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  • Where do British candidates for PM stand on Russia-Ukraine?

Where do British candidates for PM stand on Russia-Ukraine?

So far, those in the running to replace Johnson have been equally silent about their long-term plans – if they have any – on Russia-Ukraine. COURTESY

  • Maximilian Hess
  • Published: 17 Jul 2022, 11:35 AM

Despite a key war in Europe choking global economy, UK’s prime ministerial hopefuls are saying little on foreign policy

Less than three years after leading the Conservatives to their largest majority since the 1980s, Boris Johnson is on his way out as United Kingdom’s prime minister and his party is choosing a new leader.

As of today, only five candidates remain in the running to replace Johnson. And despite making countless ambitious promises on a variety of issues to gain the support of party members and secure the top job, they all appear to be paying little attention to something that can ultimately make or break their premiership: Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The campaign has given foreign policy fairly short-shrift thus far. The Conservative Party remains committed to Brexit – the policy that Johnson initially rode to victory – but even Johnson’s recent threats to the UK’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU have not featured heavily.

With a key war now under way in Europe – and Britain the second-largest supporter of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion – the stakes are higher than ever in the foreign policy arena.

Considering the primary concern on the minds of most British voters is the ongoing cost of living crisis – which is in large part tied to the war in Ukraine – one would have thought candidates would be more eager to put their plans to deal with the threat posed by the Kremlin at the centre of their leadership campaigns.

Most of them, however, appear as they may be on course to repeat some of Johnson’s grave mistakes vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine.

While the outgoing prime minister has been very affective in implementing a sanctions policy against Russia and providing defence support for Ukraine, he never put forward a clear vision for what victory in Ukraine would look like, let alone a plan for how it would change the UK’s defence, political and economic posturing. Just hours before resigning, for example, Johnson told the House of Commons’ Liaison Committee he saw no need to revisit the Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Integrated Review – which articulates UK’s long-term national security and international policy – that his government published in March 2021, almost exactly a year before the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

So far, those in the running to replace Johnson have been equally silent about their long-term plans – if they have any – on Russia-Ukraine. Rather than explaining exactly how they will address the cost of living and energy crises caused by Russia’s actions, or how they will ensure Ukraine’s post-war development and security, they chose to focus on culture war issues, from the size of the state to transgender rights, to try and grab the attention of the Conservative party members who will decide their fate.

For now, Rishi Sunak, who quit as finance minister last week helping to trigger Johnson’s downfall, is in the lead with the support of 88 Conservative members of parliament (MPs).

After announcing his bid for the Tory leadership, Sunak said very little on Russia-Ukraine or foreign policy in general. Since March, however, he has been attracting scrutiny both from his own party and the opposition due to the Russian presence of a company in which his wife has a £400m ($474m) stake. And according to recent reports, Johnson has voiced concerns that Sunak may “go ‘soft’ on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine, and ease sanctions on Russia if elected prime minister.

Despite his lead among MPs, however, Sunak’s chances of winning the premiership and actually shaping the UK’s Russia policy may not be that high. Derided for raising taxes, and with his popularity dinged by revelations over his wife being non-domiciled for tax purposes, recent polling of Conservative party members shows Sunak will likely lose the final members’ vote.

Sunak’s remaining rivals – Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat – have also not talked substantially about their foreign policy vision or specific plans for Russia-Ukraine since announcing their candidacies.

Former Minister for Equalities Badenoch, who is seen as unlikely to make it to the final pairing despite strong support among right-wing Tory MPs, is perhaps the candidate that has the least experience and interest in foreign policy. She has voiced support for the Russia sanctions policy and military aid for Ukraine in the past, but centred her campaign for leadership mostly on culture war issues and being the so-called “anti-woke” candidate.

The article first appeared on Al Jazeera

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