The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, was at the centre of a growing cabinet row on Saturday night as senior government sources blamed him for offending the Chinese and causing the cancellation of a crucial trade visit to Beijing by the chancellor, Philip Hammond.
Senior Conservatives said it was time to rein in Williamson, who has earned the nickname Private Pike in Whitehall after a series of gaffes. Treasury insiders said comments the defence secretary had made in a speech last week about sending the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific had caused such “clear irritation” in Beijing that the trip scheduled for this weekend could not take place.
The Treasury issued an official comment saying “the chancellor is not travelling to China at this time” and adding that “no trip was ever announced or confirmed”. But sources confirmed that Williamson’s clumsy and undiplomatic language had caused real upset that had been relayed back to London by the Chinese authorities.
The result was that a visit that been planned for many weeks – and that would have focused on opening up Chinese markets to UK exports – has been put off until the diplomatic damage is repaired.
Williamson said in the speech last Monday that the aircraft carrier would be sent to an area where Beijing has been involved in a dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea. The remarks incensed the Chinese just days before Hammond was due to arrive for a series of meetings, including one with the Chinese vice premier, Hu Chunhua.
Government sources said there was disbelief across Whitehall departments, particularly as the comments came at a time when the UK is desperate to negotiate better trading arrangements across the globe as it prepares to leave the European Union on 29 March. Williamson said in his speech that the UK was prepared to use lethal force to deter countries that flout international law – an apparent reference to China’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea.
Hammond and Williamson have had a tense relationship for months, partly as a result of the defence secretary’s attempts to secure more money for his budget at a time when the chancellor has been under intense pressure to deliver more funds for the NHS.
On Saturday night former Tory cabinet minister and governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said it was time to “bring back the grown-ups”. Lord Patten said China should be welcomed to the global economic community, although it should play by the same rules as everyone else. He stressed that a careful diplomatic balance had to be struck: “You don’t win deals by cowering whenever China gets cross, nor on the other hand does stamping a foot persuade the Chinese that we are more important than we are.”
Another senior Tory said Theresa May should issue an order to “pipe down, Private Pike”.
The chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on China, the Tory MP Richard Graham, said: “The crucial thing is that we do need to engage with China, and we do need to be sensitive with the tone, and I suspect that is where the issue is at the moment.”
Steve Tsang, the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ China Institute, said: “It is a silly thing for Gavin Williamson to have said, particularly when there is no compelling reason to say it now and the ship he was referring to is not even ready to send.” But he added that there was nothing wrong, in principle, with a navy vessel sailing in the South China Sea. Ministers who “picked on” Williamson were also to blame, he said, as they would give China reason to argue that it had been seriously wronged.