It follows a third crushing defeat for the government in the House of Lords over the issue that has been given renewed focus amid international outcry over allegations of human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
The Independent has been told that at least 30 Tory MPs could defy the whip when the Trade Bill returns to the Commons on 22 March — potentially threatening the prime minister’s considerable majority.
Spearheaded by the crossbench peer Lord Alton, the original proposal would have forced ministers to review any bilateral trade agreements with countries the High Court had determined to have committed acts of genocide.
After the government narrowly avoided defeat in January, the fresh amendment has stripped out mention of the High Court and instead calls for the creation of a “parliamentary judicial committee” of five members of the Lords who have held senior positions in the judiciary.
The body would examine claims of abuses and make a “preliminary determination” on whether there is sufficient evidence that a country party to a trade agreement with Britain has carried out genocide. If a determination is made a minister must respond to parliament and the government would be under immense pressure to review any trading relationship.
Speaking to The Independent, the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, said: “Many MPs in the Commons who weren’t sure, didn’t want to vote for a court of law, see that this is a compromise. This is the right way to go”.
The senior MP, who has held discussions with senior ministers over the issue, added: “It’s a compromise that utilises the incredible skills and experience of the Lords by using retired law Lords — you can’t get anybody better to sift evidence and to understand it.
“It’s not a court, so the government’s concern about it going to a court is met. It stays in parliament. They kept saying we voted for Brexit so parliament will be stronger — answer is parliament will be stronger.”
Imran Khan, a member of the 2019 intake of Tory MPs who is considering voting for the measure, added: “I am a really, truly loyal Conservative who supports the prime minister with great enthusiasm and it causes me great personal grief and torment to be divergent on a matter of policy with a government I support.”
While the amendment does not specifically mention China, Tory MPs have become increasingly vocal about the treatment of the Uighur people. Despite denials from Chinese authorities, the United States has accused Beijing of genocide while the BBC, which is now banned in country, has reported allegations of women in “re-education” camps being systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured.
Nusrat Ghani — a former government minister who is supporting the amendment — asked: “We have tremendous world-leading standards on the environment, on dealing with animal welfare, why would we not have world leading standards to ensure that we’re not offering preferential trade deals with genocidal states?”.
Another Tory MP backing the measure, Bob Blackman, said: “We’ve got to be very cautious about trading with countries, such as China, when they treat the Uighur Muslims in such a disgraceful way.
"The sort of compromise we’ve suggested is one that I think everyone should be able to live with.”
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy claimed that the despite ministers’ “tough talk” on China the government was "privately talking up the prospects of a free trade deal” with Beijing.
She told The Independent: “When the amendment returns to the Commons later this month, MPs from all sides will have an opportunity to send a clear message to the world that genocide can never be met with indifference, impunity or inaction. It is time for the government to show moral leadership and be unequivocal in our commitment to upholding human rights.”
However, No 10 has shown no sign of agreeing to the compromise amendment and when it was being debated in the upper chamber last month, minister Lord Grimstone claimed the “establishment of an ad hoc parliamentary judicial committee would represent a fundamental constitutional reform”.
“It would blur the distinction between courts and parliament and upset the constitutional separation of powers,” he claimed. “Ultimately, the question of how we respond to concerns of genocide as it relates to our trade policy is a political question”.
Referring to Dominic Raab’s speech last month in which he hit out the “industrial scale” of abuse against the Uighur people, Lord Alton, who proposed the revised amendment, said: “You’ve got the foreign secretary making a superb speech to the UN human rights council saying this is on an industrial scale and describing in shocking terms and accurately the torture, the forced labour, the forced sterilisation of women, saying it’s extreme and extensive.
“Meanwhile you’ve got the resumption of restoring trade arrangements with China, which were suspended in the aftermath of what happened in Hong Kong.”
He added: “This is all tied with this conflict that goes on within government, where part of government still believes we’ve got a golden age opportunity with China as part of George Osborne’s legacy and you’ve got another part of it — Dominic Raab and others — saying what is happening in Xinjiang is comparable to things that we thought we’d never see again.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies