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

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

Five remaining contenders to replace Boris Johnson
This combination of pictures shows (top row L-R) Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Britain's former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, Britain's Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt, (bottom row L-R) Conservative politician Tom Tugendhat and Conservative MP for Saffron Walden Kemi Badenoch. [Photo by various sources / AFP]

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 candidate with the most real-life experience in dealing with Russia is undoubtedly Liz Truss, who is currently serving as the UK foreign secretary under Johnson. Nevertheless, her record does not paint her as the best choice for taking on the Kremlin. Truss’s visit to Moscow just two weeks prior to the beginning of  Russia’s invasion was marred by gaffes. Her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, reportedly mocked her lack of knowledge on Ukraine and Russia’s territorial disputes. But more concerning still is that throughout her time as foreign secretary – and as secretary of state for Trade before that – Truss has never articulated much of a vision for what Britain’s role in the world should be, or how to get it there. Truss – as one of the only two remaining leadership competitors who did not resign from Johnson’s government – is very much the continuity candidate. But there are not many signs that as prime minister she would be able to repeat the successes of Johnson’s Ukraine policy, let alone remedy its shortcomings.

Current Trade Minister and former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt is another candidate with considerable experience in international policy. She has taken a surprise lead in members’ polls.  A naval reservist and longstanding Brexiteer, she has pushed to the front of the pack by positioning herself as a patriotic pragmatist. Mordaunt has been the trade minister since September, and notably previously served as secretary of state for international development. She has long called for cutting the UK’s foreign aid budget and ultimately convinced Johnson to do so. Johnson was also following Mordaunt’s advice when he decided the UK’s development aid policy should be shaped by the Foreign Office. There has been no real debate, however, on how successful these reforms have been, at least in the leadership campaign. Mordaunt has offered a little more clarity on her views on the conflict, stressing Russia “must lose the war”. Nevertheless, like all the others she refrained from articulating what exactly she wants a Ukrainian victory to look like and how she thinks the UK should go about ensuring that result.

The campaign of the final candidate in the running, backbencher Tom Tugendhat, has perhaps been slightly more focussed on foreign policy than others, likely as a result of his role as the chairman of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs committee – a post he has used in the past to carve out a hawkish position on Russia, and to criticise the Johnson government.

A former journalist and, like Mordaunt, a military reservist, Tugendhat has long been hawkish on Russia. He presciently called for banning Russia from British capital markets in May 2018, a proscription that would become policy this February. But some have criticised him for going too far; his February 25 comment that “We can expel Russian citizens – all of them” required clarification that he was only referring to those connected to the Putin regime. Nevertheless, after announcing his leadership bid, he said he is standing by his comments. “My words were a warning of the risk of war with Russia,” he explained, ”A warning of the consequences to people who were innocent. My own family was among many interned in World War II and I was warning of the dangers of war.”

Tugendhat’s stance on Russia, however, is likely of little consequence as he is not expected come at the top of the leadership race. As the only candidate who has not served in government, and a vocal and harsh critic of Brexit, he is unlikely to be Conservative party members’ choice for the next Tory leader and prime minister. There have been rumours he is angling to be the ultimate winners’ foreign secretary. Though he has denied this, he is the one candidate worth watching in the upcoming candidates’ debates for indications of a shift in approach to Moscow.

Overall, the Conservative Party leadership race has so far failed to touch on foreign policy in a substantive manner. But its winner’s approach to challenges like Russia’s war on Ukraine will be paramount in determining their success, even on domestic policy issues as gas prices are spiking and Britain faces further inflationary pressure.

Before the final vote among the Conservative party membership that will determine the direction that the UK will take in this tumultuous period, the remaining candidates have a responsibility to show the British people and the international community that they can lead the country on crucial foreign policy questions. If they fail to do so, it is unlikely that they will be leading anything for long.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.