An Election for ‘Dangerous Times’

Bronwen Maddox | 29 May 2024
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The prime minister’s choice of timing for a general election thrusts foreign policy to the fore and will expose the parties’ differences on migration, Europe and Gaza.

Rishi Sunak’s choice of a 4 July general election appears to have been driven by his judgement that economic news on inflation and interest rates is as good as it is going to get. Yet it was striking how much he emphasised the dark and ‘dangerous’ world environment that is the backdrop to these polls. His words accurately capture many people’s mood of fear in times of great uncertainty. One effect will be to thrust foreign policy further forward in this election than it would normally be.  

His decision, coming at the same time as a new release of figures from the Office for National Statistics, appears overwhelmingly to have been shaped by inflation numbers that he could claim had got back to ‘normal’ but nonetheless contained in them reason to worry about persistent underlying inflation in services, and were not as good as hoped. Room for the Bank of England to cut interest rates came into doubt; so, too, did headroom for tax cuts in the autumn Budget that this government had seemed so much to want.  

It is striking, then, that while emphasising improving economic news, the prime minister placed such weight on the danger of the world. Russia, Gaza, China: his offer was to protect British people from their consequences as much as to claim a role in solving them.  

That is realistic, as we pointed out in our report on the three main decisions in foreign policy for the next UK government (in short, get the US, China and EU relationships right, spend time on the ‘mid-sized’ power relationships where the UK has influence, and spend more on defence, aid and diplomacy). Above all, we recommended, the UK should be realistic not grandiose about what it could do.  

Both party leaders are presenting themselves as offering stability and security in difficult times. Sunak said the country had been through the most challenging time since World War Two with the pandemic and the return of war to Europe, and that his focus was providing economic stability to invest in public services and the defence of the UK.  Starmer, in his reaction, said ‘the country has been left exposed and insecure under this government’.  

The prime minister’s framing will put more attention on the hardest decisions in foreign policy. Neither party wants to talk in detail about the EU – as Rachel Reeves and David Lammy, on the Chatham House stage recently showed – but it dominates most immediate decisions and they cannot escape questions about it in the next six weeks. 

A closer economic relationship is one route to more economic growth – but hard to secure to any significant degree while freedom of movement of people is anathema to both parties. Lacking that, the question of a customs union may rise again if Labour wins – although shadow ministers at the moment firmly set that aside. 

Neither party wants to talk in detail about the EU but it dominates most immediate decisions and they cannot escape questions about it in the next six weeks.

Otherwise, an incoming government will be left with small measures on students and the movement of animals, important to the tone of the relationship but economically slight in effect. 

The next six weeks will also shine a light on the foreign policy differences between the parties. There are not many, but they are significant. Immigration is the starkest; Sunak will campaign on his Rwanda policy which Starmer has vowed to overturn immediately if in office. 

The next greatest difference is on tone over Europe where Labour is warmer; both in essence want to extract as many economic benefits as the EU will contemplate without concessions on anything contentious such as immigration. Aside from that – on China, the US, Ukraine, defence spending – the positions are almost identical. 

There is little difference in position from the two leaders on support for Israel, but the discomfort this has cost Starmer, given party members’ outrage at the death toll in Gaza, means that he may come under new pressure in the campaign to toughen his stance against Netanyahu.  

A July election does offer the next prime minister benefits on the foreign policy front.

The foreign policy risks a new government would face in office are high. Ukraine will be in the middle of bloody and potential pivotal summer of fighting. Countries which have supported Israel may be confronted with a choice about whether to back International Criminal Court arrest warrants against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister as well as three Hamas leaders. 

China has chosen to side more explicitly with Russia and Iran, forcing the question about which investment from China a new UK government might cut and which supply chains it might discourage.  

A July election does offer the next prime minister benefits on the foreign policy front, however. An autumn election would have meant a prime minister walking into Downing Street with the immediate prospect of a US election – or one just concluded – and the complexity of dealing either with a Biden administration bent on more tariffs or a second Trump term and the unpredictability that would bring. 

As it is, the new UK government will attend the NATO summit (9-11 July) where the US commitment to Europe’s defence will be the central point of debate. It will also host the European Political Community gathering of European leaders on 18 July. A new UK government now has the opportunity to build some vital European and defence relationships before the US election. 

Bronwen Maddox, Director and Chief Executive, Chatham House.  

This article was originally published on Chatham House.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.