The Tory hijacking of country all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), loose but often influential forums for MPs and peers to discuss issues relating to particular territories, has been under way since at least the summer. Often longstanding APPG officers have found themselves surplus to requirements owing to their awkward questions on human rights abuses.
The victims of a series of mini putsches have made way for Tories who are rather more interested in trade relations, an emollient approach to London-based diplomats — and plenty of free trips abroad.
The Labour chair of the China APPG was ousted in July, replaced with a more on-message Conservative. Chris Bryant then escaped the axe as the convener of its Russian counterpart by just 13 votes this Monday, after Tories at the AGM argued that human rights issues should only be discussed by the official Human Rights APPG.
The officer positions on some groups were already dominated by the Conservatives — notably the Sri Lanka APPG, who appear to have stopped inviting Labour colleagues on delegations to the country (a six-day visit to war-torn areas comprised eight Tories and Ian Paisley Jr).
Having no Sri Lankan community in his north east constituency, James Wharton MP (pictured above with high commissioner Chris Nonis) invoked the familiar “business interests” mantra when recently attempting to justify his four trips in nine months to the human rights-abusing state, claiming:
“I’ve got a number of companies on Teesside that do a lot of work out there.”
When asked to name one, however, he appeared stumped.
His fumbled response has set tongues wagging in Westminster: could there be some other reason why Wharton is so keen on visiting South Asia?