Theresa May has been forced to delay a long-awaited trade mission to China after Beijing chose to prioritise a visit by US President Donald Trump.
Sky News has learnt that Downing Street officials had been co-ordinating plans for a trip to take place next month, with dozens of business leaders alerted to the possibility of joining her as she attempts to forge crucial post-Brexit trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
Sources said the visit had been pencilled in for several days during the week of 6 November, with Parliament scheduled to be in recess from 7 to 13 November.
They added, however, that it was postponed earlier this week because Downing Street officials were informed by China’s government that it would not be able to accommodate her in such close proximity to an Asian tour by President Trump.
The US President is due to visit five countries in the Far East, including China and Japan, between 3 and 14 November.
Another complicating factor in organising Mrs May’s trade mission has been the Chinese Communist Party’s congress, which takes place every five years and will be held later this month.
While her trade mission has been postponed rather than cancelled, it is understood to have frustrated officials in Whitehall who are keen for the Government to get on with delivering its vision of “a global Britain”.
A recent trip to Japan by the PM and other ministers yielded little of value in terms of bilateral corporate deals
The Prime Minister’s wafer-thin Commons majority, which is reliant on the support of the DUP, has forced officials to organise visits such as the prospective one to China during periods when Parliament is in recess.
Insiders pointed out that most major overseas visits by prime ministers took place during recess.
Whitehall sources said they were now seeking to fix another date – possibly shortly before Christmas – to carry out the long-delayed China trade mission.
That will leave open the possibility that the trip will never happen at all, given the growing momentum against Mrs May from within the Conservative Party’s parliamentary ranks.
Dozens of MPs are said to be supportive of the idea of a change of leader, with talks led by the former party chairman Grant Shappsgrowing in intensity following the PM’s disastrous conference speech this week.
Mrs May was originally due to go to China In July, but that was postponed despite her having declared in January that she would visit the world’s most populous country “relatively soon”.
An insider pointed out that a trip in November had never been either finalised with Beijing or publicly announced.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This is nonsense. No 10 has neither organised nor publicised any such trip.”
Government sources also dismissed rumours that the PM’s invitation had been withdrawn by Beijing altogether as “nonsense”.
Private sector bosses say they are concerned that Mrs May’s political weakness at home may hamper her ability to act as a figurehead for bilateral trade deals which need to be struck once Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
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 having to revert to World Trade Organisation rules.
Mrs May will meet bosses from companies including HSBC, Morgan Stanley, Whitbread and WPP on Monday for talks on Brexit and trade issues.
Last year, Mrs May called for a new “golden era” of UK-China relations following a rocky start after she became PM, when she reviewed China’s planned investment in the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.
Having cleared that project, Chinese-backed companies have continued to invest in corporate Britain, with the latest deal a prospective takeover of the chipmaker Imagination Technologies.
That deal has, though, sparked opposition from MPs including Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader and former Business Secretary.
By Mark Kleinman