Another New Prime Minister – What it Means for UK Foreign Policy

The UK’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who steps into the role during a time of particular political and economic upheaval, has had relatively little front line exposure to foreign policy. Unlike his immediate predecessors Johnson and Truss, he’s never held a position in the foreign office but with all eyes on the UK, Sunak will need to prioritise strengthening and promoting the UK’s position in the world. So what can we expect from Sunak on UK foreign policy?

Ukraine and Defence

A former banker best known for his role as Chancellor under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sunak is expected to place a high priority on addressing the UK’s domestic finances, which have taken a hammering in recent weeks. He’s so far refused to match his predecessor’s pledge to spend 3% of GDP on defence by 2030 and given the current domestic economic situation, the commitment may be watered down or caveated. This has raised alarm bells with allies in the Baltics, with Estonia already pushing for Sunak to commit to raising defence spending.

There is little to suggest that there will be a marked change in the UK’s strategic approach to Ukraine under Sunak, whose first call as Prime Minister was to President Zelensky. Nonetheless, with a Prime Minister focused on addressing economic issues at home, the UK may look to find increasingly creative ways to continue to support Ukraine while limiting the financial costs. If, particularly after the US mid-terms, Washington seeks to encourage Ukraine to reach a settlement with Russia, Sunak is less likely than either of his two immediate predecessors to resist.


On China, Sunak has historically championed closer economic ties, arguing that the UK should adopt a ‘mature and balanced relationship with China’. However, in the summer election campaign Sunak adopted a more hawkish stance, condemning China as ‘the largest threat to Britain and prosperity this century’. Plans are already afoot to ban China’s Confucius Institutes at British Universities, in line with a pledge made by Sunak during the summer leadership campaign, and the sizable contingent of China hawks in parliament will no doubt be looking to ensure Sunak sticks to his campaign promises.

However, he may well draw a line between party election campaign language and government policy. While China-skepticism goes down well with Tory voters, and with parts of the party, as an economic pragmatist, Sunak will likely to seek to toe a fine line – sharply condemning China across a range of fronts but maintaining that, nonetheless, cooperation with China is an absolute necessity in the current economic climate, as well as for addressing key priorities such as climate change. Under Truss, there was suspicion that the revision of the Integrated Review would toughen language on China – shifting from declaring China a ‘strategic competitor’ to declaring it a ‘threat’. Sunak may well not go as far but whether he does or not will be a key indicator of his strategic direction.

UK-India Free Trade Agreement

The appointment of Rishi Sunak, who is the first UK Prime Minister of Indian origin, has led to widespread speculation of improved UK-India relations. Indeed, his appointment was widely watched and celebrated in India by the public and officials alike.

However, UK-India relations have faced setbacks in recent weeks. Efforts to secure a UK-India free trade agreement by Diwali this year were stalled further after Home Secretary Suella Braverman publicly condemned Indian migrants who overstayed their visas. Nonetheless, while some of the goodwill shown by India to Prime Minister Sunak may be tempered by the reappointment of Braverman as Home Secretary, Sunak’s more liberal views on immigration and the fact he is likely to hold a tighter party line than Truss, should assuage concerns in India. This does not mean a strengthened UK-India relationship or the UK-India free trade deal is a given – the details have proved intractable in the past despite considerable good will, but if an agreement can be reached which will provide clear benefits to the UK, then negotiations around the deal might get back on track under Sunak.

Aid and Development

In an unexpected turn of events, Sunak has appointed Andrew Mitchell as the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development. A year ago Mitchell led an attempted Conservative Party rebellion over Sunak’s aid budget cuts and he staunchly opposed the merger of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development. With Sunak famously cautious when it comes to aid spending, it remains to be seen how the two will square their views and, indeed, what lured Andrew Mitchell back to a role he held 10 years ago. It may well signal that the 0.7% GNI commitment to aid and development spending is back on the cards (at least for some time in the future), and even if not, it is clear that the aid and development sector will now have a very active champion attending Cabinet, in what can only be good news for the sector.

The European Union

In Europe, Sunak’s appointment has been met with a sigh of relief, with Sunak viewed as a more steady pair of hands than his predecessors. Despite being part of Johnson’s Eurosceptic government, and himself being a Brexiteer, he was seen in the EU as a moderating force for Johnson’s approach to the EU. With the war in Ukraine ongoing and much of Europe also facing pressing economic challenges, Sunak’s appointment comes at a time where there is likely to be appetite within the EU for a reset of relations.

Plans for a ‘Brexit delivery unit’ and to review or repeal all post-Brexit EU laws in his first 100 days as Prime Minister, both pledged during the Summer leadership campaign, already appear to have been shelved. There will also no longer be a standalone ‘Brexit opportunities minister’. Despite some of the rhetoric outlined in his campaign, it therefore looks likely that Sunak will strike a more pragmatic tone with the EU moving forwards, even if only out of economic necessity. The recently formed European Political Community, which Truss attended the inaugural meeting of, may provide a helpful context for engagement with EU members, even as the Northern Ireland Protocol is set to remain a thorny issue.

A pragmatist and a former Chancellor, Sunak’s approach to foreign policy is therefore likely to focus heavily on UK gains – interventions will be made where there is a major security and strategic necessity or where the economic costs of doing so are small, but under Sunak the UK won’t be leading just for the sake of leading. The refresh of the Integrated Review, expected by the end of the year, will provide the opportunity to establish what that means in practice.


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group