A defiant Theresa May has vowed she will not quit as she visited China to bang the drum for post-Brexit Britain.
The PM insisted she would not be derailed by mounting pressure from rebel Tory MPs, telling journalists: ‘I’m not a quitter.’
But she also acknowledged she needed to make a better job of explaining what the Government was trying to achieve.
The defiant stance came as Mrs May and husband Philip were treated to a colourful Opera performance in Wuhan, before heading to Beijing for talks with Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
Theresa May and husband Philip were treated to a performance of Chinese opera on her visit to Wuhan today
The Prime Minister and her husband Philip looked to be enjoying the show at the Crane Tower in Wuhan this morning
The performers were in traditional colourful dress for the Yellow Crane opera in China this morning
Mrs May was met by Premier Li Keqiang and a guard of honour as she arrived in Beijing for the next leg of her visit today
Mrs May will meet President Xi Jinping tomorrow.
As she arrived in the central Chinese city of Wuhan – home to more students than any other city in the world – Mrs May announced a range of new educational initiatives linking the UK with the Far Eastern economic giant.
But she sounded a note of caution about President Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative to establish overland transport links between China and Europe, which some investors believe could be a goldmine for Western construction companies.
While recognising that the Belt and Road could potentially offer ‘huge’ opportunities to businesses from outside China, she added: ‘What I would like to see is ensuring that we have transparency and international standards being adhered to and I will be discussing that with my Chinese interlocutors.’
Mrs May promised to raise UK business concerns about over-production of steel and the need for more protection for Western company’s intellectual property against the piracy for which China is notorious.
And she said she would raise concerns with Mr Xi about Hong Kong, where more than 100 democracy activists have been detained in protests against alleged encroachment on the partial automony granted the former colony after its handover by the UK in 1997.
‘I will be raising both human rights and the issue of Hong Kong,’ Mrs May told reporters travelling with her to China. ‘We believe that the future of Hong Kong – that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ future – is important and we are committed to that.
‘I’ve raised this in the past with President Xi and he has shown commitment to that, but I will not stop to raise it with them.’
Although EU rules prevent a free trade deal until after the UK’s withdrawal, Mrs May said there was work that can be done now on improving links.
Premier Li guided Mrs May as the Prime Minister was welcomed by the ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
‘China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with,’ said the Prime Minister.
‘But I think there is more that we could be doing in the interim and doing right now in terms of looking at potential barriers to trade and the opening up of markets to ensure British businesses are able to do good trade into China.’
Despite travelling thousands of miles from Westminster, Mrs May has been unable to escape the febrile atmosphere threatening to engulf her premiership.
MPs have said the Government appears to be ‘drifting’, with the PM apparently struggling to control her Cabinet.
Mrs May raised eyebrows last year following the general election when she vowed to stay on and lead the Tories into the next election in 2022. But last night she ducked a question about whether she still planned to remain leader.
However, she insisted she would not be knocked off course by the latest storm threatening her leadership. Asked about the threat to her position, she said: ‘First and foremost, I’m serving my country.
Earlier Mrs May had chatted happily to students at Wuhan University. The PM is making her second visit to China since taking over in Downing Street
Mrs May (pictured, after landing at Wuhan Airport) said she was leading the trade delegation to China to enhance the British economy and enhance ‘Global Britain’
Mrs May and her husband, Philip arrive at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Hubei, China
‘I’ve said before, I’m not a quitter and there’s a long-term job to be done. That job is about getting the best Brexit deal, about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the world. But it’s also about our domestic agenda.’
Mrs May insisted she would not be distracted by the speculation surrounding her leadership, telling reporters: ‘You always like talking about hypothetical situations. Let’s talk about where we are now and what we are doing now.
‘I’m leading a trade delegation to China, here I am going to China to enhance the British economy and enhance ‘Global Britain’.’
The PM highlighted that ‘we do need to speak about the achievements we have seen’, suggesting things such as record employment levels and a recent cut in stamp duty had been drowned out by rows over Brexit. She acknowledged the importance of the Brexit negotiations, but added: ‘We also want to deliver for people on things that matter on a day-to-day basis.’
A senior Government source confirmed the need for the PM’s team to get better at communicating with the public.
The source said: ‘We have got a good story to tell on the economy and on issues like housing, where we are seeing things start moving in the right direction. But we are not always getting that across. That has got to change.’
Tory MPs have called for Mrs May to be bolder in recent days, with one even likening the Government to a ‘tortoise’.
Prime Minister Theresa May is greeted by children at Wuhan airport, China, as she lands for her three-day visit
Mrs May poses with business leaders after her arrival at Wuhan airport for the three-day visit
But she insisted she was already taking action on ‘issues that colleagues are concerned about’. On Brexit, she said she wanted a result that left ‘Britain standing tall and proud in the world, independent, signing these trade deals around the world, playing its role across the world’.
Mrs May refused to be drawn on Tory rules that allow 48 MPs to force a leadership contest by sending in anonymous letters expressing a loss of confidence in the leader. ‘It’s a matter for the party,’ she stated.
Reports have claimed that as many as 40 MPs may have sent letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, which polices the leadership rules. But senior Tories dismiss the claims as speculation, pointing out that no MP has publicly admitted sending one.
Meanwhile, a poll revealed Tory voters back Mrs May to stay on as Prime Minister.
Nearly 70 per cent of those who voted Tory last year said Mrs May should carry on. Less than 20 per cent said she should stand down. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith weighed in behind the PM yesterday, urging MPs to ‘calm down’.
He said Tory unity would be improved if Cabinet ministers ‘said a little bit less and speculated a little bit less’ – an apparent swipe at Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Mr Duncan Smith said: ‘I have a very simple message to my colleagues generally: People should just calm down. The reality was this was always going to be bumpy – we don’t have a massive majority and, anyway, we are in the middle of a negotiation.’
Mr Duncan Smith told the BBC there would be fewer rows if Cabinet ministers ‘stuck to what Theresa May said’.
The YouGov poll showed 69 per cent of Tory voters think Mrs May should stay. Just 18 per cent said she should stand down. Among voters from all parties, 41 per cent backed her, compared to 34 per cent who said she should go.