O’Neill, the Treasury minister and former Goldman Sachs chief economist,
could quit the government over Theresa May’s new approach to China
exposed by her handling of plans for a new Hinkley Point nuclear plant.
Lord O’Neill was a star signing brought into the Treasury by George
Osborne to build relations with China and oversee new infrastructure. He
coined the phrase “Brics” in 2001 to describe the world’s leading
emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China.
In a sign of the remaining tensions in Mrs May’s new ministerial team
and concerns in Beijing that it may no longer be welcome to invest in
British nuclear power plants, Lord O’Neill has told friends he will
leave the government in September unless Mrs May can explain why she
wants him to stay on.
Mrs May did not forewarn Lord O’Neill that she intended to put the ￡18bn
project on hold; Beijing plans to invest ￡6bn in the scheme and sees it
as a bridgehead to building its own nuclear power station in Britain.
Lord O’Neill considered quitting last week, but did not want to
undermine another of his projects: persuading world leaders at a G20
summit early next month to act on his report on tackling drug resistant
The minister was given free rein by Mr Osborne to court Chinese
investment and told the Financial Times in Beijing last year that
Britain had to “get over one of its perpetual problems of being a fair
The new prime minister announced last week that she wanted more time to
assess the Hinkley Point project, catching by surprise Beijing and the
French power utility EDF, which wants to build the new power station.
Mrs May’s aides insist the delay in approving Hinkley Point was “simply
about this deal” and that if there were to be any different approach to
China that would be a matter for the future.
But the statement issued by the government explaining the delay said
that ministers wanted to examine “the component parts” of the deal — a
form of words understood in Whitehall to refer to Chinese involvement.
Mr Osborne promised Beijing “progressive entry” into the British nuclear
market, but Mrs May’s joint chief of staff Nick Timothy wrote last year
that this could put China in a position to turn off the UK’s power at