A little over a week into his premiership Rishi Sunak has made his first major U-turn. On 2 November the prime minister announced that he would be travelling to Egypt for the Cop27 UN climate summit next week after all. No 10 had previously said he was too focused on fixing the domestic economy to attend. The U-turn is welcome. The initial decision was alarming not just because the climate emergency is one of the world’s most pressing concerns; there’s also the fact that at Cop27 the UK hands over the conference’s presidency to Egypt, and Sunak’s absence would have been a stark statement that Britain wasn’t capable of engaging on the world stage.
As Boris Johnson’s chancellor throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Sunak built a reputation for dependability and pragmatism when it came to the economy and navigating a crisis (though, as the questionable “eat out to help out” policy amid rising Covid-19 rates in summer 2020 proved, perhaps that reputation isn’t entirely deserved). Yet there is much about Sunak, and his worldview, that remains unknown. This is a sharp contrast to his most recent predecessors in No 10. Johnson’s “cakeism” approach to dealing with the EU may not have been realistic but it was clear to everyone that his relationship with Brussels wouldn’t be amicable. Likewise, Liz Truss’s hawkish fantasies when it came to Russia left little doubt as to how she wanted to position the UK on the world stage. Sunak hasn’t been as forthright in setting out how he sees the world and Britain’s place in it.
That’s not to say there aren’t clues. A Brexiteer, Sunak is perhaps the first prime minister to have wholeheartedly backed the UK’s decision to leave the EU, if you take into account the fact that Johnson waffled on which side to support before the referendum, ultimately landing on the one he thought would most advance his career. Sunak was also a former MBA student at Stanford, an advocate of Silicon Valley entrepreneurism and, until recently, the holder of a US green card – so it’s fair to conclude he’s an Atlanticist. At one point Sunak was also seemingly on the more dovish side of his party, arguing in 2021 for a “mature and balanced relationship” with China. He reversed course, however, during the Conservative leadership contest this summer after being accused by Truss of being “soft” on China.
Yet no matter his personal views it’s clear that Sunak won’t be focused on advancing any kind of vision of “Global Britain”, as was championed by his post-Brexit predecessors, anytime soon. As evidenced by the initial decision not to attend Cop27, he’ll be too consumed not only with attempts to steady the country’s economic turmoil but also with a struggle to hold his increasingly divided party together. It is the latter task, in particular, that will keep Sunak restrained. Just as he shifted his approach to China when under pressure from the Tory right, so too is he likely to bend to navigate internal party politics and remain in power. The baffling reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary – despite her breaches of security and culture war instincts, not to mention her cruel approach to her brief – demonstrates just how eager Sunak is to appease the right of his party.
At a time of domestic political and economic crisis, it might be tempting to dismiss the UK’s foreign agenda as a lesser concern. This would be a mistake. We are in a moment of global political instability: Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine will continue to have adverse effects on the UK’s economy and politics. The same is true for deteriorating democratic norms in the US, China’s increasing power and, yes, the escalating climate crisis. All need urgent attention and, ideally, a strong vision of how to tackle them. So far, there is little evidence that Sunak has any such vision.