Tory Leadership Campaign: Foreign Policy Pledges and Instincts

A very striking aspect of the race to become the next Conservative leader and Britain’s Prime Minister is the extent to which many of the final candidates had held significant foreign policy and defence roles – whether in terms of ministerial posts, service in the armed forces, or committee leadership. For this reason, and because of the febrile geopolitical and geo-economic environment, the candidates’ positions on a host of international issues have been firmly in focus during the campaign. It is also certainly true that the question of how candidates would fare as a ‘statesman’ or ‘stateswoman’ and how they would present the nation to the world, captures something important about the way that both voters and Parliamentarians make assessments about their leaders.

Here we seek to summarise what we know thus far about how the final two candidates – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – would approach some of the thorniest issues of the day. There have not yet been indications that candidates would seek to diverge substantively from the current HMG response to the war in Ukraine, so we have therefore chosen to focus on the other issues to hand. There are some early indications that the level of ambition in terms of Britain’s leadership role would be strengthened under a Truss premiership, however Rishi Sunak has recently sought to clarify his position on Ukraine and said that it would be the destination of his first overseas trip as leader.

Despite much speculation, it is not yet clear who Truss or Sunak would appoint to their Cabinets to serve in key international posts. Both candidates have pitched to unite the Conservative Party and have said that their Cabinets will draw on a wide range of talent from all wings of the Party. Given the dynamic geopolitical landscape at the moment, it would be reasonable to assume the Britain’s next Prime Minister will wish to play a relatively substantial role in influencing the direction of the UK’s foreign policy over the coming years.


Rishi Sunak

  • Without having held any foreign policy or security portfolios, Rishi Sunak’s positions on foreign policy are more difficult to interpret. However, it is certainly the case that his conservative approach to Treasury expenditure and his choices in geo-economic forums would suggest an emphasis on ‘value-for-money’ in the UK’s international investments, and prioritising economic engagement with allies and strategic rivals alike.
  • He appears to favour trade as an engine for growth and would seek to challenge the rising protectionism agenda in the wake of the pandemic and supply chain disruptions.
  • Sunak has announced that he would maintain defence spending, and his approach to defence prioritisation would be “threat-based”. He has said he would view the 2% of GDP commitment as a floor, not a ceiling, and has noted that it is set to rise to 2.5% over time. He has, however, also refused to fix an “arbitrary” target for defence spending during his premiership.
  • Sunak is a committed Leave campaigner. His allies have reported that he would strike “a different tone” on relations.
  • He has pledged that by the time of the next General Election, he will have created a new Brexit Delivery Department with a remit to have scrapped or reformed all of the EU law, red tape and bureaucracy that is still on the UK’s statute book, and which he believes is slowing economic growth. This would include the EU financial services regulations, GDPR, and the clinical trials approvals process – replacing these with new UK legislation or protocols.
  • Sunak’s position on the Bill seeking to override aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol is somewhat ambiguous, as it has been reported that he challenged its development in Cabinet due to concerns about economic reprisals from the EU. Subsequently, he has apparently indicated he will allow the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
  • When asked if the UK will withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, Sunak has said that “all options are on the table”.
  • In his role as Chancellor, Sunak has urged caution and a more incremental approach on the net-zero transition. In this campaign, he has voted to introduce a legal target to make Britain energy self-sufficient by 2045 by overseeing a massive expansion in offshore wind, while he has also pledged to not build any more onshore wind farms. He has, however, also vowed to build more nuclear power plants in Britain.
  • Sunak has committed to the Conservative Environment Network pledge card, which includes a range of pledges on the transition to renewable energies, infrastructure, environmental protections and sustainable agriculture. He has also said he will re-establish a separate Department of Energy and create a new Energy Security Committee tasked with reforming the market to cut future bill
  • Sunak has consistently sought to keep dialogue option with China around economic investment and trade, and it has been reported during his time as Chancellor that he has been concerned about the impact of the nature and tone of the evolving China security debate on the UK’s economic relationship with the authoritarian superpower.
  • In a flagship speech in July 2021, Sunak said the debate on China lacked “nuance,” and that “a mature and balanced relationship” was needed. China’s state-aligned newspaper The Global Times has indicated their support for his premiership as a “pragmatic” candidate.
  • More recently, in a televised debate of leadership candidates, Sunak said that China should be seen through the Integrated Review lens of being an “enormous threat for our national security”.
  • Sunak played a significant role in championing the G7 agreement brokered in 2021 during the UK’s leadership of the G7 to impose a minimum global corporation tax rate.
  • Sunak has also pledged to maintain the Rwanda policy of off-shore processing of irregular migrant arrivals.


Liz Truss

  • As the current Foreign Secretary, and former International Trade Secretary, Truss’ positions are more firmly in view. She takes a robust line on Russia and China, and prioritises relationships, favouring cooperation in bilateral settings and wider alliances.
  • Truss reportedly told a leadership hustings that she would publicly recognise the Chinese treatment of the Uighur population as a genocide, and she has made clear that challenging Russia will continue to be a central focus. She has indicated that she would seek to update the Integrated Review to emphasise an increased focus on Russia and China as threats.
  • As well as committing to a 3% of GDP defence spending target for 2030, Truss has pledged more support and investment in the UK’s intelligence services, and cyber and space.
  • In her time in Parliament, Truss has consistently voted for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas, including voting for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and the continued deployment of troops within Afghanistan. Truss has said the Government’s current plans to cut the size of the army to 72,500 in 2025 are “up for review”.
  • Truss has called for the G7 to be “more institutionalised” and turned into an “economic NATO” that can defend its members from Chinese economic coercion. She also wants NATO itself to become more global in its instincts.
  • She is optimistic about Britain’s future and wants to see the West assuming a more active posture, using key forums and institutions to facilitate coordinated action.
  • Truss has championed a “network of liberty” to challenge authoritarianism, and believes free trade is an instrument for advancing both the protection of values and security. The challenging economic and energy climate has, more recently however, required Truss to engage more closely with some non-democratic states in regions such as the Gulf.
  • While Truss campaigned for Remain, she has sought to take a positive tone on the UK’s future outside of the European Union and says that if the vote were held again, she would vote for Leave.
  • Truss has indicated she would continue her robust stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and is keen to pursue regulatory divergence from the EU. For example, Truss has revealed she would Overhaul EU Solvency II rules to allow pensions fund to invest in high tech start-ups.
  • However, Northern Ireland Protocol aside, with the EU portfolio having been repatriated into the Foreign Office, she has also presided over a modest but not insubstantial improvement of relations with the EU and has forged closer ties with several EU member states during the Ukraine crisis.
  • Truss has said that she would seek reform of the European Convention of Human Rights and that leaving the Convention is not something she would actively pursue but “if necessary” she would “be prepared to do that”.
  • Truss has pledged to maintain the Rwanda off-shore processing policy for irregular migrant arrivals, and has said she would seek to expand the programme to other countries – suggesting that Turkey could be a possible partner country. The Turkish Government have indicated that they would not be favourable to such a policy, which would require alterative partners to be sourced.
  • Despite having committed to the 2050 net-zero target, Truss will bring her free-market principles to shape the journey there. This may see lower levels of Government regulation or intervention in certain areas – such as green levies, which she has suggested could be scrapped. She has not taken a particularly progressive line in her voting record on environmental issues, but several of her backers emphasise that she was very supportive of the COP26 project.
  • Truss has also committed to the Conservative Environment Network pledge card, which includes a range of pledges on the transition to renewable energies, infrastructure, environmental protections and sustainable agriculture.
  • Truss would review the ban on fracking, in an effort to lower the price of energy for consumers. She has said she wanted to look again at the EU’s habitat directive and create a stronger, British biodiversity target, based on animals and plants that are endangered in the UK, rather than in the EU as a whole.


Please note:
These pledges were captured as of 1230 on the 22nd of July, and in a fast-moving campaign, things may change. Any errors? Please drop us a line on


The British Foreign Policy Group