An embattled Theresa May will travel to China on Tuesday with her husband Philip and the “largest ever” business delegation for any British overseas visit.
Despite growing unrest among her party back home, the Prime Minister sought to focus on drumming up trade for a post-Brexit UK as she jetted out for the three-day trip.
Some 50 British firms and business organisations will join the PM on her RAF Voyager plane on a tour that will take in Wuhan before visiting Beijing and Shanghai, No10 said.
Among the firms on the plane will be car firms Aston Martin and Jaguar LandRover, drugs giant AstraZeneca, engineering consultants Arup and even teamakers Whittard’s.
But Philip May will also make his first full bilateral foreign trip at his wife’s side, in a move Downing Street said was intended “to support the Prime Minister”.
Following a fresh bout of speculation that May could face a leadership challenge, his presence will be seen by some as offering crucial moral support, although aides stressed that his trip was in keeping with Chinese protocol.
On her second trip to the country after the G20 meeting in 2016, the PM will hold separate talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
No10 said that the Prime Minister’s visit was aimed at intensifying the “Golden Era” in UK-China relations, which was heralded by President Xi’s State Visit to the UK in 2015.
May said ahead of the trip: “There are huge trade opportunities in China that we want to help British businesses take advantage of. That is why I’m taking a large multi-sector business delegation with me.”
No.10 claimed that the PM's plane would carry "the largest business delegation this Government has ever led".
But the PM added that the closeness of the two countries’ relationship allowed for “frank discussions on all issues”, and No.10 said that would include human rights.
The Chinese have seen May as a more sceptical partner given her delays to the Hinkley Point nuclear project and failure to follow up on David Cameron and George Osborne’s push for trade deals.
One tricky diplomatic issue on the trip may be President Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to build new road and rail links from China, through Asia, to Europe.
Donald Trump’s administration views the project with suspicion and when asked about it on Monday, the PM’s official spokesman said the massive infrastructure scheme could contribute to global growth - if it was “well implemented” and met “international standards”.
Asked if that was not the case, the spokesman replied: “That is one of the things the Prime Minister will be talking about when she’s there...I wouldn’t want to pre-empt those discussions”.
BRI projects have come under fire for a lack of financial transparency the dominance of Chinese contractors, with one study showing home-gown firms won 89% of the construction deals.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is the only other Cabinet minister on the trip, pointed out that UK-China trade was currently worth more than £59bn and UK exports to China increased by over 25% last year.
“Our relationship is now more important than ever, as we look to form new trading bonds with the biggest growing markets around the world,” he said.
“Indeed, China’s middle class is expected to number 600 million by 2020 - greater than the current entire population of the EU - presenting unrivalled opportunities for UK business.”
Former Tory Cabinet minister Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has meanwhile urged Mrs May to use the visit to privately raise what he says has been the steady erosion of freedoms and rights in the former British colony in recent years.
Hong Kong is supposed to have distinct legal autonomy under the terms of its handover to China in 1997.
The PM’s spokesman said: “The UK has always been clear and continues to be clear that it’s vital Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms are respected and we are firm believers in one country, two systems – we welcome the Chinese commitment to it.”
Here is the list of all the business people and organisations travelling with Theresa May:
Jane King, Chief Executive Officer, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)Gregory Hodkinson, Chairman, ArupDr Andy Palmer CMG, President & CEO, Aston Martin LagondaPascal Soriot, Chief Executive Officer, AstraZenecaJessica Butcher MBE, Co-founder & Non Executive Director, BlipparDev Sanyal, Chief Executive, Alternative Energy, and Executive Vice President, Regions, BP plcCaroline Wright, Director General, British Educational Suppliers AssociationEvelyn Bourke, Group CEO, BupaJohn Woodward OBE, President & Founder, Busy Bees Nursery GroupJeanette Walker, Director, Cambridge Science ParkSir George Iacobescu CBE, Chairman & CEO, Canary Wharf Group plcLord Sassoon, Chairman (and Executive Director, Jardine Matheson Holdings), China-Britain Business CouncilCarolyn Fairbairn, Director-General, Confederation of British IndustryJoanna Lavan, Managing Director, ConnectChinaNick Carpenter, Owner & Engineering Director, Delta Motorsport
David Harland, Chief Executive Eden Project International, Eden ProjectDr Kevin Lindsey, Managing Director, Far-UKConrad Ford, Chief Executive, Funding OptionsDr George Gillespie OBE, CEO, HORIBA MIRAMark E Tucker, Chairman, HSBC Holdings plcStephen Martin, Director General, Institute of DirectorsProfessor Dr Ralf Speth, CEO, Jaguar Land RoverRoss McMahon, CEO, Kendal NutricareSally Preston, Founder and Managing Director, KiddyliciousNikhil Rathi, CEO, London Stock Exchange GroupDr Jens Ludmann, Chief Operating Officer, McLaren Automotive
Dr Ian Hudson, CEO, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)Dan Vahdat, CEO, MedopadBrian McConville, Owner & Chairman, MJM MarineAndrew Henderson, Managing Director, NeMi DairyStuart Garner, CEO, Norton MotorcyclesRobert McFarlane, Group Chairman & CEO, NPL GroupPaul Priestman, Chairman, PriestmanGoodeJon Vollemaere, CEO, R5FXHugo Spowers, Managing Director, Riversimple Movement
Andrew Rooney, Managing Director, Rooney Fish
Karen Betts, Chief Executive, Scotch Whisky Association
Chris Fraser, CEO, Sirius MineralsBill Winters CBE, Group Chief Executive, Standard Chartered BankSir Gerry Grimstone, Chairman, Standard Life Aberdeen plcAndrew Chaloner, CEO, Stream BioAsher Bennett, CEO, Tevva MotorsProfessor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President & Vice-Chancellor, The University of ManchesterLesley Davies OBE, Chair, UK Skills PartnershipProfessor Dame Janet Beer, President (& Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool), Universities UKHeba Bevan, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, UtterBerryNeill Ricketts, CEO, VersarienMark Dunhill, CEO, Whittard of ChelseaJonathan Quin, CEO and Co-Founder, WorldFirstDouglas Flint, Chancellor’s City Envoy to the Belt and Road Initiative