. I am greatly concerned about what might be taking place not only in the UK, but around the world, and the way in which some hostile states may seek to try and influence the outcomes.”

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Tory MP Alicia Kearns
Tory MP Alicia Kearns

Remarkable volte-face in UK-China relations

By Matthew Thompson, political correspondent

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As parliament braces itself for yet another day of ominous warnings about the malign influence of China, it is worth a brief trip back to the halcyon days of 2015.

Then chancellor George Osborne landed in Beijing promising a “golden decade” of Sino-British relations.

Not long afterwards, prime minister David Cameron cosied up to Xi Jinping over pints in an English pub. It was an era of warm words, and open doors. China began playing a significant role in major British infrastructure projects such as 5G and nuclear power plants.

And yet, fast-forward less than ten years, and Chinese involvement in 5G has been scrapped; MI5 has outed an alleged Chinese spy working in parliament, and the Intelligence and Security Committee has warned that China is “prolifically and aggressively” targeting the UK.

The “golden decade”, it would be fair to say, has lost some of its lustre.

On Monday, we expect to hear that China is also conducting cyber attacks against sitting MPs. Lord Cameron, now foreign secretary, will be meeting Tory backbenchers to discuss their concerns on issues including China.

It is a remarkable volte-face. Some accuse Cameron and his successors of naivety. Not least the Americans, who warned of threats to UK national security. A more charitable interpretation would be that it was worth a try, to bind China more closely to the liberal international order.

But the Chinese have a phrase: “Honey in the mouth, dagger in the stomach.” It was first used to describe a treacherous Tang-dynasty courtier who lived over a thousand years ago. But its lessons should perhaps have been heeded much more recently than that.

And speaking about threats to MPs, Ms Kearns added: “I’ve had attacks on my emails, which emanated from China.

“The threat is real, they are trying to undermine our democracy.

“And if we do not have a public strategy of which the whole country can unite, we will have gaps in our resilience and that will leave us vulnerable.”

Ms Kearns’s warnings come following reports in The Sunday Times that Alison Giles, parliament’s director of security, is set to brief former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative education minister Tim Loughton, crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool and SNP MP Stewart McDonald.

All are critics of the Chinese government and members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group of MPs from across the world who probe Beijing’s activities.

Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden. Pic: PA
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. Pic: PA

Luke de Pulford, the creator and executive director of IPAC, told Sky News the statements from the government follow pressure from the intelligence and security services.

“Ministers are finally able to say what they have wanted them to for ages – which is actually we have got a real problem,” he said.

“This is a very serious security threat,” he added.

The UK’s attitudes to China appear to be hardening.

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Last year, a parliamentary worker was arrested on suspicion of spying for the country, and in 2022 the head of MI5 warned alongside his FBI counterpart that China was a “game-changing challenge”.

It is a far cry from the “golden era” the then prime minister Lord Cameron announced between the UK and China alongside Chinese premier Xi Jinping in 2015.

There has also been concern over the way Chinese-owned technology companies, like ByteDance’s TikTok or Huawei, handle data.

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Ms Kearns added: “I should be clear, this is the Chinese Communist Party, this is not the Chinese people, this is not in their interests.

“This is a Chinese Communist Party trying to achieve its objectives and goals at the cost of ours, and the reality is they will continue to try to make us vulnerable by making us dependent on them at home, whether it comes to data or technology.

“And they will continue to try to extract data with technology such as TikTok, and they will continue to try to undermine us by buying up allies around the world and rewriting the multilateral system.”

The Chinese embassy has been approached for comment.