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Fast Thinking October 24, 2022

What to expect from Rishi Sunak’s Britain

By Atlantic Council


It’s no easy job. After one British prime minister resigned in scandal and another was forced out after six weeks in office, Rishi Sunak now takes the helm at 10 Downing Street—charged with the daunting task of calming the United Kingdom’s political and fiscal turmoil. Can Sunak steady the markets, the country, and the Conservative Party? How will minority communities in Britain view a history-making prime minister of Indian descent? Our experts leap into the fray.


Breaking down the agenda

  • The 42-year-old Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, was the runner-up to Liz Truss in this summer’s Conservative Party leadership race. Livia says that based on Sunak’s record, we can expect “a pretty hard line on immigration and refugee policies,” combined with a “push for greater economic and trade diplomacy.”
  • Livia also predicts that Sunak’s United Kingdom will remain a stalwart NATO ally and keep up the support for Ukraine. But what’s “less predictable” is how he will handle the “dark-money problems” caused by Russians and other kleptocrats investing in London.
  • In the same vein, Livia adds, “Sunak took a hard line against China during the campaign this summer, but this geopolitical stance may conflict with a greater push for foreign investment and trade.” 
  • Those challenges, however, pale in comparison to the country’s ongoing post-Brexit “identity crisis,” Livia says. She argues that the Sunak government’s long-term goal should be to clearly articulate its vision for Britain’s place in the world and invest in the country’s “soft power.” The country can be a player in global debates on climate change, technology, and more, she says, “but thought leaders and decision makers won’t engage with the United Kingdom if they think they won’t be heard, or if they don’t see the country as a serious partner.”

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First test

  • Expect Sunak to “push for a further decoupling from the single market and the European Union,” Livia tells us, including ditching the Northern Ireland protocol and instituting data reforms. 
  • At the same time, John describes Sunak as an “economic and financial realist” who may try to improve trade relations with the continent but would face headwinds from the “wing of the Conservative Party that objects to anything other than a pure and total Brexit.”
  • The first test comes as early as tomorrow, when Parliament will debate a bill that would effectively reverse some 2,400 EU regulations at the end of next year—on matters ranging from workers’ rights to televising the Olympics.
  • “The UK business community is by and large horrified at the prospect of the chaos that dropping all these laws will mean,” John tells us. “Canceling the bill would obviously improve Britain’s trade prospects with the EU, but the hard-line right wing of the Conservative Party would block any such effort.”

Race and politics

  • People overseas may view the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of color as groundbreaking, but “the Asian and minority ethnic groups have a more complicated relationship with leaders such as Sunak,” Hameed tells us.
  • In recent years, a slew of British politicians from minority groups have risen through the ranks—including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former Home Secretary Priti Patel, and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng—but there has been no real progress on solving the disparities in wealth and health faced by British people of color. “It is difficult to measure the significance of their rise beyond progressive optics,” Hameed says.
  • He adds that for Sunak, who attended Oxford and Stanford and married the daughter of an Indian billionaire, “his politics and leadership are likely to be defined more by his extremely privileged upbringing in Britain—and the collective wealth he enjoys with his wife—than by any presumed solidarity on the basis of his ethnic background.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Livia Godaert, John M. Roberts, and Hameed Hakimi

Image: New leader of the Britain's Conservative Party Rishi Sunak walks outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London, Britain October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY