An embattled Theresa May will travel to China on Tuesday with her husband Philip and the biggest ever business delegation for any British overseas visit.
Despite growing unrest among her party back home, the Prime Minister sought to focus on drumming up trade for a post-Brexit UK as she jetted out for the three-day trip.
Some 50 British firms and business organisations will join the PM on her RAF Voyager plane on a tour that will take in Wuhan before visiting Beijing and Shanghai, No10 said.
Among the firms on the plane will be car firms Aston Martin and Jaguar LandRover, drugs giant AstraZeneca, engineering consultants Arup and even teamakers Whittard’s.
But Philip May will also make his first full bilateral foreign trip at his wife’s side, in a move Downing Street said was intended “to support the Prime Minister”.
Following a fresh bout of speculation that May could face a leadership challenge, his presence will be seen by some as offering crucial moral support, although aides stressed that his trip was in keeping with Chinese protocol.
On her second trip to the country after the G20 meeting in 2016, the PM will hold separate talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
No10 said that the Prime Minister’s visit was aimed at intensifying the “Golden Era” in UK-China relations, which was heralded by President Xi’s State Visit to the UK in 2015.
May said ahead of the trip: “There are huge trade opportunities in China that we want to help British businesses take advantage of. That is why I’m taking a large multi-sector business delegation with me.”
But the PM added that the closeness of the two countries’ relationship allowed for “frank discussions on all issues”, and No.10 said that would include human rights.
The Chinese have seen May as a more sceptical partner given her delays to the Hinkley Point nuclear project and failure to follow up on David Cameron and George Osborne’s push for trade deals.
One tricky diplomatic issue on the trip may be President Xi’s “belt and road initiative” to build new road and rail links from China, through Asia, to Europe.
Donald Trump’s administration views the project with suspicion and when asked about it on Monday, the PM’s official spokesman said the massive infrastructure scheme could contribute to global growth - if it was “well implemented” and met “international standards”.
Asked if that was not the case, the spokesman replied: “That is one of the things the Prime Minister will be talking about when she’s there.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is the only other Cabinet minister on the trip, pointed out that UK-China trade was currently worth more than £59bn and UK exports to China increased by over 25% last year.
“Our relationship is now more important than ever, as we look to form new trading bonds with the biggest growing markets around the world,” he said.
“Indeed, China’s middle class is expected to number 600 million by 2020 - greater than the current entire population of the EU - presenting unrivalled opportunities for UK business.”