Sunak’s hanging back on foreign policy shows how he is trapped by his party

    Sunak’s hanging back on foreign policy shows how he is trapped by his party

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    Good morning. Rishi Sunak has delivered his first major speech on foreign policy, but there is not much in the way of detail. Some thoughts on why that is, below.

    Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected].

    Keep it together

    Something was missing from Rishi Sunak’s big speech on foreign policy last night: verbs!

    There were an awful lot of sentences about what the UK’s foreign policy objectives are not, or should not be. There were some comments about what it should aim for, and what it should oppose, including implicit criticism of the pro-China policies of former premier David Cameron.

    But there was nothing new of substance about what UK foreign policy should do, for obvious reasons: to pick an action is to pick a direction and to pick a direction is to run headlong into one of the many factions in the Conservative party that throws a strop whenever Sunak tries to do anything.

    In some ways, the Conservative party’s majority is exactly the wrong size: big enough that any attempt to blame the opposition parties looks desperate and weak, small enough that any organised tendency or grouping within the party can defeat it in the House of Commons if it picks the right issue and/or Keir Starmer is feeling opportunistic.

    On any given issue, the majority of Conservative MPs think their best interests are served by shutting up and getting behind Sunak. However, on essentially every issue of substance a large minority disagrees, and another group thinks they’ve lost anyway, so what’s a little light rebellion among friends?

    The biggest thing that could turn things around for Sunak is some outward signal that his political position is better than it seems. So, if the Conservative performance in the City of Chester by-election this Thursday looks more like that of a governing party on course to be re-elected (that is to say, a big but not apocalyptic defeat), you can see how the party starts to convince itself that the next election is winnable and that MPs need to start rallying around their leader.

    I’ve set out before how I think the Conservatives could pull off an unlikely win: focus on those old anxieties voters have about Labour and tax, and hope the economy is improving and that a “stay the course, better days lie ahead” message is enough for another term in power.

    Sunak’s plan, at the moment, is to stay relatively quiet for the rest of the year. The general impression/undeniable reality of chaos and upheaval within the government has allowed Starmer to very effectively present himself and Labour as a return to stability and order. Go a month or so without a high-profile eruption from the Conservative party and that advantage is blunted — or at least that’s the theory.

    But the risk of silence is that it allows Sunak to be defined by his internal and external opponents. It undermines his and the Conservative party’s biggest remaining asset: his own approval ratings and standing in the country, which currently place him ahead of Starmer in polling on the question of who would make the best prime minister.

    Now try this

    I was at the launch of Seb Payne’s second book, The Fall of Boris Johnson, last night. It was terrific fun, as is the book, which is a great, gossipy read — take a look at an extract here to whet your appetite.

    Before I was in journalism I worked in the book trade, mostly in bookshops that have since been shuttered by Amazon or gobbled up by Waterstones. So when my friend Tom Rowley asked me whether he should leave the Economist to set up a bookshop, I tried very hard to dissuade him. I failed.

    As a result, you can go see Seb in conversation at Tom’s bookshop in Balham on the December 14. You can get tickets to that and order yourself a copy of the book here.

    The FT’s Best Books of the Year — with categories spanning fiction, pop music, economics, history and much more — are now out, and you can find the whole series here.

    Top stories today

    • Climbdown on levelling-up bill | UK business secretary Grant Shapps has signalled that the government will reverse its ban on onshore wind farms in an attempt to head off a growing mutiny among Tory MPs, including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

    • Free speech online | The government is scrapping controversial powers to force internet companies to take down “legal but harmful” content, replacing this provision with new rules for companies to be more transparent over internal policies on content moderation, protections for free speech and strict laws on removing illegal content.

    • Civil servants call for more training | More than half of UK civil servants have warned that their departments lack the technological tools, resources and skills necessary to transform public services, according to a government-backed survey.

    • Pension scandal payout | The cost from a pension scandal involving thousands of steelworkers was expected to be tens of millions of pounds less than originally forecast thanks to economic conditions moving in favour of companies footing the compensation bill.

    • Ethics adviser vacancy | Several candidates have turned down the role of Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser, to which the prime minister had pledged to appoint someone when he entered No 10, the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot understands. The role has been vacant for five months.

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