Britain’s Conservative Party MPs have whittled down the shortlist for the next prime minister to the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and former chancellor Rishi Sunak. Although Truss and Sunak have held two of the most senior government positions, they are relatively unknown quantities to the British public and the world at large. Not that most voters have a say in who becomes the next Tory leader: the poll takes place only among party members. And they are unlikely to choose anyone willing to say they would repair relations with the European Union.
Truss is the frontrunner. In her current post since September 2021, the former Remain supporter is now a Brexiter with the zeal of a convert. She is also a political survivor as the longest continuously serving member of the cabinet, having worked under three prime ministers. Her politics are Reaganite in flavour, with a foreign policy world view in which Britain stands alongside America against Russia and China, unsupported by its wimpish European neighbours. References to the cold war and “freedom” pepper her comments on international affairs.
Sunak’s foreign policy beliefs are less pronounced. He rose to high office on a sharp trajectory. Barely three years ago, he was a junior minister discussing edicts to local councils about boycotts of Israel. Unlike Truss, Sunak was an early and firm supporter of Brexit – a fact that ought to be his strongest appeal to Conservative members. But his reputation as a tax-raising chancellor has dented his popularity among the selectorate.
As ever in party leadership contests, the candidates adopt foreign policy positions with an eye on victory. And, despite the global effects of Russia’s bloody war on Ukraine, issues of public spending have dominated the debate so far. Nonetheless, the candidates have begun to sketch out a few foreign policy positions.
Truss’s first speech as foreign secretary pointedly made almost no reference to the EU. And she recently spearheaded the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which has prompted legal action by the EU. As prime minister, she would likely be unwilling to compromise with Brussels, continuing the Johnson government’s pursuit of “perpetual Brexit” – regularly and deliberately sparking arguments with the EU to provide headlines for Europhobic newspapers. The strategy’s main aim is to hold together the ungainly ‘get Brexit done’ voter coalition that handed an 80-seat majority to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election.
Sunak is a more emollient figure. However, he has also given his full backing to the government’s position on Northern Ireland and is unlikely to change his mind. In any case, he has no room for manoeuvre on this question, given that Truss has long held the title of Most Trusted Brexiter.
It is difficult to see how Sunak, as prime minister, could successfully ride the Tory tiger. In recent decades, Conservative MPs have wounded and brought down several of their party’s leaders – beginning with Margaret Thatcher – in disputes over Europe. If Sunak cannot win from a position of moderation, he cannot govern from a position of moderation. Moreover, the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, has made it clear that he would like the job back. He will seize on any whiff of ‘Brexit betrayal’.
Despite their impractical approach to EU relations, Truss and Sunak have acknowledged part of the daunting geopolitical situation Britain faces. Truss has promised to spend 3 per cent of GDP on defence – although this landed fairly flat when, soon afterwards, the defence secretary declared that he would not know how to use the extra cash. Sunak, too, has hinted at going beyond the 2 per cent NATO spending target, although further details remain vague.
Both candidates have said that they will maintain Britain’s current approach to Russia and Ukraine – which, although relatively hawkish, envisages no direct military engagement with Russia. When asked last week whether she would send the Royal Navy to the Black Sea to defend Ukrainian grain shipments, Truss resisted the temptation to strike a Thatcheresque pose, responding that she was “not prepared for the UK to become directly involved in the conflict”. Sunak, for his part, claims to have put together “some of the strongest economic sanctions”, which have “hampered Putin”. All the signs are that either of them would maintain Britain’s current sanctions on Russia and consider going further. But neither has yet addressed the tougher challenges ahead. For example, they have not engaged in the public debate on restricting energy use (which is now a focus of the EU). Such issues could creep up quickly on whichever of them becomes prime minister in September.
In contrast to their similar positions on Russia and Ukraine, Truss and Sunak have traded blows over China. Sunak opened last week’s campaign with an effort to place Beijing at the centre of the debate, arguing that “China and the Chinese Communist Party represent the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century.” He has pledged to shut down the United Kingdom’s 30 Confucius Institutes and proposed a “NATO-style international alliance” to counter Chinese cyber-threats, although he has not expanded on how this would work.
Sunak combined these policy announcements with a political attack on Truss for having “rolled out the red carpet for China”. She shot back by accusing him of heading a Treasury beguiled by Chinese business opportunities. Such statements mark just the latest step away from the pro-China enthusiasm of the Cameron years.
Narrow party election processes invariably push foreign policy to the sidelines. Yet missing from the early debates between Truss and Sunak is any indication of whether they are thinking about how these foreign policy challenges relate to one another. To identify China as a major influence on the world order is one thing; it is quite another to figure out how to work with Beijing on the climate emergency, including by sourcing the technology governments around the world depend on to decarbonise their economies. A “Britain apart” approach is unlikely to suffice. The next prime minister will need to prioritise some of the many foreign policy challenges the country faces, not just strike hawkish poses on headline issues.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.