Voices: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have something in common: a very thin foreign policy offer

Although they wouldn’t admit it, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have one thing in common: a very thin offer when it comes to foreign policy. They should both make a new year’s resolution to say more about it.

Yes, it was understandable that both leaders prioritised the economy in 2022. Some advisers will whisper in their ear that there are few votes in foreign affairs, but it is indistinguishable from economic policy when authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin can wreak economic havoc. As if Ukraine were not enough to worry about, there is the growing threat China will invade Taiwan.

There are fears in Whitehall that the UK is ill-prepared; some Tory MPs say the disruption to global trade would be as bad as the combined effect of Covid and the Ukraine war. Then there are worrying developments in Iran and Afghanistan, notably on the treatment of women.

Sunak has little experience of foreign affairs. It showed in his first speech on the issue, in which he promised “robust pragmatism” on China – a third way between David Cameron’s “golden era” in relations (long dead before Sunak buried it) and the hawkish approach of Tories like Liz Truss. Sunak recognises the need to stand up to China while engaging with it on the economy and climate change.

But his speech offered the back-of-an-envelope platitudes you would expect in a Tory leadership contest, rather than a considered view of Britain’s place in the world. Sunak and James Cleverly, his foreign secretary, appear to have dropped the vacuous “global Britain” slogan which has papered over the cracks since the 2016 vote for Brexit. But they need to put a clear vision in its place.

Sunak’s values are “freedom, openness, and the rule of law,” while Cleverly listed sovereignty and territorial integrity as his “core principles”. No one is going to turn down this large portion of motherhood and apple pie, but what’s new? So far, the PM and foreign secretary have talked only about forging new partnerships with like-minded allies that go way beyond traditional alliances.

Whatever the domestic political pressures, a prime minister is expected to be their own foreign secretary, with a vital role on the world stage. After the chaos of having three PMs in three months dismayed other world leaders, Sunak has much brand damage to repair. As the Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle admitted last night, the UK became an international laughing stock in a turbulent political year.

Sunak hopes the coronation of King Charles in May will help restore the UK’s reputation. In its absence, others have filled the vacuum: we hardly noticed it here in the UK, but Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the US in November received wall-to-wall media coverage in America. It’s hard to imagine Sunak commanding such attention. The days when the UK could be a bridge between Europe and America ended in 2016. Military strength helps, but Britain needs to earn its place at the top table.

Although we don’t yet know what it means in practice, Sunak’s pragmatism is a welcome break with Boris Johnson’s bombast and Truss’ Margaret Thatcher tribute act on Instagram. Pragmatism rather than ideology would certainly be welcome when it comes to EU relations; it might well resolve the Northern Ireland protocol dispute in the next two months. Sunak’s strategy rests heavily on his close relationship with Macron – vital to end the small boats crisis – but he will need other allies.

As for domestic policy, Sunak will want to keep noisy Tory backbenchers onside. The hawks are watching him. Some Tories are alarmed by his Whitehall audit of UK policy on Ukraine. Aides insist it is about ensuring a data-driven strategy, not “wavering.” But it shows a different instinct to Johnson’s and Truss’s.

John Bew, Sunak’s foreign affairs adviser, is updating his integrated review of foreign and security policy published last year, which was quickly overtaken by Putin’s war in Ukraine (though it did identify the Russian threat). The revised version will likely confirm the shift in power to the Indo-Pacific as the most significant geopolitical change. The UK’s goal might be a middle-ranking power with global clout – without either over-promising or slumping into declinism. But a mere tweak to the 2021 strategy would not answer many of the big questions Sunak faces.

Despite that, Starmer has nothing to crow about. Close allies admit privately he needs to put flesh on Labour’s bare-boned foreign policy – including the EU, on which Starmer remains ultra-cautious even though public opinion is turning against Brexit. One adviser admitted: “He needs to articulate a serious view about Britain’s security and place in the world.”

Displaying the Union Jack on every possible occasion to remind voters he is pro-Nato and “not Corbyn”, while backing the government on Ukraine, does not amount to a strategy. As on other issues, Labour must use 2023 to show how it would make a difference.