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11 July 2023

Should Rishi Sunak be a diplomat?

International relations is one of the few arenas in which the Prime Minister can say he’s been moderately successful.

By Freddie Hayward

While Sunak is in Vilnius at the Nato summit today – where, significantly, Turkey has assented to Sweden’s membership – his Home Secretary will be taking the Illegal Migration Bill through parliament. The Lords secured a string of defeats against the government last night, which the Commons will vote on later today.

While the core aspects of the bill – the deportation of those who arrive on small boats – is likely to pass, Sunak will be grateful he is in Lithuania instead of Westminster. Opposition figures, such as the Labour MP Chris Bryant, have criticised Sunak for missing two PMQs in a row. But the less he can be associated with his party, Westminster and domestic policy, the better.

That’s the effect of yesterday’s friendly “bilat” with President Joe Biden at Downing Street – their fifth meeting in as many months. There’s a lot to be said for looking like a prime minister, whether or not Sunak has the power to act like one. Yes he’s improved relations with Biden but he still has to go to Washington DC to ask permission to host a summit on AI. (Some think the foreign excursions are why Sunak won’t call an early election. “He’ll stay on for the international trips,” one cynical Labour source observes.)

Such friendliness is probably only possible because Sunak dropped his predecessors’ isolationist bombast, faced down his party and gave the US what it wanted in the form of the Windsor framework with the EU over trade in Northern Ireland. As ever, division between its European allies doesn’t suit the US, particularly when it’s trying to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, the JFK administration cajoled Harold Macmillan to apply to the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union, in the 1960s to promote continental unity. The UK in turn wanted to join to ensure US involvement in Europe. The recent isolationism was the aberration; Sunak has returned relations close to normality.

Although he didn’t get much credit at home, partly because most people don’t care about Northern Ireland, the Windsor framework prevented tensions with the Biden administration from getting worse, and restored the UK’s standing in the perspective of its allies. Not that international diplomacy will dominate the next general election. But I’m sure No 10 will take what it can get.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: What is the point of Rishi Sunak?]

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