While Conservative leadership candidates were busy polishing off their CVs and doing the rounds of the Sunday political shows, protestors in Sri Lanka stormed the Presidential Palace and set the private residence of the country’s Prime Minister on fire.
The string of recent protests on the South Asian Island Nation has in many ways put “Partygate” in perspective. Soaring inflation rates of 54 per cent, paired with food prices skyrocketing by more than 80 per cent, have created an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis that has brought the country to a complete standstill. Workers can no longer afford to travel or feed themselves as the monetary crisis worsens, and the country defaults for a second time on its foreign debt.
Much of what has been going on in Sri Lanka can be pinned on a system of predatory loans, with uncompetitive repayment rates, that were granted to the country by China to finance new infrastructure projects. The so-called Chinese “debt-trap” has seen major state assets stripped away from the Sri Lankan government and passed over to Chinese ownership.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the collapse of society under the totalitarian and theocratic rule of the Taliban has been sped up by a recent earthquake that has left thousands without food, water and shelter. Since the withdrawal of the West from the country last summer, the Afghan people have watched as the clock has been wound back, with women no longer able to work, girls no longer educated, and men who supported the West now the victims of arbitrary “justice”.
And while Conservative MPs have scrambled to nominate their preferred candidates for the premiership of the country, brave Ukrainians have been defending their homeland with weapons provided by the United Kingdom and other allies. Theirs is a fight not just for their homeland, but for the preservation of the international rules-based order.
The world is undoubtedly a much more dangerous place than it was, with state-on-state violence increasing, and the prospect of economic instability translating into political turmoil across the world. As such, the next Conservative prime minister must be someone who understands that Britain’s role in the world will be determined by how it weathers the coming set of crises.
The sudden resignation of Boris Johnson has created a great deal of anxiety amongst the UK’s friends and allies, in particular those in Central and Eastern Europe. From the outside at least, Britain looked like a stable beacon of common-sense policy when it came to supporting Ukraine – in no small part thanks to the hard work of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
The UK’s actions have been seen as a chance for the West to push back against “Afghanistan Syndrome”, and the move towards taking a robust line in defence of free society, the international rules-based system, and the promotion of liberal democratic values.
Yet to those outside of the UK, what looked like a sudden change in leadership has left many fearing that Britain too might retreat in on itself in the same way that France and Germany have over the last few years – leaving the West mortally weakened and leaderless.
The coming leadership election for the Conservative Party is therefore one that must also look beyond the task of rebuilding public confidence at home, and rebuild it abroad, too. The next prime minister must be one who can project a proud, confident, and strong Britain on the world stage. The phrase “Global Britain” must move beyond just a tagline flaunted at home, and be turned into a mantra with real meaning. The UK, led by the Conservative Party, must stand at the forefront of the civilisational conflict that is the Second Cold War – a conflict in which we are already on the back foot.
One of the few candidates to have extensively addressed this issue is Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. For several years now he has taken a robust approach to the conflicts that we face, recognising that our adversaries have taken advantage of our relative weakness to undermine free society around the world.
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In an address at the launch of Extremist Monitoring Analysis Network last November, Tugendhat rightly called out the West’s lackadaisical approach to international institutions – pointing out that countries like China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela have been busy taking over key organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization, in order to use them to fence in those countries that abide by the international rule of law.
Tugendhat has demonstrated his ability to be ahead of the curve when it comes to discussing the threat from Russia and China. He was talking about the Uyghur genocide long before any other British public figure, and called for tougher sanctions on Russia far sooner than anyone else in the Commons. So far, as Cold Warrior candidates go, Tom Tugendhat is among the strongest in the field.
Equally, Penny Mordaunt has demonstrated that she understands the true value of “Global Britain”. Last year she set out her vision in her book “Greater: Britain After the Storm”, in which she put high emphasis on the UK as a cultural superpower. Mordaunt described how there was much for the UK to be proud of, and project on the world stage.
At the same time, during her tenure as Secretary of State for Defence, she argued for increased expenditure for the armed forces. Citing the conflict in Ukraine following the illegal annexation of Crimea, she challenged then Chancellor Philip Hammond to boost defence spending in order to ensure the UK was ready for the next crisis. Her calls have ultimately been vindicated, with her successor winning some success.
Mordaunt’s time as International Development Secretary has no doubt also helped to shape a view that Britain can, and must, be a force for good in the world. Using soft power to drive back the predatory practices of our adversaries, who have used financial aid to bribe their way into positions of power, and undermine the international order.
Further candidates have yet to set out a clear vision for where they see the UK in the world, yet foreign policy is likely to become a defining point of the premiership of whoever takes over as prime minister. But what is clear is that economic instability, the energy crisis, and soon food shortages, are no longer just local issues in a globalised world. The next Conservative leader must be someone who recognises that in this dangerous new stage of history that we are now living through we will need a resilient and tough global Britain.