Foreign Policy

Tom Tugendhat Is the British MP China Hates Most

Tom Tugendhat, a member of the British Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling, is pictured in London in January 2019.Eric TSCHAEN/REA/Redux

At 48 this month, British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat has a young, smooth, face. The head is ringed with dark, blondish hair; the smile all top teeth. But if he is a touch cherubic, there is a hardness there, too. The skin is taut, especially around the jaw; the eyes are two blue flints that can look brown. But it’s those incongruities that make him interesting—much like his politics.

Tugendhat’s story is of passing through all of Britain’s institutions—with a caveat. Public school (but metropolitan), the army (but a reservist), Oxbridge (but postgrad). Everything about Tugendhat is theoretically correct, but slightly off. He is like a blurred daguerreotype of a traditional Tory; different but sufficiently similar, which is how change always comes—at least in Britain. And what he represents is a Britain in which the elite institutions remain, but those who pass through them are starting to change.

In 2017 Tugendhat, the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, became chair of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which oversees the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). Since then, he has done his best to harden British policy toward the Chinese state. On March 25, in response to U.K. sanctions on China, Beijing sanctioned Tugendhat, along with four other MPs, for spreading what it called “lies and disinformation” about the country.

 Tugendhat is a very British MP, from a very European background in a party now defined by Brexit. His paternal family was Austrian Jewish until his grandfather, Georg, came to London to do a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. Now the family is Catholic. His mother is French, and so is his wife, Anissia Morel, a French Supreme Court judge, and former adviser to the FCDO. He is bilingual and, by all accounts, often speaks French with Morel and their children. According to the House of Commons, Register of Members Financial Interests, he has “one property of four flats in Essonne, France, owned jointly with three family members.”

“For all my foreignness, I see myself as very British,” he told me. “My strong view on foreign policy is that its only purpose is to achieve the prosperity and happiness of the British people. That’s it.” It’s not that this is an unusual thing for a Tory MPs to say, it’s that Tugendhat can say and still be considered a good cosmopolitan.

The son of Michael Tugendhat, a High Court judge, and the nephew of Christopher, Baron Tugendhat, a Tory MP, he attended St Paul’s, a top London private school for boys. That might sound par for the course for a Conservative MP, but it’s not quite right. The Tory party likes leading politicians to come either from ancient country schools, which focus on “building character” (read: being regularly assaulted on the rugby pitch), or from the state schools—the more immiserated the better.

He studied theology at the University of Bristol before going onto Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (which both his father and uncle had attended), for a Masters in Islamic Studies, studying Arabic in Yemen. Once more, he passed through a premier British institution, once more not quite correctly: as a postgraduate rather than an undergraduate. These differences may seem trivial to outsiders, but this is a country where every elected prime minister of the last 100 years who went to university attended Oxford as an undergraduate.

He then spent time as a journalist in the Middle East, a spell as a management consultant (which he says he found predictably awful), and in the city doing energy analysis. He had joined the army—as a reservist—in 2000 for a bit of adventure, assuming all he’d be doing were U.N.-type humanitarian missions. Then in 2003 came the Iraq War, and he duly mobilized as an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer with the Royal Marines.

“I really got into politics through soldiering,” he told me. Over the next decade, he went back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan, on the front lines of British foreign policy and, at times, charged with implementing it. For a reservist, Tugendhat’s army career was spectacular. His roles included helping distribute the new dinar (Iraqi currency) as part of the economic reconstruction of Iraq, during which time he spent six months running the Baghdad region. He ended up a military assistant to the chief of the Defence Staff (the professional head of the army) and was awarded an MBE.

It was in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where he was advising the governor, that a building he was in was blown up. “They were targeting the governor, and his British ‘muscle,’ if you like. I was very obviously a link to him,” Tugendhat told me. Doug Beattie, an Ulster Unionist MP and former professional soldier, was there, too. He remembers how both men emerged into the aftermath, doing what they could to help. “We were on the scene immediately,” he told me. “The carnage was everywhere.”

But not everyone has good things to say about Tugendhat’s time in uniform. Patrick Mercer, a former Conservative MP and British army officer, is sniffy. “He’s not qualified in the eyes of regulars to pose as having been a regular soldier. … He was in the part-time army, and that’s a very important distinction for the likes of me.” I put this view to Beattie, who smiles. “This is just snobbery,” he says. “I think anybody who tries to pull Tom down because he was a reservist doesn’t really understand what the reserves do.”

He pauses, remembering their time in Helmand. “There was a courage in Tom that people maybe didn’t see because he wasn’t in uniform carrying a rifle. But his job was to keep turning up to a very volatile place indeed. And he did.”

Tugendhat, pictured in London in January 2019, was named chair of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2017.Eric TSCHAEN/REA/Redux

From the military to politics is a well-trodden path. Tugendhat came off his last patrol in 2009. By 2015, he was in parliament. Two years in, he was itching to make his mark. But it was too soon for the cabinet, so how? The answer: the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC). Select committees are charged with overseeing the work of government departments and up until 2010 were entirely appointed by party officials, who duly filled them with the loyal and pliable. Then came reform: The members would be elected by their party, and the chairs by the entire house.

That gave an opening for ambitious young MPs to use them to make their mark. In 2017, with FASC elections looming, Tugendhat made his move. Royston Smith, a fellow Tory MP also on the committee, remembers it well. ‘I said to him: ‘Are you going to stand?’ He said: ’Not only am I going to stand, I am going to go for Chairman.’ And he pulled it off.”

In doing so he defeated the incumbent, Tory MP Crispin Blunt. The victory would normally have begun the long trudge to cabinet, and perhaps more. But there was a problem. Tugendhat had voted against Brexit in a party that, following the June 2016 referendum, was becoming increasingly dominated by pro-Leave MPs. And then there was Boris Johnson.

Johnson had been elected foreign secretary in 2016. Parliamentary insiders say that from the off, the two men just didn’t like each other. Smith remembers an exchange between them when Johnson appeared before the committee. “Boris spoke, then Tom got up to say something in a chairman-of-the-panel sort of way, which ought to be challenging, and Boris retaliated straight away,” he told me. “The die was cast.”

Things got worse. In 2018, Johnson slammed then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan, saying she had “wrapped a suicide vest” around the British constitution and “handed the detonator” to Brussels. Tugendhat was outraged. “A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand,” he tweeted. “The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes. Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain. Some need to grow up. Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.”

Now Johnson is prime minister. The way to the cabinet appears blocked, at least for the moment. But if Johnson is ubiquitous as PM, he is oddly absent as party leader, and he surrounds himself only with the loyal. This means those outside his circle must make their mark through other means. A Tory party now filled with research groups promoting disparate causes is witnessing the rise of the committee leader. Johnson may be prime minister, and Trump only recently departed, but shouting or bullshitting your will into existence is only one path to the top. Another—especially in an age where private lives have never been more publicly visible—is more about building consensus through the power of institutions. The United States now has a leader more in this mold; Britain may yet follow suit.

So Tugendhat uses the committee to get the things done. Ruth Smeeth, a former Labour MP who worked with Tugendhat, thinks the role suits him perfectly. “There might be some MPs who don’t want to serve on their own front benches but remain exceptionally talented. This way they skip the mundane background government roles and get used to doing media.”

She continues. “In five years, we’ve seen British foreign policy change beyond all recognition towards China … in no small part because of the spotlight that Tom and others have relentlessly shone on the issue.” The catalyst was an FASC visit to Beijing and Hong Kong. Labour MP and FASC colleague Chris Bryant also went along. “They rolled out the red carpet, but I just don’t think we trusted them,” he told me. “We spotted instances where they were lying. We knew we were being heavily spied on.” Royston Smith agrees. “After the visit Tom decided that he would go public about his concerns regarding the Chinese state, which was brave because the Chinese can make your life difficult if they want to.”

And they have tried. Even before he was sanctioned, he had been harassed for a while: “It’s pathetic stuff,” he told me. “I phone up Google, they take down the website or email address and it’s done.” His response to the sanctions was to tweet a photo of himself at the Great Wall of China. In a post-Covid world, censure from the CCP is not the worst thing for a political career. Plus, it got him wall-to-wall TV, on which he appeared with suitably ungroomed lockdown hair.

The sanctions didn’t come as a surprise In April 2020, he became the first head of the China Research Group, which aims to promote “fresh thinking about issues raised by the rise of China.” In December 2020 it released a report, “Defending Democracy in a New World,” that laid out a “toolkit of potential responses to counter violations of international universal human rights, in particular in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.” Once again, the die was cast.

Tugendhat is proud of his work on China. “I do not have executive authority. But in the last three years I have changed Britain’s foreign policy towards China,” he told me. “I am able to change government policy in areas that I care about in ways that I think matter. Is that the same as being foreign secretary? Of course not. But it’s not the same as being a junior minister, either.”

He’s right. On January 31, the U.K. introduced a new visa giving 5.4 million Hong Kong residents the right to settle here and eventually become citizens: It was something Tugendhat had pushed for. He has taken his China work across party lines. He has worked so closely with Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy that he says the pair can finish each other’s sentences. But it’s also a sign of his adaptability. He is of a generation that came of political age during the War on Terror. He studied Arabic; he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made the Middle East his domain. Many others did, too; now they’re dinosaurs. Not Tugendhat: He reinvented himself. If there is indeed a new Cold War, and China is the USSR redux, then he has made sure he is in the first rank of Britain’s 21st century hawks.

But once again, he finds himself at odds with the leadership. Despite the recent U.K. sanctions on China, or more likely because of them, Johnson recently declared himself “fervently Sinophile” and determined to improve ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties.” Sources close to Tugendhat say he has grown increasingly “frustrated and vexed.”

So how far can he go? Smeeth has no doubt: “I’d put money on Tom being a future prime minister. I think his brain is extraordinary.”

Tugendhat has the talent to go all the way. But how badly does he want it?

You have to eat dirt to get to the top. Johnson ate landfills of it. During the pandemic I often turned on the TV to watch the U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock appear on breakfast TV each morning to be routinely insulted by presenter Piers Morgan while he gawped like a suffocating fish. Would Tugendhat stand for that? I’m not so sure. He could glide into a tech firm or a hedge fund. He could run the Red Cross. Unlike Hancock, he has too many other options.

Tugendhat has become a test for the Tory party. If it continues its divorce from a British establishment increasingly represented by him toward the populism represented by Johnson, the question remains: Can they keep him? He is serious and thoughtful in an age that privileges neither. Calling him a man of honor sounds anachronistic—but it may be a quality the electorate comes to appreciate.

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