Remember me? David Cameron rides again on China’s Belt and Road

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The then-British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping host a joint news conference following their meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London, on October 21, 2015. Photo: AFP / Suzanne Plunkett

The British establishment’s flirtation with the Communist Party of China continues with the announcement this week that former British Prime Minister David Cameron is to take a leading role in a US$1bn UK-China Fund.

The news about the private investment fund – which will, seemingly, work to support Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, specifically across “technology, healthcare and infrastructure” – failed to raise any significant lines of questioning from London’s often trenchant media. The appropriateness of a recent former British head of government working so closely on a project that seeks to extend China’s global economic and political influence has gone unexamined.

The queries that did arise focused on how Cameron has been given special dispensation to circumvent the normal two-year ban on former British ministers dealing with government business after leaving office. The ban is intended to prevent British officials from exploiting their former public roles for private gain and it was reported that London had given Cameron special dispensation to “facilitate dialogue with the UK and Chinese governments at the invitation of the UK Government.” The fund itself will be private, London was careful to point out, but it has the support of government.

Until Saturday’s announcement, the former Prime Minister had kept a low profile since his resignation following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016. His role in bringing about that vote has cast something of a shadow over the legacy of his leadership, and perhaps he sees the China role as a chance to somehow redeem it. When the fund was announced, a spokesperson for Cameron said he remained “very proud of his work launching the golden era between the UK and China with President Xi.”

“In an effort to build on that work out of office,” the spokesperson explained, Cameron now “wishes to play a role in a new UK-China bilateral investment fund that will invest in innovative and sustainable growth opportunities in both the UK and China to create jobs and further boost trade links.”

A woman attends a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip of the first freight train to travel from China to Britain on January 18. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

A woman attends a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip of the first freight train to travel from China to Britain on January 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

Cameron’s “golden era” has its roots in 2013, the year that Cameron and his chancellor-of-the-exchequer (finance minister), George Osborne, invited China to bid on new nuclear power stations projects and high-speed rail networks. Cameron and Osborne were extremely close and shared a belief in open markets combined with a mercantilist approach to doing deals with foreign powers.

In 2015, Cameron pledged that the UK would become “China’s best partner in the west” and when President Xi came on a full state visit to meet the Queen, eat fish and chips and drink English ale, the pair were reported to have brokered deals said to be worth more than US$50 billion.

“[Cameron] wishes to play a role in a new UK-China bilateral investment fund that will invest in innovative and sustainable growth opportunities in both the UK and China to create jobs and further boost trade links”

More than two years on, however, it’s remains hard to see what tangible results will come from this “golden era.” British national security concerns aside, the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station deal, signed with the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation and brokered by Cameron’s government, has received widespread commercial criticism owing to the high energy costs it will bring to UK consumers. (By some estimates, by the time energy from the much-delayed project is being delivered to homes, it will be twice as expensive as rival power sources.) As for the US$50 billion deals supposedly cemented on Xi’s 2015 tour of England, as yet there remains little on-the-ground evidence of any progress, as Asia Times has documented.

It is very early days for Cameron’s UK-China Fund but the lack of any real concrete details about it perhaps is revealing in itself. As is the revelation that Lord Chadlington, an old ally and supporter of Cameron, is the main driver behind the fund.

Born Peter Gummer, 75-year-old Lord Chadlington is the brother of John Gummer, a minister during Margaret Thatcher premiership, and has been the Conservative Party’s PR lynchpin for decades. The son of a Welsh coal miner who became a preacher and is said to have sold his sermons to pay for his children’s education, Chadlington created the PR firm Shandwick at the age of 32. Eight years later, after it became the UK’s largest PR company, he sold his stake to the Interpublic Group. From there went on to be CEO of Huntsworth, a publicly-listed London PR firm, but was forced out of his role there in 2014 after a fall in profit brought about a shareholder revolt.

This also came after Chadlington had brokered a “strategic alliance” that saw Chinese PR player Blue Focus take on a 20% stake in Huntsworth for US$59 million. Chadlington said it was the first time a Chinese firm had entered the western PR arena and that he had flown to China 50 times in eight years to get the deal tied down.

The then-Group Chairman of HSBC Douglas Flint leaves the Houses of Parliament in London after giving evidence to Britain's Treasury Committee in relation to an international tax-dodging scandal at the bank's Swiss division, on February 25, 2015. Photo: AFP / Justin Tallis

The then-group chairman of HSBC Douglas Flint leaves the Houses of Parliament in London after giving evidence to Britain’s Treasury Committee in relation to an international tax-dodging scandal at the bank’s Swiss division, on February 25, 2015. Photo: AFP / Justin Tallis

This, combined with his wholehearted supported for Cameron from the future Prime Minister’s earliest days in politics, meant he was included in the delegation that Cameron took on his first trade mission to China in 2013.

The announcement of Cameron’s involvement with the UK-China Fund came just as the UK’s current chancellor-of-the-exchequer, Philip Hammond, was in Beijing to meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and launch a host of new investment agreements between Britain and China.

As part of London’s on-going attempts to boost global trade ties before the UK leaves the EU in 2019, the bulk of these agreements were – as with the UK-China Fund – tied to Belt and Road infrastructure projects and Hammond pledged that the UK’s export credit agency will support more than US$30bn in such projects across Asia. He also used the occasion to announce the appointment of Douglas Flint, the former group chairman of HSBC, as the UK Treasury’s Belt and Road envoy. Flint will sit over a newly formed UK-led BRI investment board.

So we have a former HSBC group chairman as the UK’s Belt and Road envoy. And a former prime minister as the face of the UK’s private Belt and Road investment fund. Whatever next? A Belt and Road role for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle perhaps?

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