Britain’s global posture: What prospective Conservative leaders think

After Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health, resigned, effectively undermining Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, the party is once again looking for a new leader. Unlike previous leadership elections, foreign and defence policy, beyond the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to leave the European Union (EU), has become one of the key issues. In part, this might be because of the innovative foreign and defence policy pursued by Johnson. Irrespective of his gaffes, few could criticise the energy inherent within his vision for ‘Global Britain’. Beyond Brexit, Johnson made more structural changes to Britain’s global role than perhaps any prime minister over the past 15 years. During his tenure:

  • The Department for International Development was folded[↗] into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, creating a new superministry which eventually received an updated International Development Strategy[↗];
  • The UK increased defence spending[↗] by some £16.1 billion above the promises made in the Conservative Party’s Manifesto of 2019;
  • A New Atlantic Charter[↗] was agreed with the United States (US);
  • AUKUS – a new plurilateral initiative[↗] – was established with Australia and the US and a new trilateral group[↗] was formed with Poland and Ukraine;
  • New security assurances were issued to Finland and Sweden to facilitate their membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO);
  • The UK led the way[↗] in Europe in assisting Ukraine, delivering large stocks of anti-armour weapons at the decisive moment, just prior to Russia’s attempt to seize Kyiv;
  • Relations with Japan, India, and Vietnam were deepened, while the UK achieved ‘Dialogue Partner’ status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations;
  • A genuinely Integrated Review[↗] was undertaken to reappraise the foundations of Britain’s international posture, which included a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific region.

Of course, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss, the defence and foreign secretaries, respectively, and Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Trade Policy, as well as a plethora of advisors and officials in Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Ministry of Defence, played into it. But that these developments happened in a little less than three years since Johnson took office is an achievement, even if specific policies were not to everyone’s taste. With respect to ‘Global Britain’, the next leader of the Conservative Party has large boots to fill.

As of the time of publication of this article on the 14th July 2022, five candidates are left in the ring. What might Britain’s global role look like under their leadership, particularly in relation to the key issues Her Majesty’s (HM) Government will be forced to contend with over the remainder of this Parliament? For example, what have the leadership hopefuls said about Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine? What is their view of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? And do they support higher defence and international development spending? This list of issues is not, of course, exhaustive, but indicates the direction they might take the country in terms of foreign and defence policy if they win.

Kemi Badenoch

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: Badenoch has shown[↗] her support for the Ukrainian cause and British policy towards Ukraine. She has described Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine as ‘unprovoked and unjustified’ and pledged her full support for the ‘resolve of the [Johnson] Government’ in helping the people of Ukraine.

British relations with the PRC: She has not made any statements on the matter.

Defence spending: On launching her leadership campaign, Badenoch stated[↗] that there can be ‘no stronger defence without a slimmer state’; she has not, however, made any statements regarding increasing or decreasing defence spending.

Foreign aid spending: She pledged[↗] to ‘reduce the amount of international aid while still remaining a force for good in the world’. This implies she may seek to reduce international development spending even lower than the current spending of 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) beyond 2024-2025.

Penny Mordaunt

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: In a commentary written for the Daily Mail to outline her ambition for Britain’s global role, Mordaunt explained[↗] that ‘We must hold our position in Ukraine.’ Moreover, she stated that ‘There cannot be any territory ceded to Russia. They must lose the war.’ She has been a strong critic of Russia’s aggression.

British relations with the PRC: As Minister of State for Trade Policy, Mordaunt stated[↗] she was ‘working with international partners to hold China to account for any violation of human rights’ particularly in relation to imports from Xinjiang. In November 2021, she gave a speech[↗] at Chatham House where she declared ‘The trade challenge from China and Russia, for example, is also a security and intelligence challenge.’

Defence spending: Mordaunt has promised[↗] to increase defence spending to 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and form a Civil Defence Force to reduce the stress placed on the armed forces. In addition, she has committed to set up a ‘National Strategy Council’ to oversee the creation of a national strategy.

Foreign aid spending: Although she has not made any recent statements on the issue, as Secretary of State for International Development, Mordaunt stated[↗] she wanted to see aid ‘better spent’ but not cut.

Rishi Sunak

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: Sunak has lauded Johnson’s effort in Ukraine as other European leaders ‘wringed their hands[↗]’. This implies that he supports the existing British approach and has no intention of reducing pressure on Russia.

British relations with the PRC: Sunak has stated[↗] that a ‘balanced relationship’ with the PRC was desirable, juggling both economic opportunities and normative differences.

Defence spending: Sunak, as chancellor, oversaw the largest defence spending increase since the Cold War but he has not, as a leadership contender, promised any additional increases. Has committed to a ‘threat based[↗]’ approach to defence spending, rather than setting arbitrary targets.

Foreign aid spending: As chancellor in November 2020, Sunak cut international development spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. In late 2021, he promised[↗] to reverse this cut in 2024-2025. He has made no subsequent statement on the matter.

Liz Truss

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: As Foreign Secretary, Truss has been heavily involved in developing British policy towards Russia and Ukraine. On 4th July 2022, she described[↗] Britain as being ‘resolute in its support [for] Ukraine’ and advocated for Britain to be a leader in Ukraine’s reconstruction. She has repeatedly stated[↗] that it is her desire to see Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, fail in Ukraine. 

British relations with the PRC: See has previously displayed strong credentials in being firm on the PRC through her work as Foreign Secretary. Truss believes[↗] Chinese activities in Xinjiang constitute ‘genocide’.

Defence spending: She has stated[↗] that she would like to see defence spending rise to 3% of GDP by the end of the decade.

Foreign Aid spending: Truss was critical[↗] of foreign aid cuts from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. She has not made any subsequent comment on this issue.

Tom Tugendhat

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee since July 2017, Tugendhat has used his position to warn of the dangers posed by the Kremlin. In March 2022, he described[↗] Putin and his allies in the Kremlin as a ‘band of thieves’, which ‘must be brought to justice.’

British relations with the PRC: Tugendhat has previously displayed his credentials in being robust on the PRC through his work in the Foreign Affairs Committee and as Co-Chair of the China Research Group[↗]. Similarly to Truss, he has recently labelled[↗] Chinese activities in Xinjiang ‘genocide’.

Defence spending: Tugendhat has pledged[↗] to immediately increase defence spending to 3% of GDP on taking office as prime minister.

Foreign aid spending: He was critical[↗] of foreign aid cuts from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI, suggesting it may return to 0.7% under his leadership.

Summary

As this contest has shown, there are areas of convergence in certain foreign and defence policy issues and areas of differentiation. 

No candidates show any inclination of wanting to resume relations with Russia. Boosting defence spending has become a priority for most of the leadership hopefuls, as has Britain’s relationship with Ukraine, with most candidates outlining the importance of providing additional financial, humanitarian and military support to the besieged nation.

When it comes to the PRC it becomes a bit more hazy. Due to frictions over Chinese actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and Taiwan any potential winner will need to take a strong ethical approach towards the PRC, conducted in tandem with allies and partners. The diverging worldview of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also means scrutiny into Chinese business activities and investment in Britain will continue to intensify. 

How far each candidate goes in criticising the CCP and attempting to counter actions which threaten the open international order, however, varies, as does how willing they are to embrace the economic opportunities stemming from the PRC as the world’s second largest economy. The ‘golden era’ is dead[↗] but new thinking is still required[↗] for how to approach the PRC.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

This article was updated on 15th July 2022 to include excerpts of a speech made by Penny Mordaunt in 2021.

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