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UK parties are pitching a 'pragmatic' foreign policy, but can a new government make the necessary hard choices?


Labour and the Conservatives each place unusual emphasis on foreign policy in this election year. A new Chatham House paper advises what the next government must prioritize.

In just a week, there have been three major speeches on foreign policy from the government (the prime minister and foreign secretary) and the Labour opposition (the shadow foreign secretary). Such a focus on foreign affairs in an election year is rare and the vote, when it comes, will turn more than usual on these questions.

It is therefore striking that the approach of the two main parties is so similar. It points to a growing pragmatism in British foreign policy, one that is welcomed in a new Chatham House paper, ‘Three foreign policy priorities for the next UK government’. The paper sets out a map of realistic ambition for the winner of the election: get the key relationships right and spend more time and money overall.

In his speech, Rishi Sunak said that only the Conservatives could be trusted with security – national, economic and energy – in the face of many dangers facing the country. In that, he aims to differentiate his government from its opposition. But on much foreign policy, the two parties at the moment sound similar: full-throated support of Ukraine, a nuanced but careful approach to China and support for Israel’s right to defend itself while criticizing the consequences of its actions in Gaza. 

Their greatest differences are on the Rwanda policy (as a response to illegal migration) and on Europe. Foreign secretary David Cameron and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy both included the word ‘realism’ in their speeches, reflecting the growing role that foreign policy is playing in this election year – but also a recognition that the UK must judge carefully where it retains influence. 

Chatham House’s new paper recommends a path through the hardest choices for whoever walks into 10 Downing Street after the election. 

Click here to continue reading the full version of this Expert Comment on the Chatham House website.


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