It has become fashionable to dismiss Britain’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, as weak and unimpressive. There’s a reason for this. He is. Even Conservative MPs who picked him little more than one month ago pour scorn on his performance. Directionless Sunak has already made more U-turns than a taxi driver on speed.
His Labour opponents hold a poll lead of more than 20 percentage points. If an election were held today, the Tories would face a meltdown akin to Canada in 1993. That’s when Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives suffered a 27-point negative swing and were all but wiped out.
What is the world to make of Britain these days? With the least successful economy in the G7, half the country seemingly on strike, and a huge inflation and cost of living crisis – all exacerbated by Brexit – the UK has regained its 1970’s crown as the “sick man of Europe”. Tory blather about still being a leading global power is a sick joke.
The sight of a government in denial, clinging to illusions of enduring greatness, embarrasses friends and amuses enemies. Sunak, child of Asian migrants, had a golden opportunity last week to set a different tone and develop a more imaginative approach in a set-piece speech on foreign and security policy at the lord mayor’s banquet in London.
He fluffed it. Instead of a fresh vision for Britain’s future in the world, Sunak served up a bland menu of Spitfire cliches, cramped ambition, self-congratulation and a revised theory of evolution – survival of the weakest. “Under my leadership we won’t choose the status quo. We will do things differently. We will evolve.”
Wow! Vive the evolution! Was Sunak jesting? Not at all. China, he said, posed a “systemic challenge to our values and interests”. In response, the UK would, um, well, see how things go – while making an “evolutionary leap”, whatever that means. Likewise, Russia “is challenging the fundamental principles of the UN”. Rishi boldly insisted “robust pragmatism” would settle Vladimir Putin’s hash.
Sunak was even weirder about the Indo-Pacific, a region where Britain has no real geopolitical business to be. There was money to be made in Indonesia, he said, ergo, the Royal Navy must defend the strait of Malacca. Here was the East India Company’s imperial dream reworked for 21st-century carpetbaggers.
It’s odd how Brexit boosters promote trade with remote corners of the world, peddling patsy deals with Australia and Japan, while ruining it with countries closest to home. Genuflecting to Tory headbangers, Sunak ruled out any backsliding Swiss-style market deals with Europe. EU relations would, you guessed it, “evolve” – as the UK grows steadily poorer and lonelier.
Sunak surely knows polls show most Britons now think Brexit was a mistake. The EU’s approval ratings are sky-high after successful responses to the pandemic and Ukraine. Britain’s isolation has never been less splendid. Yet he mapped no credible route back to sanity and amity.
Speaking last week, David Miliband, a former foreign secretary and exiled Labour princeling, said the UK’s global reputation was at a low ebb. “Our influence abroad – based on pragmatism, legality, responsibility and commitment – has been badly tarnished.” This was a polite reference to Johnsonian lies and Liz Truss fantasies.
“We should be all-in on European political cooperation and the same on energy security,” Miliband urged. Likewise on defence. To be fair, Sunak made gestures in this direction, but is his heart in it? What he really wants is for the EU to intercept illegal migrants.
Meanwhile, in the US, which afforded a lavish state visit to Emmanuel Macron last week, floundering Britain is viewed with pity, puzzlement and ridicule. It’s not only financial services and cheese exports. France’s president has leveraged Brexit to hijack the special relationship, too. Nice one, Boris!
Sunak’s other claims all require close scrutiny. How does “standing up for [British] values” square with supine acquiescence in human rights abuses in the Gulf states, Israel, and, say, Narendra Modi’s India? Sunak says the UK “defends democracy”. Evidently he’s forgotten about Hong Kong and Afghanistan.
As for “helping others”, what a nerve! As chancellor, Sunak slashed overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income at a time of mushrooming international need. Now it has emerged that about a third of all remaining UK “foreign” aid is spent at home, most of it on housing Channel migrants.
On defence and security, which he counts a great British global strength, Sunak was delusional, too. “We will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he vowed. Sounds good. Yet Kyiv beware. Militarily speaking, Britain’s clout and reach are in long-term decline. This won’t change. Plans to raise defence spending to 3% of gross domestic product are on indefinite hold.
Truth be told, UK defence policy is mostly dictated by Washington these days. More than ever, penurious, sidelined Britain jumps to attention when the US shouts – which is a poor lookout should Donald Trump recapture the White House.
Sunak’s passive, evolutionary approach is a recipe for stagnation and deepening irrelevance. A more aware, truly different future vision would focus on what Britain does well, not on what it used to be or wishes it still was. It would admit that rebuilding bridges with Europe and the EU is a strategic and economic imperative. It would grasp that, for a middle-ranking country handicapped by colonial hangovers, use of soft power – partnerships, alliances, aid, innovation, hi-tech, universities, media, cultural influence – is the best way to restore clout and credibility.
It would drop crass ministerial cant about “world-beating” Britain – and learn at last, with overdue humility, to play to its people’s strengths rather than their prejudices.