Can Rishi Sunak Unite Britain?

Two experts on the historic challenges confronting Britain's new leader.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
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After a turbulent few weeks in Britain, Rishi Sunak became the country’s prime minister on Tuesday, the third in less than two months. Sunak makes history as the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of color. He faces unprecedented challenges: a Conservative Party in chaos, a spiraling economic crisis, war in Europe with no end in sight, and calls for an immediate general election to replace him.

With rising inflation and energy prices and doubts about his political mandate, I wanted to find out what he will do to reverse the country’s trajectory. Can he stabilize the economy? Can his leadership revive the country’s relationship with the European Union? What will his policies on China and Russia’s war in Ukraine look like?

Foreign Policy interviewed two experts on the topic on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism: Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs and the director of UK in a Changing Europe at King’s College London, and Robin Niblett, a distinguished fellow and former director and chief executive at Chatham House. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full discussion.

After a turbulent few weeks in Britain, Rishi Sunak became the country’s prime minister on Tuesday, the third in less than two months. Sunak makes history as the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of color. He faces unprecedented challenges: a Conservative Party in chaos, a spiraling economic crisis, war in Europe with no end in sight, and calls for an immediate general election to replace him.

With rising inflation and energy prices and doubts about his political mandate, I wanted to find out what he will do to reverse the country’s trajectory. Can he stabilize the economy? Can his leadership revive the country’s relationship with the European Union? What will his policies on China and Russia’s war in Ukraine look like?

Foreign Policy interviewed two experts on the topic on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism: Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs and the director of UK in a Changing Europe at King’s College London, and Robin Niblett, a distinguished fellow and former director and chief executive at Chatham House. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full discussion.

Foreign Policy: Robin, there are no shortage of challenges ahead for Rishi Sunak. What do you expect is going to be top of his priority list in his first few months as prime minister?

Robin Niblett: The economy. One of my slight worries is that as a former chancellor [of the Exchequer], he will try to be chancellor and prime minister simultaneously. The U.K. is in a very difficult position. It’s isolated; having left the EU, it doesn’t have the protective cushion of EU support as a Brexit country; and it’s also a country with an 8.4 percent of GDP current account deficit. So, as former Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney put it a while ago, it depends on the kindness of strangers, and Sunak, as a former banker, knows this extremely well.

He knows that his job is above all to reestablish an element of confidence that grown-ups are in charge of the economy, that after huge spending on the COVID-19 pandemic and with the commitments they’re now making on the energy price guarantee, that this is an economy that can fly alone, that can be trusted to be successful, and that they will rein in the gap between spending commitments and revenue that’s looming large ahead of them right now.

FP: Anand, is Sunak going to be able to pitch himself as a fresh face who can restore trust in the Conservative Party? Or do you think he’s going to continue to be bogged down by the scandals of his predecessors?

Anand Menon: The jury’s still out. One of the more remarkable things about the leadership contest we’ve just seen is we have absolutely no clue what his program for government is. This whole thing was private. It was done between Conservative MPs. We don’t know what he promised them. We don’t know what his economic agenda is. So we’re going to have to wait and see.

On being the first prime minister of color, I think that’s symbolically incredibly important. One of the most reassuring things about the reaction to his election was that the British people seemed totally disinterested in it. There’s a lot of silly talk about it being the U.K.’s Obama moment, but it absolutely isn’t the U.K.’s Obama moment. Partly because racial politics isn’t as poisonous in the U.K. as it is in the United States and partly because Barack Obama was voted in on a personal mandate as president of the United States. Sunak was voted in by essentially 200 Conservative MPs. He hasn’t been voted in by the people as a whole.

As for his personal wealth, that’s already caused him problems. His wife had non-domicile status for tax purposes. When that was revealed, his popularity dipped quite spectacularly. He was also attacked for having a U.S. green card. One of the problems he may face, apart from his wealth, is if he starts to cut public spending on education and health, the Labour Party can simply say, it’s OK for him, he doesn’t use public services. I think that might become an issue going forward.

One of the other problems he has, and one of the reasons why the Conservative members wouldn’t vote for him over the summer in the competition against Liz Truss, is for some people Sunak is a representative of the old style of politics. He’s Davos, he’s a Goldman Sachs man. He’s the guy who wears Prada shoes. And, actually, for many in the Conservative Party, the point of Brexit was to get rid of that look. So there’s a slight cultural uneasiness about them seemingly being back in power.

FP: In recent years, it seems the U.K. has just lurched from crisis to crisis and often ones of its own making. What impact have the past few weeks—in fact, the past few years—had on Britain’s standing in the world?

RN: Britain is now an object of amazement, if not ridicule, because of the shenanigans going on with the government. From the moment Brexit happened, it’s been a bit of a shock. The Liz Truss period has been particularly shocking because it was so incompetent.

However, the strong outpouring for Britain around the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and that sense that Britain actually has a form of history and continuity despite the chaos here, was a reminder to many people that the U.K. has been through things like this before. Britain has a system whereby if a prime minister totally screws up, as Truss did with Kwasi Kwarteng [as her chancellor], literally you can have a turnaround within six weeks and a new person in place to try to push through an alternative program, which probably will last for the next two years.

There’s an element of recognition that there is a certain resilience to the British political system, which stands in contrast to what we’re watching in Moscow and what we’ve just been watching in Beijing—these highly scripted and organized structures that people think is a type of stability but you always feel that underneath it runs a real risk of chaos. Britain wears its chaos on its sleeve and seems to be pulling through it at the moment.

AM: It’s worth adding that given the economic crisis, even if things go well and the government governs sensibly, there are going to be impacts on the U.K.’s international role because the one area we know that there are likely to be spending cuts is defense. Truss proposed to increase defense spending to 3 percent of GDP from the current 2 percent. There are leaks doing the rounds now that Sunak is going to row back on that. There might even be short-term cuts in defense spending with the longer-term aspiration of getting to 3 percent by 2030. Even if the U.K. continues, as it has, with its foreign policy quite consistently through changes of prime minister, our policy on Ukraine hasn’t changed at all—but the worsening economic situation will have implications for our role in the world as well.

FP: Sunak has pledged steadfast support for Ukraine and spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about visiting Kyiv. With the potential recession looming, are there going to be any shifts in the U.K.’s support for Ukraine?

RN: Not at all, in the sense that it’s a bipartisan, or multipartisan, standpoint in the United Kingdom. The United States is the country that is really putting the heavy pounds in dollars into this support. While the U.K. has to keep a close eye on this relationship with the EU, the one thing that it really does not want to do is have a bad relationship with the United States. At the moment, the continuity that unites all of the wings of the Conservative Party right now is being an ally to the United States and the reliable partner in European security. So I think that, you know, with Ben Wallace having stayed as the secretary of defense, we’re going to see continuity on this side, and it should be just about affordable. What I’m worried about is there won’t be money for other big commitments to the developing world.

FP: What can we expect from Sunak with regards to his policies in China and the Indo-Pacific?

AM: Well, it’s going to be interesting because during the summer leadership campaign against Truss, Truss outflanked Sunak on China by sounding more hawkish than him. The Conservative Party has moved in a very hawkish direction on China since the so-called golden days of David Cameron, and there is a broad consensus in the party that we need to be tougher on China.

There are those in the party who suspect Sunak of being weak because he has a Treasury background and talks more about the need to preserve trade than many others in his party. So he’s going to come under pressure on that, and I suspect because it’s foreign policy and therefore not the central thing to his agenda, he will probably tack in a more hawkish direction than perhaps we would have expected during that leadership contest in the summer.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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