Hard times ahead for Sunak to restore UK's credibility

New prime minister Rishi Sunak needs to reassure the world about the future of UK foreign policy. But his pragmatism must cope with a battering ram of ideology.

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John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

After all the theatricality and derision over the UK’s political process in the last few months, Rishi Sunak may well be eventually judged on terms set by one of his predecessors. The new prime minister will, declared Theresa May, provide the ‘calm, competent, pragmatic leadership our country needs at this deeply challenging time’.

In his first statement on winning the Conservative MPs ballot following the withdrawal of first Boris Johnson and then Penny Mordaunt, Sunak set out his priorities – to ‘fix’ the economy, unite his party, and ‘deliver’ for the country.

The first two are to a large degree measurable, the latter is a matter of opinion. But they are all based in the notion of stability – economic, political, social, and international – and none will be easy to achieve. He must move quickly but carefully to calm the markets and reassure allies that Britain has reacquainted itself with serious politics.

The task of his first 100 days is the exact opposite of what is usually expected of world leaders. He would be well advised to dispense with any grand flourishes, surprise announcements, and the ‘disruption is good’ narrative of his two immediate predecessors – the short-lived Liz Truss and the grandiloquent Johnson.

Going further than just reversing the ‘mini-budget’

All eyes will be on Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, expected to continue as chancellor of the exchequer. The financial statement of 17 November should complete the reversal of Truss’s government’s capricious ‘mini-budget’ of 23 September – but is expected to go far further by introducing a mix of public spending cuts and tax rises deeply unpopular among voters reeling from a cost-of-living crisis already digging deep.

He would be well advised to dispense with any grand flourishes, surprise announcements, and the ‘disruption is good’ narrative of his two immediate predecessors

As the fifth Conservative party leader in six years, Sunak does have a technical mandate because Britain’s quixotic constitution does not require prime ministers to achieve the support of the electorate and leaders from within the same party can come and go in between general elections. But he has his work cut out to maintain social harmony.

He presides over a party which remains deeply split, both between and within the various arch-Brexiteers and moderate factions, so just to survive until spring or autumn 2024 – the most likely dates for the next UK general election – will be a feat itself.

Sunak also has no major experience of administration outside the Treasury, where he served first as chief secretary and then as chancellor, so his first forays into foreign affairs will be particularly important and closely watched.

During the August leadership contest, Truss accused Sunak of ‘weakness’ in three key areas, accusations which hit home as the rarefied electorate of party members ended up opting against him. The economic charge – of being in hock to the ‘establishment’ and being too cautious – has ended up in ridicule, but the two foreign policy ones remain in the eyes of some Conservatives.

More because of who he is not – Johnson or Truss – than who he is, Sunak is likely to enjoy considerable goodwill among many international interlocutors

Will Sunak go ‘soft’ on China? Will he be tough enough on the European Union (EU)? As someone who – unlike his predecessor – actually voted for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, logic suggests Sunak will want to accelerate recent moves to settle the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol as a means of improving relations with Europe.

Hard times ahead for Sunak to restore UK's credibility 2nd part

He will, however, be aware of the destructive power of the caucus of Tory MPs in the European Research Group (ERG). Only hours before the nominations closed for the new leadership, they warned they would take a ‘very robust line’. How his professed pragmatism deals with the battering ram of hardline ideology will help determine the UK’s stability and credibility on the world stage in coming months.

More because of who he is not – Johnson or Truss – than who he is, Sunak is likely to enjoy considerable goodwill among many international interlocutors. After all the recent upheaval and uncertainty, their expectations are not particularly high and they will happily settle for a more dependable, trustworthy, reliable Britain – perhaps one that is even a little duller.