Theresa May will embark on a long-delayed visit to China next month in a bid to promote her vision of a “global Britain” whose economy is strongly placed to succeed after Brexit.
Sky News has learnt that Downing Street has pencilled in a trip for the Prime Minister to take place on or around January 31 – shortly before Chinese New Year.
Mrs May will be accompanied by a substantial delegation of business leaders drawn from across the UK economy, according to insiders.
The size of that delegation is expected to be the subject of debate, with the PM tending to favour smaller parties than those which accompanied her predecessor, David Cameron, during major trade visits.
One source said on Wednesday evening that the trip had not been finalised and remained subject to change.
If it does take place at the end of next month, it would come a year after the PM said she would visit China “relatively soon”, since when she has faced a string of delays – some self-inflicted.
An earlier date was removed because of the General Election campaign, while another provisional visit in November was postponed because of its close proximity to a trip by Donald Trump, the US President.
A visit to Beijing at the end of next month would be moderately surprising, since Parliament is not scheduled to be in recess, leaving Mrs May’s wafer-thin House of Commons majority more exposed.
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, travelled to China last weekend as part of the annual Economic and Financial Dialogue between the two governments.
A number of deals were announced during his visit, although most were evolutions of previous agreements rather than entirely new projects.
Among the business delegates who accompanied Mr Hammond were Mark Tucker, the chairman of HSBC Holdings, the London Stock Exchange’s chief executive Nikhil Rathi, and Lord Sassoon, chairman of the China-Britain Business Council.
Trade links between the UK and China – now the world’s second-largest economy – will take on greater significance after Brexit, partly because of the latter’s rapid growth, as well as Britain’s need to demonstrate its ability to build bilateral relationships.
President Xi Jinping gave a landmark speech espousing the benefits of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, and Beijing has welcomed the UK’s talk of a “golden era” in Anglo-Chinese ties.
However, Mrs May has been perceived by Chinese officials to be far more cautious towards the country than Mr Cameron, with Nick Timothy, her former aide, decidedly lukewarm about Chinese investment in British technology and nuclear energy projects.
The PM’s political hand has been strengthened in the past week by the European Council’s declaration of “sufficient progress” in the Brexit divorce talks, leading her to strike a defiant tone on the prospects for trade deals with the EU and beyond.
Private sector bosses have expressed concern that Mrs May’s domestic political weaknesses could hamper her ability to act as a figurehead for new bilateral trade deals.
Even before then, however, talks about trade have taken on additional importance amid uncertainty about the lingering possibility of a “cliff-edge” Brexit which could leave the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules.
Ministers have sought to downplay that possibility with greater intensity in the last week, and will want to co-ordinate major business deals for Mrs May to announce during her trip to the Far East.
Chinese-backed companies have agreed to invest billions of pounds in corporate Britain, including the recent takeover of the chipmaker Imagination Technologies.
That deal sparked opposition from MPs including Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader and former Business Secretary, underlining continuing anxieties about some Chinese investments.
A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday.