Canada-U.K. ties to stabilize with Rishi Sunak as British prime minister

By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Canada’s relations with Britain, and negotiations for a new free trade deal, should get some stability with news that former U.K. finance minister Rishi Sunak will become prime minister, one expert on the file said Monday.

“He will be much more traditional, much steadier — more predictable in a sense, in his foreign policy,” said Tony McCulloch, a University College London professor of North American studies.

Sunak is set to meet with King Charles on Tuesday, where he is expected to become the third British prime minister in less than two months, following the resignations of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Johnson had not been the prime minister for two years yet when he announced July 7 that he would resign when a new leader was chosen. He stepped down after losing the confidence of his caucus amid a series of scandals, including being fined for breaking his own COVID-19 lockdown rules.

Truss was chosen to replace him in September but spent just six weeks in the role before she was forced to step down following economic turmoil made worse by her proposed tax cuts.

After her resignation, Johnson was among the contenders for leadership of the U.K. Conservative Party, but he pulled out of the race Sunday. The only other candidate, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew Monday, paving the way for Sunak to claim the win.

McCulloch said that means a return to classic Tory economic policy.

“Johnson, apart from his issues about reliability and truthfulness, didn’t seem to have very clear, fixed principles, as far as economic issues were concerned,” he said from London.

“Sunak has a reputation of being a much more straightforward kind of politician.”

McCulloch, who heads the British Association for Canadian Studies, said Ottawa can expect London to stick with the joint training both are offering for Ukrainian soldiers.

McCulloch also said Sunak’s quick ascension paves the way for Canada to continue its negotiations for a new Canada-U.K. free trade agreement.

The turmoil in British politics had raised concerns those talks would slow down. Canada and the U.K. needed a new trade deal after Britain left the European Union. Formal talks began last March, not long before Johnson’s political woes began to soar.

Sunak was an early supporter of Britain’s exit from the European Union, and pushed for economic ties with other countries after Brexit. 

Martin Buckle, treasurer of the Toronto-based British Canadian Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said that augurs well for ongoing trade negotiations between the two countries.

“There’s a lot of headwind, so it would be difficult for anyone,” Buckle said of Sunak. 

“I think he’s probably the best option at the moment, for the economy.”

Yet Sunak may also have some wounds to heal within the party following months of turmoil and splits over who should be the party’s leader.

This summer, Sunak resigned as Johnson’s finance chief, which McCulloch said started the “stampede” that led to that prime minister’s demise.

“He is seen by a lot of party members and Conservative MPs as the man who brought down Boris Johnson,” McCulloch said of Sunak. 

Buckle said Sunak will have to navigate that dynamic as he crafts a budget policy that responds to soaring living costs.

“If his party won’t gel around him, it doesn’t matter how good he is; he’s going to fail,” Buckle said.

“I really hope he succeeds, because if he doesn’t, it’s going to be brutal.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2022.

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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