Tory Leadership Campaign: Foreign Policy Pledges and Instincts

Given the febrile geopolitical and geo-economic environment, the Conservative leadership candidates’ positions on a host of international issues have been firmly in focus during the leadership 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. Both candidates have indicated that they would not seek to diverge substantively from the current HMG response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so we have therefore chosen to focus on the other issues to hand. There were some early indications that the level of ambition in terms of Britain’s leadership role would be strengthened under a Truss premiership, and as the campaign has progressed, Rishi Sunak has sought to give more colour to his position on China and Ukraine. Sunak has revealed that Kyiv would be the destination of his first overseas trip as leader.

Despite much speculation, it is not yet confirmed 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, alongside the trend in recent years for more international business to take place at the level of leaders, it would be reasonable to assume that 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.
  • 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, suggesting a belief in the power of international agreements. 
  • He has argued for trade as an engine for growth and could be expected 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, 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 with the EU in comparison with the Johnson administration.
  • He has pledged that by the time of the next General Election, he will have created a new Brexit Delivery Department with a mandate 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 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. He has committed to delivering the Bill through Parliament, yet it has been reported that he challenged its development in Cabinet due to concerns about economic reprisals from the EU.
  • 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 urged caution and a more incremental approach on the net-zero transition. In this campaign, he has vowed to honour the goal of reaching net zero by 2050, and to introduce a legal target to make Britain energy self-sufficient by 2045 by overseeing a massive expansion in offshore wind. He has also pledged to not build any more onshore wind farms. He has, however, also committed to building more nuclear power plants.
  • 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 and to cut future bills.
  • In the past, Sunak has encouraged open dialogue 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 both the substance and tone of the evolving China security debate on the UK’s economic relationship with Beijing. China’s state-aligned newspaper The Global Times has indicated their support for him as a “pragmatic” candidate. 
  • However, as the campaign has progressed Sunak has sought to harden his perceived stance on China which he regards as an “enormous threat for our national security”. He has pledged to create a new ‘NATO-style alliance’ to defend against China’s ambitions, along with moves to influence international standards on cybersecurity and help British businesses and universities counter Chinese industrial espionage. He has also pledged to close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK, in an effort to limit Beijing’s soft power levers.
  • Further pledges to curtail Chinese influence include implementing an amendment to the Higher Education Bill to ensure British universities reveal any foreign funding partnerships worth more than £50,000, examining the need to prevent Chinese acquisitions of key British assets, and reviewing all UK-Chinese research partnerships that might have a military purpose or ‘unwittingly assist’ Beijing’s attempts to dominate emerging technologies.
  • As part of his 10-point plan for Immigration, Sunak has pledged to maintain the Rwanda policy of off-shore processing of irregular migrant arrivals. He has also pledged to send failed asylum seekers and foreign criminals back home and to make aid, trade, and visas conditional on a country’s willingness to cooperate on returning irregular migrants.
  • Other migration pledges include the introduction of an annual cap set by Parliament on the number of refugees accepted via legal routes, and a target of 80% of asylum claims to be resolved within six months of being lodged. Sunak will also seek to tighten the definition of who qualifies for asylum, enhance powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants, and ensure that ‘no adult who enters the UK illegally will have a route to remain in the country’.
  • Finally, Sunak has pledged to make the UK an international science and technology superpower, via measures including pledging to increase annual spending on public R&D investment to £20bn by 2024/5, and adopting a cross-government taskforce-style approach towards science and technology.  

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 strategic relationships, favouring cooperation in bilateral settings and wider alliances.
  • Truss 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 strategic threats.
  • Truss has pledged to bring the target of spending 2.5% of GDP on defence forward to 2026, and committed to a 3% of GDP defence spending target for 2030. Truss has also 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 perspective.
  • 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” made up of liberal democracies 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 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 Bill, and is keen to pursue regulatory divergence from the EU. For example, Truss has revealed she would overhaul EU Solvency II rules to allow pension funds to invest in high tech start-ups. She has also promised to scrap or replace by the end of 2023 all EU laws deemed to not support economic growth, believing a ‘red tape bonfire’ will encourage business investment and boost growth.
  • However, 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, Northern Ireland Protocol aside, and has forged closer ties with several EU member states during the Ukraine crisis. She has also promised to extend the seasonal workers scheme to tackle the labour shortages in farming, caused in part by post-Brexit freedom of movement restrictions.
  • Truss has said that she would seek reform of the European Convention on 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.
  • She has otherwise pledged to increase frontline UK Border Force by 20% in order to deter illegal channel crossings.
  • 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.
  • Despite having committed to the 2050 net-zero target, Truss has indicated that she will bring her free-market principles to shape the journey there. This could see lower levels of regulation or intervention in certain areas – she has already pledged to scrap green levies and ‘nutrient neutrality’ planning requirements. 
  • 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.
  • However, she announced at the Exeter hustings that if elected, she would bolster the extraction of fossil fuels, making sure the UK exploits all of the gas in the North Sea in order to boost domestic energy supply. Truss would also 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. 
  • Finally, Truss has pledged a ‘New Commonwealth Deal’ to strengthen collective economic ties across the Commonwealth and expedite bilateral trade agreements with Commonwealth partners. She notes it would also ‘resist Chinese attempts to extend its influence through malign use of economics’.

Please note:

These pledges were captured as of 1400 on the 31st of August, and in a fast-moving campaign, things may change. Any errors? Please drop us a line on

The British Foreign Policy Group