Rishi Sunak has been Prime Minister of the UK for a little over two weeks now. After the euphoria of the first British Indian PM walking into Number 10 Downing St, reality has started to kick in with significant obstacles to be overcome across the breadth of the economy, immigration, and security as well as relations with India.
Challenges abound for the new Prime Minister, with a daunting in-tray. There is a slowing economy, with a major inflation challenge coupled with the stress of record gas prices going into winter. The disruptive war in Ukraine appears to continue with no end in sight – an issue which is linked to the economic trials facing Western Europe and Britain. Market data has shown that the British economy is already shrinking.
The aftermath of the pandemic is seen in the substantial hole in the British budget, which is placed between £40 and £50bn by most media – with the exact number likely to be confirmed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt when he makes his financial statement on November 17. Sunak is already going back on his promises made during the leadership contest. He is reportedly planning significant tax rises to plug the hole, an act which will further hit the Conservatives’ popularity (betting markets have the average odds on a Labour victory at the next election at 80 per cent), showing the scale of the mountain that he has to climb in order to retain power.
A mountain that grew taller still when the Bank of England announced interest rate rises and projected the recession to last till 2024.
Russian vs Ukraine: Negotiate or stay the course?
Furthermore, Russian President Putin has thrown down a challenge of his own to Sunak, accusing Britain of being responsible for sabotaging Russian economic interests including the Nord Stream pipeline. As long as there is macroeconomic disruption from the war in Ukraine, energy prices will be high, further stressing a UK that is already scrambling to pay the bill from nearly two years of disruption from pandemic lockdowns.
Negotiating with Russia might make sense from the perspective of trying to repair the British economy, however any attempt to do so may generate pushback from within Britain’s own national security establishment, which appears determined to face down Russia, not to mention angering the critical ally of Britain, the United States.
Navigating this treacherous geopolitical terrain will require at least as much skill and finesse as plugging the budget black hole. PM Sunak’s expertise is economics and accounting; it will be interesting to see how he manages the security side of things.
Braverman and immigration
As if there wasn’t enough in an already bulging Prime Ministerial in-tray, other issues continue to plague him in the form of controversies over Home Secretary Suella Braverman. She is already under the media spotlight for sharing sensitive documents inappropriately to her personal email six times, potentially making her a liability in Sunak’s cabinet. The Home Secretary has also been criticised for not responding vigorously enough to a perceived immigration crisis, with cross-Channel migrants surging in recent weeks.
MPs from her own side have accused her of taking insufficient action to tackle overcrowding at Manston, a migrant holding centre in Kent. Pressure is mounting on the Sunak government to get a grip on the perceived immigration crisis. This is an important issue to the Tory voter base, so it could have a role to play in deciding Sunak’s political future.
A third issue to crop up is the COP27 climate summit, being held in Egypt. The Prime Minister had initially refused to travel for it, or substantially engage with it. He then made a U-turn and made an impassioned speech at the climate summit. While this is not unique to Prime Ministers (David Cameron was famed for changing his mind on key policy proposals), Sunak has a very limited number of U-turns left, and he has already used up one of them barely a week into his fledgling premiership. It limits his room for manoeuvre as well as making him look indecisive.
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What do Sunak’s political challenges mean for UK-India relations? Expectations of an amazing surge in UK-India relations will have to be tempered by the structural limitations inherent to a Sunak premiership, including the economic headwinds ahead.
It is true that the Conservatives have reached out robustly to India over the past 12 years, starting with David Cameron’s visits to India from 2010. These yielded valuable trade gains to the tune of billions, although the biggest prize of all – a UK-India Free Trade deal – has remained tantalisingly out of reach. All recent Tory Prime Ministers have visited India shortly after taking office, including May and Johnson, showing the critical strategic importance that Delhi holds in the British strategic calculus. After all, Delhi sits aside some of the world’s most strategically valuable sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, with hundreds of billions of dollars of trade passing through them. The ominous rise of Chinese naval power is a menacing potential threat to both British and Indian trade interests across the Asia-Pacific. Post-Brexit, the UK needs access to the vast and fast-growing Indian market more than ever. In a historic first, India overtook the UK to become the world’s fifth largest economy earlier this year.
Rishi Sunak has in fact already made some overtures to India. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visited Mumbai and then Delhi last month for a UN Counter-Terrorism summit, showing the British Foreign Office commitment to partnering with India in that vital strategic field. This is especially the case as both India and Britain are victims of radicalisation and terrorism. It is to be expected that India and Britain will continue to collaborate in that important strategic space, sharing information on terrorist and extremist movements, especially in the aftermath of the dangerous Pakistani-supported, Taliban led extremist takeover of Afghanistan.
It is also possible that Sunak sent Cleverly to India to set up a Prime Ministerial visit, possibly with India’s Republic Day in mind. Prime Minister Sunak being guest of honour at India’s famous Republic Day parade on January 26, 2023, would be quite the sight, if such a thing were to happen. Prime Minister Modi tweeted his congratulations to Sunak, mentioning a comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement – a possible veiled reference to the contentious issue of Indian immigration to the UK.
Expectations of a grand strategic coming together of India and Britain are likely to fall wide off the mark. Long running disagreements on the controversial issue of immigration remain. India insists on greater ease of movement for its professionals and students. On the other hand, the Conservatives got elected in 2019 on a popular pledge to sharply reduce immigration post-Brexit. This requires squaring the proverbial circle for there to be a UK-India trade deal.
Sections of the British civil service and media have blamed Suella Braverman for putting a spoke in the wheel of trade negotiations with India, with her ill-advised comments on Indians being persistent visa overstayers. It is to be hoped that Sunak will restrain some of Braverman’s more outlandish statements on immigration, though whether that happens remains to be seen.
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The potential for a vastly reinvigorated UK-India relations is limited by other structural challenges. India and the UK do not entirely agree on the issue of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. India and the UK also approach the issue of Pakistan differently, with Britain still finding a number of strategic uses for Pakistan, such as sending arms to Ukraine through Pakistan, while India under Modi still refuses to engage with Pakistan as long as there is a threat of that country hosting terrorists.
Sunak will also face an important domestic political constraint as he was not elected by the wider Tory party membership, but only by MPs. As such, his popularity with grassroots Tories is not entirely established. Racism as an underlying factor from some quarters can also not be entirely ruled out.
He will need to be careful about the optics of moving too close to India immediately, lest he be accused of bias or loyalty to another country while occupying the United Kingdom’s highest political office. The office of Prime Minister is constitutionally much more powerful than, say, the President of the United States, so what he says and does matters even more domestically.
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The strategic imperative of partnering with a rising superpower like India is vital for reasons of trade and security, so UK-India relations will continue to grow robustly. However, it would be wise to manage expectations, to not expect miracles or a significant immediate movement in India-UK relations, as the coming economic difficulties suggest.
It is nonetheless a moment to be celebrated, as Britain has its first Prime Minister of Indian and Hindu heritage – that too elected on the auspicious occasion of Diwali, and in the very year India overtook Britain in global GDP rankings. An interesting set of coincidences, to be sure.
Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.