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Rishi Sunak learnt of the arrest of a parliamentary researcher accused of spying for China in a “timely fashion”, but still pressed ahead with stepping up engagement with Beijing.

Government insiders told the Financial Times that Sunak and UK foreign secretary James Cleverly were told of the Metropolitan Police’s actions close to the time of the arrest in March.

Downing Street and the Foreign Office declined to specify the exact date. Security figures said senior ministers would be swiftly informed of such incidents, especially in any case involving parliament.

The arrest of the researcher has become a political problem for Sunak as Conservative MPs with a hardline stance on China use it as ammunition to attack the prime minister’s policy of engagement with the country.

Sunak’s new approach has unfolded since March, when the UK government labelled China an “epoch-defining challenge” rather than a “threat” in a defence review. In April, Cleverly set out the case for “robust” and “constructive” engagement with Beijing in a speech.

Last month, the UK foreign minister visited Beijing, the first such high-level visit by a British official to China since 2018. UK officials described the visit as a significant move to repair links after five years of frosty relations.

Hawkish Conservative MPs have clamoured for answers about which ministers knew what and when, questioning why Cleverly would have gone ahead with his trip to Beijing if he knew about the arrest.

But a series of former security officials defended Britain sticking with its China policy despite the alleged espionage in parliament. Sir Richard Dearlove, former chief of MI6, said: “The government are not going to make their China policy dependent on a single spy case — nor should they.”

He said that Sunak, Cleverly and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, “would have been told relatively quickly” about the arrest of the alleged spy.

Lord Kim Darroch, former national security adviser to David Cameron, also stressed that ministers would not have been taken by surprise by allegations of Beijing seeking to place a spy in the heart of Westminster.

“The Chinese have been spying on us and stealing our commercial secrets, our intellectual property, carrying out cyber attacks for a long time. This doesn’t feel new to me,” Darroch said, though he added he could see why the Chinese would be interested in internal Conservative party discussions on government policy towards Beijing.

The researcher arrested in March had contact with Conservative MPs, including Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, and Tom Tugendhat, before he was appointed security minister, according to people familiar with the matter.

The former researcher has denied spying for China and prosecutors have not yet decided whether to charge him.

Last year MI5 took the unusual step of issuing an alert about “political interference activities” in parliament, identifying lawyer Christine Lee as an “agent of influence”. She denies the allegations and in July launched legal action against MI5.

A government insider told the Financial Times that ministers were alive to continuing efforts by a range of countries to run interference or spying operations targeting the UK. They said Britain had a longstanding policy of repeatedly raising the issue with those nations “so they know that we know, and that we will be ever vigilant for it”.

“Like many allies our foreign policy towards China recognises this and is clear eyed about it. It’s part of the equation that we recognise it, raise it and constantly protect against it,” the person said.

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