Marion Gabriel is a third year International Relations student at King’s College London. With strong interests in diplomacy, strategy, and European politics broadly, she is currently the European editor of International Relations today.
For the fourth time in six years, the U.K has appointed a new Prime Minister. Compared to his predecessor, Rishi Sunak raises hope of bringing stability back in the country. But challenges remain. Profound divisions within the Conservative Party and huge economic and fiscal deficits are testing British politics. The future of the UK’s foreign policy will thus largely depend on the government’s management of internal and external turmoil.
Britain’s new leader
On 25th October, following L. Truss’ resignation, Rishi Sunak was elected unopposed as leader of the Conservative Party. Sunak’s ascent to the leadership did not involve a vote in parliament or in the party, as none of his rivals reached the minimum nomination threshold of 100 nominations. The most supported Tory MP delivered his first speech as Prime Minister outside No 10 Downing Street at 11am on Tuesday after being sworn in by King Charles. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to be able to serve the party I love and give back to the country I owe so much to”, Rishi Sunak said during his first speech as PM.
Contrary to L. Truss, Rishi Sunak raises hope of bringing stability back in the country. The new prime minister will, declared Theresa May, provide the ‘calm, competent, pragmatic leadership our country needs at this deeply challenging time’. “Rishi said we will stick to the 2019 manifesto. It’s as simple as that” added the former Home Secretary Victoria Atkins. This means a focus on levelling up, the NHS, and crime, continuing with the legislation started under Boris Johnson. Seeking to address the reality of renewed austerity, he raised support within his party. Backers of Boris Johnson, including the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and home secretary Suella Braverman celebrated his victory before he was elected. Brexiters of the European Research Group (ERG) and One Nations’ centre-right MPs also promised to support him. The 42-year-old MP, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, is the first PM of color, a fact that many of his peers judge as ground-breaking. But, far from a sign of the future unity of both British and minority communities, despite his Indian descent, Sunak tis announcing a hard line on immigration and refugee policies, a line encouraged by most Tory MPs.
Following Liz Truss’s catastrophic fiscal gap as a result of the Mini-budget, however, long-term support seems to depend on the success of Sunak’s first policies. Sunak’s immediate task is now to raise enough money- i.e., impose tax rises and spend cuts, which will be deeply unpopular among Tory MPs.
Moreover, recent controversies about the return of Suella Braverman, reappointed home secretary six days after resigning over security breach, raises questions about Sunak’s integrity and divides opinions. Braverman was responsible for a “really serious breach” after sending confidential information to a private address, sending it to an MP, attempting to send it to the MP’s wife, and then accidentally sending it to a member of parliamentary staff. During his first Commons appearance during PMQs, Sunak told MPs that she recognised making an ‘error of judgement’, and claimed, “That’s why I was delighted to welcome her back into a united cabinet that brings experience and stability to the heart of government.”
A series of internal and external challenges
Liz Truss’s political project was certainly divorced from economic realities. Setting out his priorities, Sunak has announced he would fix the economy, unite the conservative party, and deliver for the country. Sunak claims to be a symbol of stability amid economic, political, and social chaos. Adding to the war in Ukraine and market instability, the challenges facing the U.K are pressing.
The economic situation Britain is drifting into is called “a state of chronic emergency” by some. Leaving a £40bn hole in public finance, Liz Truss’s ‘Mini-budget’ has caused the pound to fall to its lowest level in decades and collapse bond prices, sending borrowing costs soaring and pushing pension funds to the brink of insolvency. Rising interest rates drove up mortgage repayments, and lenders scrambled to pull their products from the market, ruining prospective homeowners’ plans. As Vicky Price, former joint head of the UK’s Government Economic Service claimed, Sunak inherits from the difficult task of balancing austerity policies that could turn public opinion against him and policies that could enrage Conservative MPs. Sunak’s first economic policies will be closely watched by MPs and British citizens. “This is an enormous set of challenges. We have people listening at home who will be very, very worried about paying their bills, about the cost of food, of energy and so on”, claims V. Atkins, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. If no drastic measure comes before the winter, the new prime minister might become another Conservative leader who is forced to spend more time managing the internal politics of his own party than dealing with the massive problems facing his country.
Party management is crucial for Sunak to stay in power. Tories are divided between conservatism and market liberalism. Such divisions are certainly not recent: during the Thatcher era, the adoption of the poll tax, fixing tax sums and replacing domestic rates in 1989 in Scotland and in 1990 in England and Wales, led to a strong resentment from the supporters of libertarian ideology. Just as M. Thatcher, L. Truss after her free-market experiment, which damaged the party as a whole. Is Sunak going to pursue the same policies as his predecessors? Or will he keep the trickle-lock of state pensions rise with earnings and inflation? Will defence spending be one of his sacrifices, despite Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s blackmail to resign if this was not put on the agenda?
Shrinking international ambitions
Sunak will also need to clearly articulate Britain’s ambitions externally and restore the country’s credibility among international partners.
In the short-term, logic suggests that he will seek to negotiate the Ireland protocol and improve relations with Europe. He will adopt a much harder line on China, claiming that “China and the Chinese Communist Party represent the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”. Sunak anticipated a return to the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US and arranged with President Joe Biden an alliance to counter the Chinese threat.
But hard power alone will not serve all international ambitions. To Livia Godaert, fellow at the Europe Center of the Atlantic Council, ensuring Britain’s credibility abroad can also mean investing in the country’s soft power. The country can be a player in global debates on climate change, technology, and more, she says, “but thought leaders and decision makers won’t engage with the United Kingdom if they think they won’t be heard, or if they don’t see the country as a serious partner”. While Sunak justified his withdrawal from the list of attendants of the COP27 in Egypt by “pressing domestic commitments”, he claimed on Tuesday 2nd November we would finally attend it in a last minute U-turn. As the government remains committed to fossil fuels in the North Sea, reversing the original decision raises doubts on the government’s willingness and ability to lead on climate policy internationally.
Sunak’s leadership will be defined by his balance between restoration and stability internally, and ambitious moves externally. Considering the number of challenges the Tories have to face domestically, perhaps Sunak’s longevity in power rests on a careful establishment of priorities, even if at the expense of the UK’s soft power abroad. As the country is expected to slide into a more significant recession in the coming weeks, ‘Global Britain’ seems a thing of the past, more than a dream of the future.