Tory candidates in race to be next UK PM face shifting global challenges

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are unlikely to take the risks that Boris Johnson took but they will still be tested

Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are vying to be Britain’s next prime minister. Both will be faced with major foreign policy decisions in office. AP
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Whoever wins the Conservative leadership race is unlikely to have the same presence on the international stage, or to take the foreign policy gambles that Boris Johnson did, a leading strategist has told The National.

When faced with an international emergency the current foreign secretary Liz Truss may be “unpredictable” but unwilling to make the bold gestures of her former boss.

Rishi Sunak in a crisis is likely to be reserved, building consensus before a decision, more in the mould of former Conservative prime minister David Cameron.

Whoever becomes the UK’s next leader will certainly be faced with significant geopolitical challenges, says James Rogers, co-founder of the Council on Geostrategy think tank.

“The level of threat that was foreseen in last year’s Integrated Review has clearly accelerated so that will need to be given attention,” he told The National.

“They will certainly have lots to focus on, especially with the rise of China, the reorientation of the global balance of power. Then there’s the Middle East, the western Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, Nigeria — these are all areas of UK interests that will be brought into focus.”

Key foreign policy decisions are the preserve of prime ministers and there will certainly be critical choices to be made regarding Ukraine, the Middle East, Africa and in dealing with China.

While they will have input from the security services, political advisers and civil servants, ultimately the final decisions will be down to the prime minister. So how might each candidate respond?

“I think Liz Truss will be a bit more unpredictable,” Mr Rogers said. “Rishi Sunak will be potentially the more risk averse but it's hard to say because we've not really seen him in this environment. He strikes me as being a bit more like David Cameron, a sensible career politician, whereas Liz Truss is perhaps a little more willing to take things on.”

But neither are likely to replicate Mr Johnson’s bold moves that saw him become the first major leader to visit Ukraine, along with supplying substantial military backing.

James Rogers, director of research at the Council for Geostrategy. Photo: Council for Geostrategy

“Boris Johnson has clearly been quite willing to take risks. He was the first major power leader to go to Kyiv even when the civil service and the secret service were advising against it. Could you have seen a British prime minister other than him doing that?

“That's something that's quite unique to his character. He needs to be seen doing things. I'm not sure whether the other two candidates would do that, although they haven't been given the chance as yet to show what they can do.”

With the US’s focus shifting towards China and the Pacific, Britain is expected to play a much more significant role in the Gulf region.

The Royal Navy will soon have its aircraft carrier equipped with at least two squadrons of advanced F-35 stealth jets stationed in the Indian Ocean ready to help intervene in the Gulf, especially in any conflict with Iran.

Orders to put the 65,000-tonne carrier in harm’s way will come from the very top, giving the next prime minister the ability to influence the area’s security, particularly if Iran’s nuclear weapon programme evolves.

“The UK certainly has the assets that the French don't and the US may not be able to provide in the future because they were bogged down in the Pacific region,” said the research director of the London think tank. “But the UK does have assets now of two carrier strike groups, with significant numbers of F-35 jets going forward. So the UK can bring some fairly significant capabilities to the table. It is certainly threading itself into the future of the Gulf region in a way that maybe it wasn't a decade ago.”

The impact of the climate emergency on international affairs is a key area of the Council for Geostrategy. Mr Rogers warned that one issue that could challenge Britain’s next prime minister and those who follow will be the population explosion in Nigeria that might see the West African country's grow to one billion before the end of the century.

The pressure of population numbers “could lead to an environmental breakdown”, with a mass movement of people across the Sahara causing a major shift in African and Europe’s political and human dynamic.

He also warned that the growing international food crisis caused by the war in Ukraine could lead to the collapse of a North Africa country, with an ensuing mass wave of refugees having the “same political effect” as events in 2010, “particularly if Russia’s invasion drags on for years”.

The next British prime minister will certainly have severe economic domestic issues to address but their lasting legacy — as for many of their predecessors — could well be judged on the foreign policy decisions they take.

Updated: July 25, 2022, 4:19 PM