The perfect match? On foreign policy there is more uniting the two leadership candidates than separating them

As the two-man contest to become the next PM comes to a close, what might the UK’s foreign policy under their leadership look like? For a contest between a current and a former Foreign Secretary, foreign policy (Brexit aside) has been surprisingly absent for the most part from the contest to become the UK’s next Prime Minister.

When President Trump criticised the UK Ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, Johnson refused to condemn Trump whilst Hunt did. This propelled foreign policy to the forefront of the debate and showed a potential difference on approach to the US. It also showed how personality and style could play a role in defining their differences. But how else might their foreign policy vary?

Big Ideas – setting the tone in their maiden speeches

The substance of their foreign policy positions has been relatively similar; a realisation that the upcoming departure from the EU will affect the UK’s international standing, and a series of policy initiatives to counter that and keep the UK’s important role as a leading global nation. Their maiden speeches as Foreign Secretary show some of the differences in detail.

Johnson’s was the introduction to the world of ‘Global Britain’, an outward looking UK that is engaged internationally. There have been challenges providing the substance for such an ambitious yet vague goal, but there have also been clear outcomes in the FCO, not least the creation of a new cross-HMG Global Britain Board and a Global Britain Taskforce. As Prime Minister, Johnson would likely continue with this ambition for the UK’s foreign policy, which is primarily about re-branding the UK’s traditionally outward-looking foreign policy.

Hunt’s maiden speech as Foreign Secretary was about the “invisible chain” of the UK linking the world’s democracies. Soft power: the power of attraction from cultural, sporting, educational and other UK assets has been a central feature of Hunt’s tenure, with the Foreign Office’s newly created Soft Power Taskforce currently working on a Soft Power Strategy. It isn’t only on soft power that Hunt aims to be strategic on foreign policy, he has also repeatedly mentioned the need for a foreign policy strategy for the UK.

Departmental Structures and Funding

Over the past few years, the responsibility for the UK Government’s foreign policy has been shared out across a growing number of departments. The UK arguably has 4 key (primarily) foreign policy focussed departments: FCO, MOD, DIT, DfID – with Cabinet Office (largely through the NSC) taking on a growing foreign policy portfolio and DExEU inevitably having an important international angle.

The proliferation of foreign policy responsibilities across multiple departments has not been to the liking of all.  Boris Johnson has not hidden his dislike of the current system in the past although it remains to be seen whether he would go forward with the sorts of changes that have been previously rumoured: when Mr Johnson was Foreign Secretary there was a push to merge DfID back to FCO, with the shared ministerial responsibilities between the two widely seen as a step towards that goal. He has also called for the definition of aid spending not to be tied so strictly to the OECD definition, allowing more of the UK’s 0.7% aid budget to be allocated to other areas of foreign policy such as peacekeeping.

One of the big challenges facing recent Foreign Secretaries has been securing sustainable funding for the Foreign Office. A recent BFPG report by Sam Goodman showed the historic decline in funding and the challenges of having an underfunded FCO. The Foreign Office has committed to increasing staff by 1,000 by 2020, initially as part of Johnson’s ‘Global Britain Boost’ and now being promoted by Hunt. Yet neither of them have made strong public calls for more funding for the FCO, despite the needed increases being relatively very small sums of money in terms of government spending.

Hunt, as foreign secretary, has instead been calling for a rise in defence expenditure from 2% of GDP to 2.5% (£15bn) over the next 5 years. Despite the importance he places on soft power, in practice Hunt has been more publicly keen to bolster UK hard power too.

Regional Focus


A comparison of the countries visited by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary (Blue = countries visited by Hunt only, Green = countries visited by Johnson only, Yellow = countries visited by Both)

As you can see from the map, both foreign secretaries visited our key allies in Europe – France and Germany. Hunt appears to have chosen strategic partners like China, the US, and growing African nations like Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia to visit. Johnson did visit key allies like Australia and New Zealand, but also seems to have opted to visit those parts of the world where we might want stronger ties post-Brexit, such as Thailand and Latin America. Johnson’s visit to Latin America was a significant one as it was the first time in 25 years a Foreign Secretary had been to Argentina and first time in 50 years that one had been to Peru.

Johnson also made a trip to Africa, visiting the Gambia, Ghana, Somalia and Ethiopia. Unlike Hunt, he also visited Eastern and Central Europe including Kosovo, Serbia, Czech Republic, Turkey, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Cyprus. Johnson also visited Pakistan, Afghanistan and India in central and southern Asia, which Hunt did not visit. Instead, Hunt seems to have favoured visits to the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Oman and Yemen and Asian countries including Singapore and Malaysia.

Of course, the extent to which this can inform us about which countries Hunt and Johnson prioritise or see as strategically important is limited – visits could be determined by long-term plans, current crises (as in the cases of Iran, Yemen, Libya and Burma), or multilateral events hosted in one country (as in the case of one of Hunt’s trips to France and Luxembourg). Equally, Johnson was Foreign Secretary for a longer period of time, and therefore was able to visit more countries. Still, the map does provide us with an interesting visualisation as to the different international trips the two foreign secretaries made.

Iran, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia

Johnson and Hunt have largely similar stances on China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hunt has recently appeared slightly more bullish on Hong Kong – refusing to rule out sanctions on China and the expulsion of diplomats following recent protests in Hong Kong – and Iran – sending a second Royal Navy warship to the Gulf this week, and claiming that Middle Eastern states acquiring nuclear weapons posed ‘an existential threat to mankind’. However, this stance can largely be explained by the crises Hunt is currently facing as foreign secretary (in Hong Kong and Iran). When Johnson was Foreign Secretary, for example, he criticized Saudi Arabia for engaging in proxy wars in the Middle East (a comment which led to him being rebuked by Downing Street). Both Hunt and Johnson allowed UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia to continue during their tenures as Foreign Secretary, despite the country’s military campaign in Yemen. It is worth noting that Johnson has said he would not support the US in military strikes against Iran, stressing the need for diplomatic solutions instead.

On Russia, both Hunt and Johnson have been firm. Hunt has perhaps appeared slightly more so, pledging to increase funding to defence as Prime Minister, saying that the UK will play a ‘leading global role in deterring aggressive Russian activity on Europe’s shores’. Johnson has not opted for such confrontational language, although he did say that Putin will be ‘proved wrong by history’ after Putin suggested Western liberalism was ‘obsolete’.


The US

Until the recent episode surrounding Trump’s criticism of Sir Kim Darroch, and the Ambassador’s subsequent resignation, it could be argued that there was not a big difference in the approach to the US between the candidates. Both candidates have been playing nice to Trump and talking up the special relationship over the course of the last few months. Hunt said he agreed 150% with a Trump retweet of Katie Hopkins attacking the Mayor of London, whilst Boris has stated that he would travel to the US very soon after starting the job to secure a trade deal. Trump himself has previously supported both candidates, “Yup, I like him” (Hunt) and saying that Johnson was “a very good guy, very talented”.

For Boris, the Sir Kim Darroch episode was an opportunity to show himself as a true Trump ally, perhaps thinking ahead to his relationship with the US president rather than how to appeal to Conservative party voters. In contrast, as Mayor of London he had previously not hesitated to call out his “quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president of the United States”. Since then, when asked to comment about President Trump’s comments to fellow US citizen congresswomen to “go back and fix their countries, both candidates reverted to a more traditional stance: firmly but diplomatically criticising Trump’s choice of language whilst reaffirming the importance of the US-UK relationship.

Style and Rhetoric

Regardless of the policy area, Johnson and Hunt have a different rhetoric and different style. When it comes to foreign policy Johnson is frequently associated with Brexit and a rhetoric that harks back to Britain’s past as a “strong independent country”.  But whilst it is true that he has recently tended towards adopting Churchillian language in his speeches and comments, this has not always been the case.

A soon to be published extensive discourse analysis of Johnson’s speeches and article carried out by leading UK foreign policy academic, Victoria Honeyman shows that as Mayor of London, MP, and Cabinet Minister Johnson did not talk about the UK’s international position in this manner. This was despite the fact that the media often suggesting of their own accord that he did. However, since he left his post as Foreign Secretary and started preparing his campaign this changed.

This is potentially significant because it could indicate that whilst his current rhetoric on foreign policy has spun away from the more traditional pragmatic, liberal approach, this is very much an anomaly when one looks at his whole career. There is a strong case to be made that this is just campaign rhetoric and that as PM he would revert to his default.


Last but not least, an area often seen as domestic policy, but ultimately one of the decisive factors when dealing with other countries: immigration. Whilst the details of their immigration plans remain to be seen, they both have said they will scrap Theresa May’s net immigration target of 100,000 – realising the obstacles this places on promoting the UK internationally as an open country.


It is true therefore that there could be small differences in substance and style between the two. Hunt could pursue a traditionally diplomatic yet innovatively strategic approach to UK foreign policy. Yet, aside from on defence it remains to be seen how he might fund such an approach. Under Johnson expect to hear more of Global Britain but it is worth also looking out for a potential change in rhetoric back towards a more traditional, liberal approach to UK foreign policy.

Yet on most issues there is consensus, reflective of wider common consensus on foreign policy in the UK – it is rarely a decisive element in elections for example. With Johnson the favourite to become the next Prime Minister, and a striking similarity between the substance of their foreign policy ideas, there is a strong likelihood that Johnson could keep Hunt in an international-facing role and work productively together towards shared goals and objectives.

Ultimately though their primary concern as PM will be delivering Brexit, a significant foreign policy challenge in itself. The extent to which they are able to achieve this, and the nature of the resulting deal or no-deal, will be an indicator of the extent to which they are able to put their stamp on the UK’s role in the world.

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.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.