Sanity returns to British foreign policy

Rishi Sunak has reintroduced sensible pragmatism to British foreign policy – but the nature of today’s Tory party means he is not out of the woods yet

13/03/2023. San Diego, United States. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits USS Midway where he sat down for an interview with NBC television

Rishi Sunak’s first job was clear when he became UK prime minister last October: to stabilise a British economy left teetering on the brink by Liz Truss, his disastrous predecessor. He has succeeded, by way of calm common sense and a refusal to indulge the febrile obsessions of the right wing of his governing Tory party. In recent weeks, Sunak has taken the same approach to foreign affairs.

Relations with Europe

Top of the agenda was the problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol – that ‘border down the Irish Sea’ in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal which had enraged Tory Brexiteers and Northern Ireland Unionists alike. A lancing of this boil was long overdue: with peace in Northern Ireland at risk from the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) boycott of power-sharing institutions, and Johnson’s threats to renege on the deal poisoning relations with Brussels (and Washington). Solutions to most of the practical problems had already been offered by the European Union 18 months earlier. But the new Windsor Framework added a skilful political wrapper. Indeed, the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party seems to have acquiesced with relatively little fuss, and even the DUP is evidently struggling to find grounds to continue its resistance. The prospect of an imminent Ireland visit by US President Joe Biden should put the seal on a first foreign policy success for Sunak.

Relations with Europe were then further normalised by the first Anglo-French summit for five years and the preordained bromance with Emmanuel Macron – an easy win, this one, given that even Europhobic Brits have usually been ready to afford some grudging respect to the French.

Beyond Paris, Sunak’s newly-released “refresh” (Integrated Review 2023 – IR23) of Johnson’s 2021 foreign and security policy states that the Windsor Framework should open the door to “a reinvigoration of our European relationships”. The goodwill, we are assured, “includes the EU”. The European Political Community is name-checked approvingly. But what is expected from better relations with Europe is left undefined, apart from continued cooperation over Ukraine. There is, for example, no mention of Britain’s return to the EU’s Horizon programme for science and technology collaboration. This is a bizarre omission, given that the United Kingdom’s strength in these areas is highlighted as key to the country’s future prosperity and security – though Sunak may just be playing coy until cost-sharing is negotiated. Other obvious areas of potentially beneficial UK-EU cooperation, such as standard-setting for new technologies, are absent too. But there are limits to what Brexiteers could be expected to swallow.

And further afield

Then came the San Diego meeting with Biden and Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. This gave a bit more clarity about how the AUKUS pact to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines is meant to unfold – slowly, it seems. But the meeting provided serendipitous justification for Sunak’s claim in IR23 that “the UK has delivered the ambition we set for the Indo-Pacific tilt” – thereby allowing this central theme of Johnson’s “Global Britain” hype to be de-emphasised from now on.

In other respects, too, IR23 bears the Sunak hallmarks: it is thoughtful and sensible, largely purged of Johnsonian braggadocio, whilst resisting right-wing pressures for a major increase in defence spending and a more belligerent policy towards China.

The integrated review pulls no punches about how the international skies have darkened over the past two years

The review pulls no punches about how the international skies have darkened over the past two years. It notes “an international order more favourable to authoritarianism” and security threats of unprecedented complexity – due mainly to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s direction and behaviour. Britain and its allies need to work harder, and with all the levers of state power, to “out-cooperate and out-compete” those challenging its values and interests in a post-Western world. Moreover, IR23 gives a lot of space to ensuring resilience in the face of non-military vulnerabilities: whether fast-evolving artificial intelligence and cyber threats or the weaponisation of dependencies in the global economy.

The government will cough up money for defence – but £5 billion extra over two years is much less than many Tories had called for. Nor is the cash intended for any general rebuilding of Britain’s armed forces: it will be spent on restoring ammunition stocks depleted by transfers to Ukraine, and investment to ensure Britain’s future as a nuclear power (think both nuclear warhead and nuclear submarine capabilities). Beyond that, increasing the defence budget to 2.5 per cent of GDP is aired only as an “aspiration”.

China hawks have similarly been left unsatisfied. There is no designation of China as a straightforward ‘threat’: IR23 settles for identifying “an epoch-defining and systemic challenge”. Britain’s response will be three-pronged: to “strengthen our national security protections, align and cooperate with our partners, and engage where it is consistent with our interests”. But no new cold war, thank you – not least because so many states in the increasingly important global south “do not want to be drawn into zero-sum competition any more than the UK does”.

Not out of the woods yet

Overall, Sunak can feel well satisfied with this first round of foreign affairs engagement. He has reinforced the impression that the UK government is back in sane and competent hands. And hope begins to stir in Tory breasts that they might, after all, escape obliteration at the next election. But Sunak’s right wing is quiescent, not tamed, and, despite the Windsor Framework, there is still plenty of Brexit poison in the system.

For one thing, Brexit was sold on the promise that Britain would “take back control” of its borders. But instead Brexiteers have the spectacle of daily “invasion” by small boats bringing “illegal immigrants” across the Channel. Sensing both the depth of right-wing rage, and possible electoral advantage, Sunak has put forward legislation requiring the government to detain and expel such arrivals, irrespective of age, family connections, asylum needs – or international law. It is probably unworkable. But it may afford the opportunity for Brexiteers to press again for another unsatisfied objective – quitting the European Convention on Human Rights. This would spell more trouble for Sunak as “respect for [the convention] runs through the TCA [the Trade and Cooperation Agreement – the basis of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU] like writing through a stick of rock.” So, Sunak is playing with fire here.

Even if renewed crisis with Europe is avoided on this issue, then fresh conflict may well be looming over the plan (Sunak inherited this one) that all retained EU Law – some 4-5,000 items? No one knows – should be reviewed by the government by the end of this year. It will then be retained, amended, or scrapped. Business hates the idea, as do those concerned with preserving decades of gains in social, employment, and environmental regulation. The EU will see it as undermining the ‘level playing field’ foundation of the TCA. But hard Brexiteers, with their teeth already clamped around this bone, will be in no mood to give it up.

Rishi Sunak has reintroduced sensible pragmatism to the conduct of Britain’s economic and foreign policies. But, as leader of today’s Tory party, he is riding a tiger.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.