Conservatives: Manifesto pledges on UK foreign policy

To download a .pdf version of the summary, click here

“The BFPG’s Tom Cargill has taken all the foreign policy relevant sections of the 2017 Conservative manifesto and grouped them in one document to make it more accessible for everyone interested in UK foreign policy. He has also provided a short summary analysis of the foreign policy approach which emerges from the manifesto”.

In contrast with the 2015 Conservative manifesto, the 2017 document adopts a, perhaps surprisingly, less punchy tone in relation to foreign policy issues.


On trade there are some welcome commitments to support ‘British consortia to win the largest and most innovative contracts in the world’, as well as to create a network of ‘Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioners’ to head nine new regional overseas posts and a reconvened ‘Board of Trade’ to ensure trade interests of the whole UK are promoted.


On leaving the European Union there are no surprises, except perhaps the indication that there may be specific European programmes the UK may wish to remain engaged with and will make a reasonable contribution to do so. The commitment to Gibraltar is welcome if expected, along with a passing reference to the importance of maintaining armed forces that can protect our other overseas territories.

Influence and Development Assistance

On influence and diplomacy there are useful statements of support for a vision of the UK that is outward facing, engaged and global. The commitment to ‘place the BBC World Service and the British Council’ on secure footing is incredibly important given the need to make additional efforts to ensure international perceptions of the UK remain positive and supportive as we negotiate new arrangements with existing and new partners. Similarly, the emphasis placed on development assistance, and the recognition that this promotes UK interests is welcome at a time when domestic scepticism of aid is growing. Along with a specific sub section on ending modern slavery this demonstrates that there is a recognition that the UK has an opportunity and need to re-emphasise its values and national character during this period of international uncertainty. Yet these positive statements act to highlight the absence of any reference to the importance of maintaining and strengthening the UK’s diplomatic capacity –  beyond an assertion that ‘we have a leading diplomatic service’ – an assertion rightly or wrongly increasingly being challenged in some quarters both here and abroad.


Similarly, on defence there are welcome plans to ‘invest £178 Billion in new military equipment over the next decade’, and an important commitment to increase the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year, but little sense of the vast changes in the security landscape underway, any acknowledgment of the pressure the armed forced are currently under, or of the need to counter the emergence of new threats to the UK around the world.


The commitment to limit immigration has been a central feature of political discussion for some years and an important driver for growing voter discontent. Nevertheless the inclusion of overseas students in immigration figures remains highly contentious given their contribution to UK prosperity, influence and international reputation at many levels. Again, at a time when the UK needs to be demonstrating imagination and strategic focus with regards to its foreign policy this approach on students raises significant challenges.


Overall the Conservative Manifesto makes some important and welcome commitments on foreign policy, but like its counterparts from the other main parties it lacks a real sense of ambition or imagination for a modern and innovative set of foreign policy engagements, or even of the need to rethink the UK’s international position and choices. During ‘normal times’ this may be considered understandable given the limited role foreign policy plays in elections. But at such a critical time for the UK, when we are faced with so many new opportunities and challenges abroad that will define our prospects for a generation, such a lack of focus seems both curious as well as disappointing.


To read a similar analysis of the Labour Manifesto, click here.

To read a similar analysis of the Liberal Democrats Manifesto, click here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.