There’s an op-ed this week that excited ministers. Only it wasn’t to be found in the UK press – it came from across the pond. With the headline “Britain is getting back on track”, a comment piece in the Wall Street Journal praised Rishi Sunak’s leadership on the world stage.

It’s significant inside government, and not just because the California-loving prime minister pays close attention to all things stateside. It suggests that after a year of the UK being depicted more as a laughing stock following political turmoil, a change in how Britain is viewed is under way. Leadership on Ukraine combined with a breakthrough on UK/EU relations means that the UK’s allies are taking a second look.

It points to Sunak’s wider ambition on foreign affairs. As the Prime Minister embarks on a world tour blitz – meeting Emmanuel Macron today and now heading to the states – the hope in No. 10 is it signal a wider reset of the UK on the world stage. Sunak’s predecessors – Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – tended to make headlines for bust-ups with their foreign counterparts. In delivering Brexit, Johnson would regularly lean into a combative approach while Truss famously refused to say whether the French President was a friend or foe.

Sunak is trying a softer approach – one that has much more in common with David Cameron as prime minister than the politicians who came after. His calculation is that better outcomes are achieved with a constructive and cordial relationship than acting in a way that amounts to peacocking.

This was on full display in Sunak and Macron’s press conference on Friday – the first Franco-British conference in five years – when the French president heralded a ‘moment of renunion’ after years of rocky relations. The Prime Minister laid the syrup on thick when he ended the session by telling the French President: “I feel very fortunate to be serving alongside you and incredibly excited about the future we can build together. Merci, mon ami.” It prompted one Tory MP to text: “Get a room”.

It’s this principle, however, that underpins his approach to diplomacy – one that extends beyond Europe. The argument is that a politer approach means a better chance of achieving difficult asks in the talks that follow. It won’t be long to find out who is right.

Last month’s Windsor Framework – agreeing changes to the Northern Ireland protocol – is the first step in resetting relations. “It’s a barnacles off the boat moment,” says one adviser. Unhappiness over the protocol and the UK’s plan to unilaterally overwrite parts of the agreement were hurting other attempts to co-operate with European allies.

The most obvious is small boats. Announced on Friday, the UK is to give France nearly £500m over three years in a bid to reduce the number of migrants coming to the UK in small boats. The money will go towards increased patrols on the beaches as well as a new detention centre in northern France. While most of the press attention has been on the government’s new illegal migration bill to stop migrants who enter illegally claiming asylum, Sunak views working with France as key to solving the issue. Where the legislation could take a long time both to clear the courts and to get up and running operationally, working with France could be much quicker.

At present, France intercepts about half of all attempts at small boats crossing. Those in the Home Office believe that if this figure was closer to 75 per cent it would hurt the business model of people traffickers to such an extent that it would make a noticeable difference. “The most significant thing we can do ahead of the next election on small boats is an agreement on France,” says one minister.

But it’s not a tactic that is particularly popular with Tory MPs on the right of the party. Brexiteers worry about an over-reliance on the French. However, Sunak is keen to avoid their preferred answer of leaving the ECHR unless it is absolutely necessary. Such a move would once again isolate the UK on the world stage. “We would be in a club in Europe of Russia and Belarus,” says one minister pointedly.
Next up is the UK’s ambitions further afield.

On Monday, Sunak will be in the States to meet with his Australian and US counterparts as part of AUKUS – the new defence alliance between the three countries to counter Chinese aggression in the pacific. The expectation is that they will announce plans for a new deal to supply nuclear powered submarines to Australia, which will be British-designed. The prime minister is animated on the topic following 18 months of talks. What’s more, it could boost jobs at the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard.

Sunak then hopes to further develop transatlantic ties if US President Joe Biden visits Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

But Sunak’s softly softly approach is not without criticism. China hawks in the party are waiting anxiously for next week’s update to the Integrated Review. Some Tory MPs believe Sunak is too soft on the issue – one foreign office figure describes the PM as “on a journey” – with figures such as Iain Duncan Smith calling for China to be described as a threat – the same as Russia.

However, I understand this will not be the case. Ministers argue against the idea Sunak is soft on China, pointing to a preference for practical action whether on the telecoms company Huawei or limits on other Chinese investment such as the decision in November to force Chinese-owned tech firm Newport Wafer Fab to draw down its ownership of Britain’s largest microchip factory.

After success on the protocol – the only public Tory rebel as things stand is one Boris Johnson – and a charm offensive in Paris, MPs think Sunak is on a roll after a difficult start. But to keep the current momentum and this support, Sunak will need to keep pointing to progress.

Nowhere is this more important on the domestic front than small boats. As the WSJ put it: “If the Sunak government can continue to carve out a serious role for post-Brexit Britain in world politics, the next election could be a much closer affair than most forecasters currently predict.”

QOSHE - Rishi Sunak needs to keep pointing to progress - Katy Balls
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Rishi Sunak needs to keep pointing to progress

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10.03.2023

There’s an op-ed this week that excited ministers. Only it wasn’t to be found in the UK press – it came from across the pond. With the headline “Britain is getting back on track”, a comment piece in the Wall Street Journal praised Rishi Sunak’s leadership on the world stage.

It’s significant inside government, and not just because the California-loving prime minister pays close attention to all things stateside. It suggests that after a year of the UK being depicted more as a laughing stock following political turmoil, a change in how Britain is viewed is under way. Leadership on Ukraine combined with a breakthrough on UK/EU relations means that the UK’s allies are taking a second look.

It points to Sunak’s wider ambition on foreign affairs. As the Prime Minister embarks on a world tour blitz – meeting Emmanuel Macron today and now heading to the states – the hope in No. 10 is it signal a wider reset of the UK on the world stage. Sunak’s predecessors – Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – tended to make headlines for bust-ups with their foreign counterparts. In delivering Brexit, Johnson would regularly lean into a combative approach while Truss famously refused to say whether the French President was a friend or foe.

Sunak is trying a softer approach – one that has much more in common with David Cameron as prime minister than the politicians who came after. His calculation is that better outcomes are achieved with a constructive and cordial relationship than acting in a way that........

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