Sunak arrives in Washington to push for deeper economic ties and UK role in AI regulation

Britain has long touted its 'special relationship' with the US but the term is seldom used in Washington

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during his visit to Washington. PA
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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrived in Washington on Wednesday for a two-day trip in which he hopes to convince a sceptical President Joe Biden that post-Brexit Britain can still punch above its weight on the world stage.

The primary focuses of Mr Sunak's visit include trying to foster deeper economic ties with the US and making a sales pitch to Mr Biden that London should take a leading role in the international regulation of artificial intelligence.

Britain has long touted its “special relationship” with the US but the term is seldom used in Washington. Mr Biden has shown none of the enthusiasm that his predecessor Donald Trump did in creating a US-UK free trade deal as a way for London to mitigate the impact of leaving the EU.

Mr Sunak will meet Mr Biden at the White House on Thursday, and will separately push British interests with US business leaders and members of Congress.

The US “is indisputably our closest partner when it comes to trade, when it comes to defence and security co-operation, diplomatic alliance and tomorrow I'll be talking about strengthening that economic co-operation”, Mr Sunak told the BBC after arriving in Washington.

Mr Biden views events across the Atlantic with some scepticism, and one reality of Britain leaving the EU is that the US sees London as less important now that it holds no sway in Brussels.

After he visited Northern Ireland in April to mark 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Biden told fellow Democrats back home that he went to make sure “the Brits didn't screw around” with the peace accords.

The Irish-American Catholic seemed much more “at home” in the Republic of Ireland, where he said he wished he could stay longer.

Mr Sunak and Mr Biden have met four times already but the chemistry is not the same as during the Thatcher-Reagan or Blair-Bush eras.

Mr Biden, who is prone to verbal gaffes, last year called Mr Sunak “Rashid Sanook” after he became Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister, who came into office in October as Britain's fifth leader in six years, hopes his Washington trip will burnish his credentials as a world leader at a time when his Conservative Party has an approval rating of about 28 per cent, according to recent polls.

One area Mr Biden and Mr Sunak see largely eye to eye is Ukraine, and the war is likely to dominate discussions at the White House.

“I'll be working closely with President Biden to make sure that we continue both of us supporting Ukraine with the resources it needs to defend itself in the here and now, but also thinking ahead to what kind of longer-term security arrangements and agreements we can put in place,” Mr Sunak told the BBC.

Britain cannot yet say Russia is responsible for the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, Mr Sunak said.

Asked whether Russia was responsible, he told ITV: “I can't say that definitively yet. You know, our security and military services are working through it.

“But if true … it's an appalling act of barbarism on Russia's part.”

On AI, which has undergone rapid and transformative advances in recent months, Mr Sunak wants London to help regulate the technology

Despite the danger of being shut out from conversations between the two main western economic powers – the US and EU – the British government believes that the break from Brussels gives it greater freedom to act quickly.

It is “absolutely right that we put guardrails in place because the technology is enormously powerful,” Mr Sunak told Sky News in Washington.

“It's going to reshape every aspect of our lives.”

The ability to sign a full free trade deal with the US was once seen by those who backed Brexit as its biggest economic prize, but a reluctance by Washington to consider such a move has left successive governments seeking agreement on individual areas instead.

“I think that for a while now, that has not been a priority for either the US or UK,” Mr Sunak said of a deal, according to PA.

He suggested “specific and targeted ways” of improving trade between the two nations were still being considered.

Rishi Sunak visits Washington - in pictures

Updated: June 08, 2023, 9:11 PM