The National poll triggers calls for more robust UK foreign policy

Survey shows less than a third of Britons believe Rishi Sunak has a clear vision for the country's future

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been urged to adopt a stronger foreign policy to boost ties with allies around the world in the post-Brexit era. Getty Images
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Britain needs to be a stronger voice on the world stage and embrace a more forward-thinking foreign policy, diplomatic and other figures have said in response to a new poll.

The calls were issued at a central London event titled “Britain’s Place in the World”, during which guests were presented with the results of a Deltapoll survey commissioned by The National.

Less than half (41 per cent) of the more than 2,000 British adults surveyed support the Conservative government’s approach to representing the UK in the global arena, while almost a third (32 per cent) say the wrong tactics are being employed by ministers.

Less than a third (29 per cent) believe Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s administration possesses a clear vision for the UK’s future.

The results of the poll, carried out on September 11-15, also revealed that voters back Keir Starmer over Mr Sunak on foreign policy, with four in 10 (40 per cent) saying that the leader of the opposition would do a better job than the Prime Minister at representing Britain in the global arena.

They also showed that many believe Mr Sunak is doing the wrong thing when it comes to a host of policies, including the economy (62 per cent), the cost-of-living crisis (68 per cent), making the most of Brexit, (53 per cent), immigration (67 per cent) and crime (54 per cent).

'Stronger UK leadership needed worldwide'

Figures from Middle East embassies and regional businesses attended Thursday morning’s event, led by Mina Al-Oraibi, The National’s editor-in-chief, and Deltapoll’s co-founder Martin Boon.

Britain’s failure to step into the role as many nations around the world expected it to was among the points discussed.

London’s continuing free trade negotiations with the Gulf Co-operation Council was mentioned as a positive, following the UAE ambassador to the UK's comments earlier this week that talks were “progressing well”.

The poll showed distance between British voters and some of the world's most pressing crises.

Almost half (45 per cent) said the government has done as much as it can reasonably be expected to do to help solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The disinterest was similar when it came to the violence in Sudan and Yemen – nations that Britain has historic ties with – with 46 per cent of the public saying the UK government does not have an obligation to help end the fighting.

Stronger British leadership on the world stage would be much appreciated by Middle East nations and particularly the GCC, Kuwait’s ambassador to the UK said.

Kuwait is a member of the GCC, along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.

Bader Al Awadhi called on the Tory government to take a more robust stand and exemplify leadership to nations where people have long looked to Britain as a role model.

He said the GCC as a whole has a growing positive interest in the UK, particularly in terms of business and economic links, and expressed hope of a free trade agreement being signed between the bloc and Britain.

“We as Arab countries are always looking to the UK to take a more active [approach],” he said.

“We need the UK and our allies to be especially [represented] in the Middle East.

“Our relationship with the UK is very important in the Middle East.”

Mr Al Awadhi said the UK’s foreign policy had taken a hit from a string of leadership changes in 2022.

A former UK government official, who did not wish to be named, suggested progress had been made in recent years and decades to boost Britain’s standing overseas only for it to suffer recent setbacks.

“We were finding our place and then we’ve lost our way once again,” she said.

She said the government’s “inward-looking focus” was partly to blame for this trend.

“That, to me, is a massive shame because that’s something that Britain has never been,” she said. “We’ve always been outward-looking and focusing on opportunities externally.

“There has been a shift certainly at the government level towards populism. But I take hope from the results [of the poll] that the British public are not buying that.”

The results of the poll showed younger Britons are more open to foreign investment in the UK, particularly on green issues.

Forty-seven per cent of respondents supported UAE investment in the UK, while in the 18-24-year-old age bracket alone, there was 53 per cent support.

Ms Al-Oraibi expressed hope that the UK’s foreign policy would be given ample attention in the months and years ahead, as Brexit fades further into the past.

“We see that there’s a vacuum. Part of that has been almost an incoherence of what has been Britain’s Middle East policy, partly because we’ve had several prime ministers in the last few years but also because of the fallout of Brexit,” she told the audience.

“Where Brexit dominated all of the thinking and all of the public discourse, it was really hard to have a conversation about a wider Middle East strategy.

“Hopefully that’s something that we can see probably after the next election.”

Mr Sunak’s government was shown to be performing below par on several fronts, including its handling of immigration, crime and international aid.

But following the Prime Minister’s about-turn on key aspects of the Tories’ flagship green agenda last week, support for the net-zero 2050 target rose slightly.

Mr Sunak announced a five-year delay in the 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by five years at a press conference in Downing Street last week. He also said about a fifth of all households will be covered by an “exemption” from ever having to remove their gas boilers and replace them with eco-friendly heat pumps.

Taxes on meat and stringent recycling rules for households were also scrapped.

Support for retaining the net-zero pledge increased from 54 per cent to 57 per cent after the policy switch, the poll showed.

Britain's green U-turn before Cop28

Nassar Alnassar, senior manager at Think, a research and advisory firm under the umbrella of the Saudi Research and Media Group, said he was intrigued by the survey’s findings on shifting attitudes towards green issues.

His company provides consulting on energy and geopolitical issues to clients, which include governments and the private sector.

Speaking to The National following the presentation, he said it was difficult to decipher the Prime Minister’s reasoning for pushing back key green targets and scrapping proposals.

“Is he reconsidering the UK’s position on climate change or is it to buy more time?” asked Mr Alnassar.

“We are coming towards Cop28 so the timing is very interesting.

“From our research, we know that we cannot transition [to clean energy] without fossil fuels.

“For me, I find it fascinating that Ulez is being expanded while on the other hand the government is doing this U-turn.”

London's Ultra Low Emission Zone, or Ulez, was extended across the capital last month as part of Mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to clean up the city's polluted air. The initiative charges drivers of high-polluting cars to use London's roads.

Ulez has proved to be unpopular with voters and was blamed for Labour's inability to wrestle Boris Johnson's former constituency from the Tories in a recent by-election.

Updated: September 29, 2023, 8:16 AM