‘Patient Diplomacy’ and ‘Reconnected Britain’: Distilling the Differences in Conservative and Labour Foreign Policy

Earlier this week, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy set out Labour’s vision for UK foreign policy, a vision which placed ‘reconnecting Britain’ at its heart, rebuilding relationships with our allies and forging new partnerships with emerging and developing nations. The parallels with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s speech last month were evident and it is clear that there remains a substantial degree of consensus between the two main political parties on many of the key issues facing UK foreign policy. But where do the fault lines between the two parties lie? What difference (if any) will the winner of the next election really make to UK foreign policy?

International Partnerships

At the core of both Cleverly’s and Lammy’s visions for UK foreign policy is a pride in the UK’s historic role as a trusted international partner and supporter of multilateralism. In seeking to reinvigorate this position, both parties are advocating for reform of the United Nations Security Council and reinvigoration of institutions such as the G7 and the G20. They both also used their speeches to reaffirm their commitment to NATO, a particularly important statement for the Labour party, given Starmer’s tussle with members of his own party over NATO membership last year.

Both parties’ approaches to international partnerships are also underpinned by a sense of pragmatism and respect, with ideology and values appearing to take a backseat. For the Conservatives, their flagship initiative of ‘patient diplomacy’ is focused on investing in relationships on the principle of mutual respect and partnership, without “telling others what they should do”. Meanwhile Lammy believes that the current geopolitical context “calls for pragmatism in relation to UK foreign policy, not ideology”, urging cooperation where necessary and possible with strategic rivals such as China.

These approaches are also underpinned by a recognition of the shifting geopolitical centre of gravity and the need for the UK to build partnerships that maintain its international standing even as these shifts occur. As such, while Lammy has rejected the language of an Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, the general premise of the need to look toward the Indo-Pacific region is the same. For both parties, partnerships with India, including the UK-India free trade agreement, are clearly seen as part of the solution, as is membership of CPTPP.

The European Union

However, and despite Rishi Sunak being seen as more pragmatic than his immediate predecessors  on the EU, it’s in the parties’ approaches to cooperation with the EU where the sharpest fault lines appear. Facing significant pressure from the Brexiteer conservative European Research Group not to be seen to concede on the Northern Ireland protocol, Sunak’s willingness and ability to find routes to improved cooperation with the EU are being tested. While we look to slowly be approaching an agreement over the Northern Ireland protocol, it was striking that Cleverly’s vision statement made no reference to collaboration with the EU, with Europe itself only referenced within a security context.

In contrast, David Lammy was much more willing to offer warm words towards the European Union. While standing firm that the UK would not rejoin the EU, the Single Market or the Customs Union, reconnecting Britain to Europe was identified as the top priority for the next Labour Foreign Office. This includes commitments around security, including a new UK-EU security pact and regular UK-EU summits, and around increasing trade with the European Union, reducing friction in the import and export of goods, facilitating the mutual recognition of standards and unblocking participation in the Horizon research scheme.

The differences here are more than just semantics: regardless of Sunak’s own views on cooperation with the EU, he will always be constrained by factions in his own party, while for Labour it is clear that rebuilding trade and security relations with the EU will be a cornerstone of their approach to the international sphere.

International Development

To both parties’ dismay as they strive to demonstrate fiscal discipline, the big question in the aid and development sector continues to be around funding. In November the UK government announced a £1.7 billion cut to the aid budget, the third cut in as many years and under the current government, the UK is not expected to return to its commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI until 2027-28. Lammy’s speech was warmer on 0.7% but he refused to be drawn into making a concrete commitment, declaring that it would be “irresponsible” to set out their spending plans at this stage.

A Labour government would, however, see changes in the structure of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, with Lammy branding the decision to merge the FCDO and DFID as “ridiculous and stupid”. While Lammy has made clear he won’t bring back DFID, Labour is set to consider a ‘new model’ for the department, although there is yet to be any detail on what that means in practice.  A return to a self-contained aid administration within the FCDO, with ringfenced budgets, closer to the pre-1997 model, is one option.

Climate Action

From being named as the UK’s number one international priority in 2021, climate action has fallen down the current government’s priority list, and beyond improving the climate resilience of developing nations, was conspicuously absent from Cleverly’s speech. In contrast, Lammy declared that Labour’s foreign policy would be centred on the climate emergency. Framed as a security and prosperity issue as much as an ethical one, Lammy committed Labour to pushing for climate action to become the fourth pillar at the United Nations, the creation of a new law of ecocide and to building a clean power alliance of nations committed to 100% clean power by 2030, drawing a clear dividing line between the two parties. 


Finally, on security, both parties have emphasised that their commitment to European security is resolute and it is clear that regardless of who is in power, the UK will continue to stand firmly with Ukraine. On China, Cleverly and Lammy are also broadly united, both advocating for forthright condemnation of human rights abuses but cooperation on key global issues, notably climate. This marks a step change in the rhetoric seen under former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ leadership, which saw a marked heightening of rhetorical tensions around China. Nonetheless, and while not officially labelled as such, it is clear that Cleverly’s ‘patient diplomacy’ is designed to provide a viable alternative to China to the developing world. Meanwhile, Labour’s commitment to an audit of the UK-China relationship marks a first step towards greater clarity over what their approach to China would look like in practice, something both parties have so far struggled to get to grips with.

Future Dividing Lines

Foreign policy has, historically, been one of the areas of greatest cross-party consensus and it is clear that headed into the next general election with the two party’s visions as they are, considerable overlap remains. Labour is unlikely to see advantage in campaigning on a foreign policy platform significantly different from the current consensus. However, foreign policy is also one of the most volatile and unpredictable policy areas, evidenced not least by the fact the Integrated Review is being refreshed just two years after its initial publication. As these visions are stress tested by the complex geopolitical world around us, and as a general election creeps ever closer, the divergences we can already see in these visions, in particular around climate action, international development and the EU, are likely to sharpen.




Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group