Rishi Sunak’s mission: Stop the sniggering

LONDON — As Liz Truss’ premiership unraveled last October against a backdrop of collapsing financial markets, Rishi Sunak’s mobile phone never stopped pinging.  

The internet was alight with memes mocking Truss, who became the shortest-serving prime minister in British history when she resigned after seven weeks in office. And Sunak’s own private chat groups — full of high-flying friends and elite acquaintances around the world — were among those joining in.

One meme that went viral superimposed the Airbnb logo on the famous No. 10 black door, along with the slogan “perfect for short lets.” Another depicted Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng on a photoshopped 1990s movie poster with the title “How to lose an economy in 10 days.”

The memes were cruel about both Truss and Britain more broadly. His friends found them hilarious — but when Sunak succeeded Truss in Downing Street later that month, he was determined to stop the sniggering.

As a Stanford MBA graduate and former investment banker, Sunak maintains close friendships with people in leadership roles around the globe, and understands the importance of credibility on the international stage, taking the slights almost personally.

Since becoming PM he has spoken privately of his embarrassment at seeing the U.K. turned into a global laughing stock. While his top priority on entering Downing Street was to stabilize the economy, restoring the U.K.’s standing abroad was high on his list after that — and he saw the two as inextricably connected.

U.K. officials, foreign ambassadors and policy wonks say he has sought to do this by focusing on key bilateral relationships and by restoring a sense of stability. “A lot of the challenges that are facing Britain at the moment are global challenges,” a government aide said. “For the PM to deliver on his priorities, strong relationships with national leaders are very much needed.”

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Sunak’s commitment to reframing the world’s view of Britain was clear from the start. “Rishi definitely has changed the relationship — particularly with the Europeans and the Americans,” a well-placed former government official said. “He has done a good job of using his newness and his personal style. He has invested very heavily in three relationships — with Macron, Biden and VDL,”

Key to building bridges with those three leaders — U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — was the Windsor Framework. U.K. officials and foreign diplomats agree that Sunak’s blueprint for improving post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland has been transformational.

US President Joe Biden met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast, Northern Ireland in April | EPA-EFE/Tolga Akmen/POOL

Though some governments remain suspicious of the U.K. post-Brexit, the Windsor Framework went some way towards restoring trust with both the EU and Biden, who takes great pride in his Irish heritage and retains a close interest in Ireland. It is unlikely the president’s visit to Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement last month would have happened had Windsor not been agreed.

Relations with Eastern European governments were already good following Boris Johnson’s support for Ukraine. But when it comes to Western Europe, it is clear Sunak has benefited chiefly from being neither Johnson nor Truss. “This government is finally trying to achieve some compromises,” the ambassador of a major EU country said. “We appreciate the position that Brexit is irreversible, but in contrast with the government of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson this is a pragmatic, business-like approach.”

An ambassador from another major EU country said Sunak “seems to be a problem-solver, unlike some of his predecessors — and Boris Johnson in particular — who were problem-creators.”

Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the center-right Policy Exchange, said Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s focus on the economy post-Truss had also brought international reassurance: “The prime minister is essentially conducting government by Treasury … He believes that the best way to bring prosperity and security to U.K. plc is to ensure we are an attractive market, and that means embedding consistency, reliability and pragmatism.”

Looking east

Beyond traditional allies, Sunak has embraced the Indo-Pacific tilt that his predecessors pursued. Where there has been a change is in his approach to China, which is more nuanced than that set by Truss in the Foreign Office and No. 10.

“His instincts on China are to stabilize the relationship by toning down public rhetoric and taking the fight behind the scenes,” Gaston said. “He has avoided engaging in grand acts of proactive diplomacy towards China, leaving direct engagement to the Americans and Europeans.”

Unlike Macron and von der Leyen, Sunak has chosen not to travel to China yet. The politics of such a trip would be difficult to handle domestically, as it would draw the ire of Tory backbenchers. Seven U.K. parliamentarians remain sanctioned by Beijing for criticizing its human rights record.

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, faced down pressure for a more aggressive China stance in a speech on Tuesday, declaring a new Cold War in Asia would be a “betrayal of our national interest and a wilful misunderstanding of the modern world.”

Taking the show on the road

Several diplomatic opportunities are lined up over the next few weeks in which Sunak will seek to take advantage of his proximity to other world leaders to continue building bridges. At the king’s coronation in early May, Sunak will brush shoulders with presidents, prime ministers and heads of state before attending his first G7 leaders’ summit later in the month.

On June 1, the PM will attend the second meeting of the European Political Community — an initiative of Macron’s — in Moldova. A month later he will travel to Vilnius, Lithuania, for a gathering of NATO leaders.

At the Moldova summit, irregular migration is expected to feature high on the agenda. “Immigration is a particularly good example of a challenge in the U.K. that’s a challenge for the whole continent,” the government aide quoted earlier said.

Trouble ahead?

Relations with Europe and the U.S. government may be cosier now — but Sunak’s drive to stop irregular migration in the English Channel could change that.

Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” is the most challenging of the five goals he set out as part of his pitch to voters. Last week, he bowed to pressure from Tory MPs to toughen the Illegal Migration Bill currently passing through parliament.

The move has set alarm bells ringing in European capitals, including Paris, where there is a sense that the bill was distasteful even in its original form. Asked what Macron thought of it, a former senior U.K. diplomat held his nose.

If Sunak doesn’t “stop the boats” before the election, he will come under pressure from Tory MPs to commit to withdrawing the U.K. from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in his manifesto. The convention is written into the Good Friday Agreement, meaning withdrawal could jeopardize progress in Northern Ireland and lead to fresh tensions with Biden.

EU diplomats say that would be highly detrimental to relations with the bloc — the U.K. would be likened to Russia, which quit the ECHR last year, and Turkey, which remains party to the convention but has clashed with the court repeatedly. A senior diplomat from a third major EU country said: “I really don’t think the British government wants to be in such a group of countries.”

Whatever the outcome, a steadier ship likely means Sunak’s pals in capitals and finance centers aren’t laughing anymore.

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