This is the third time I have sat down to write a piece about what the relationship between President Joe Biden and the current British prime minister will mean for the US-UK relationship in less than two years. Liz Truss was forced out after announcing radical free-market policies that tanked the British pound (and drew perhaps ill-advised criticism from Biden). A whirlwind Conservative Party leadership contest led to the former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, being named Prime Minister. And so here we are again, assessing the relationship between the United States, the United Kingdom, and chaos itself.
“It was not a surprise to see some degree of political turmoil in the UK given acute economic challenges, fiscal policy slip-ups, and recent polling data,” Jonathan Katz, director of democracy initiatives at the German Marshall Fund, said. “But Washington was surprised by the Truss-led government’s spectacular death spiral.” At the beginning of September, he said, her administration “looked much more solid – at least on this side of the Atlantic”.
We should note that political chaos in the UK is not the same as political chaos in the US. Yes, Boris Johnson was forced out surrounded by myriad scandals; no, Liz Truss’s time in office was shorter than her campaign in the Tory leadership contest to replace him. But both Johnson and Truss did resign. Their supporters did not angrily storm parliament. And they are not sowing doubt about the very legitimacy of British democracy. “Liz Truss did not say, ‘I actually won’,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Centre for a New American Security. “There is a difference in terms of how many people on the US side have called into question the legitimacy of elections and institutions.”
That said, turmoil in London isn’t without its issues for Washington. “A team that’s been in office longer tends to be easier to work with. Relationships get built and they gain experience with the issues,” said Fontaine.
As for Sunak himself, he’s been presented, for domestic politics, as a leader who will usher in stability. And there’s an extent to which that’s true in foreign policy, too. As Katz put it, “there is an expectation in Washington that the UK will rebound. Sunak is seen as a stabilising figure who has worked closely with the Biden administration, including on Russia and other global economic challenges, and there is every expectation that close cooperation between Washington and London will continue with the change.” Domestic crises and the war in Ukraine, he added, mean that Sunak won’t have a settling in period and that room for mistakes is minimal. That John Bew, the defence and security adviser, is reportedly staying will be taken as a positive sign.
It’s also possible that Sunak, without fundamentally changing the policy, will spend less time on Ukraine than his predecessors, both of whom were foreign secretaries (and one of whom, Johnson, was wildly popular in Ukraine while prime minister). And Sunak might be more European than Atlanticist on another pressing foreign policy issue: China. Ben Judah, the director of the Transform Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council, who has profiled Sunak and is in regular touch with policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, said: “His instincts on China are ironically for an original Brexiteer slightly more European – that is to say worried also about the economic fallout [of a tough stance on China] – and closer to [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz on Russia and China than Liz Truss.”
But, ultimately, if Sunak can manage to impose some political and economic stability domestically, that could be better for the US. The future of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement and UK-EU relations was a major concern for the Biden administration when Truss came into office; that concern seems to have subsided (perhaps ironically, given Sunak’s status as a Brexiter). A steady pair of hands may prove to matter more than muscular rhetoric on China to the health of the US-UK relationship.
[See also: Why the US midterm elections matter]