Will the next UK prime minister disrupt or cooperate?

As the Conservative leadership contest enters its frenetic phase, little has been said yet about how the next UK prime minister should engage with the world.

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3 minute READ

John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

Under Boris Johnson, the UK liked to see itself as a country willing to ruffle feathers to get things done, and his foreign secretary Liz Truss extolled a more nimble ‘Global Britain’ by declaring in her Mansion House speech that the UK is prepared to ‘do things differently, to think differently and to work differently’.

The speedy rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021 and the staunch support of Ukraine are cited as examples of this and, throughout his time in 10 Downing Street, Johnson has enjoyed presenting Britain as the insurgent, while those around him juxtaposed this more unruly approach to the world order with the ‘blob’ – the old establishment which used to inhabit the building and were even more entrenched next door at the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

There is some merit to the ‘disrupter’ thesis but much of it ultimately comes across as post-hoc rationalization – both for Johnson’s erratic behaviour and for the consequences of Brexit. And many areas of foreign policy over the past three years followed more consensus-based, multinational paradigms anyway.

A successor captivated by tradition?

Johnson is by no means the first UK prime minister to have taken on the ‘foreign policy establishment’. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, in their different ways, cast themselves in a similarly pugilistic light. The concern now among some allies of the soon-to-depart incumbent is that his successor will be ‘captured’ by ‘old’ Whitehall thinking.

The concern now among some allies of the soon-to-depart incumbent is that his successor will be ‘captured’ by ‘old’ Whitehall thinking

Specifically, this means Rishi Sunak who has argued for a more nuanced approach to China, particularly on trade. But one of the curiosities of the campaign is that the candidates, while pledging a ‘fresh start’, have so far differed little from Johnson in policy terms.

Most of the debate has revolved around the economy, and foreign affairs has barely had a look-in. But the outlines are clear – expect more of the same on the big geo-strategic issues, on Ukraine and Russia, on China, AUKUS, and the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’.

Even on the vexed question of the UK’s relations with the European Union (EU), candidates have largely converged, mindful that the final choice of future prime minister rests with party members who are ardently pro-Brexit. They are telling the people who have their fate in their hands what they want to hear.

Those who voted ‘remain’ during the 2016 EU referendum have been adept in the art of reinvention, expressing a new-found conviction that Britain will benefit from being on the outside. And each candidate has backed the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, recently introduced into the UK parliament, to override some regulations on trade.

There is some merit to the ‘disrupter’ thesis but much of it ultimately comes across as post-hoc rationalization – both for Johnson’s erratic behaviour and for the consequences of Brexit

Truss, lest it be forgotten, was a passionate supporter of the ‘remain’ campaign. By contrast, Sunak voted to ‘leave’ but is now considered suspect by the right wing of the party. He has sparred with Truss, expressing concerns that the plan to unilaterally modify parts of the protocol would spark a damaging trade dispute.

Another paradox of this intriguing contest is that the architect of the Ukraine policy – which has won plaudits for the UK – is Ben Wallace, one of the few senior Tories not to stand. Had he done so, the defence secretary would have been one of the favourites.

An election which breaks the mould

But this election campaign has a preponderance of candidates with a defence background anyway. Tom Tugendhat served in Afghanistan and Iraq while, according to the polls, the favourite among Conservative members is Penny Mordaunt, a former defence secretary and naval reservist who likes to remind audiences she was named after the HMS Penelope, a frigate made famous in the Falklands War.

Will the next UK prime minister disrupt or cooperate? 2nd part

With four of the eight contestants in the first ballot being of either Asian or African heritage, this has provided added texture to the debate over Britain’s place in the world, so-called culture wars, and immigration – not least the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. And four of the eight candidates are women, a ratio which few political parties in Europe have managed to yet achieve.

But whether this means a modern, diverse, and open new administration will prevail depends on the interpretation of those three terms. Johnson may in the end be seen less as an aberration, more the first of a new generation.

His successor may well behave quite differently to him, using more traditional skills to win friends and influence people. But substantively the approach to the world wouldn’t change – the disrupter will simply have become more polite and less bombastic.