It was all sealed over a pint of Greene King IPA.
One Thursday evening in October 2015, David Cameron strode into a Buckinghamshire pub with another of the world’s most powerful men to toast the beginning of a golden era of relations between the UK and China.
Addressing Britain’s parliament the previous day, President Xi Jinping of China had gushed over the “great new age” of friendship between London and Beijing. “As the Chinese saying goes: a mountain can never be too high or an ocean too deep,” Xi declared.
Yet scarcely nine months after their hop-scented embrace in the Plough at Cadsden, the love affair between Cameron and Xi appears to be on the rocks following Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the prime minister’s resignation.
“If George Osborne doesn’t get the foreign secretaryship I think the golden [relationship] is beginning to come to a glorious end,” said Steve Tsang, a China expert from the University of Nottingham. “It’s the beginning of the end.”
The premature interment will be mourned in both Downing Street and in Zhongnanhai, China’s Kremlin.
“I think their initial reaction [to Brexit] was: ‘Fuck!’” said one longstanding observer of the political scene in China’s capital.
For Beijing, cosying up to Britain guaranteed it an enthusiastic cheerleader within the EU and a gateway to the bloc, as well as a means of projecting Chinese power, influence and technology around the globe.
Bolstered by Xi’s state visit to Britain that October, plans were afoot for Chinese nuclear power stations, a high-speed rail link and even a joint space research programme, as well as making London an offshore trading hub for China’s currency, the renminbi.
Wagering that Britain would vote to remain, Beijing also hoped its newly forged allegiance would boost China’s chances of securing market economy status from the EU, making it easier to export to the bloc’s 28 members.
Critics accused Cameron of performing an “epic kowtow” in order to curry favour with the Communist party. The US hit out at Britain’s “constant accommodation” of China following its decision in 2015 to become a founder member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).