Rishi Sunak’s Israel visit signals UK shift towards European mainstream

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Good morning. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Rishi Sunak has landed in Israel as he embarks on a two-day visit to the Middle East. Some thoughts on what that means for British politics in today’s note.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on X @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

A guy like EU

In one way, Rishi Sunak’s trip to the Middle East is not particularly interesting. German chancellor Olaf Scholz has already visited Israel in the wake of the October 7 attack. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen took a trip to the country last week (details on the controversy of that in Europe Express, our Premium newsletter). Emmanuel Macron is going to visit Israel. And Joe Biden, of course, visited.

All these politicians have the same strategy, one set out in an excellent column by Gideon Rachman about what Biden is thinking: to arrive, to visibly and loudly “feel Israel’s pain”, and then say “but could you please completely rethink your response and strategy?”. Here’s Gideon setting out the Biden White House’s thinking, but it is essentially what Sunak’s Downing Street and many of the UK’s European allies are thinking, too:

The best chance of mitigating the suffering of Palestinian civilians is to start from an understanding that Israel itself has just suffered an unprecedented tragedy and has the right and obligation to ensure its own security. This is a policy that one senior US official calls “hug them close”. He describes Israel as “traumatised and frightened”. “We need to present this as a situation that we are facing together and that we can work on together,” says the official.

The White House thinks that only then will Joe Biden get a hearing when he makes public statements about the need for Israel to respect the laws of war and to protect civilian lives. In private, politicians can then press Israel about the most urgent humanitarian priorities, such as the restoration of electricity and water in Gaza.

I don’t know if this strategy can work. I’m not an expert and all I can say is that I thought that Kim Ghattas and Lawrence Freedman’s recent pieces for the FT seemed to be historically well-informed and depressingly plausible about what is likely to happen next. (Freedman has written an excellent new piece on his Substack also.)

But I think the simple fact that Sunak is in Israel is worth noting, because it is part of the bigger story of Sunak’s premiership: that he has made the UK a pretty “normal” European power again. He is aligned with the EU mainstream on China in trying to find a middle way between the US and China. He is aligned with the mainstream of European conservatism in watering down the UK’s net zero targets. There is one striking way that he is outside the mainstream, which is that he is non-white. Sunak is wholly correct in my view to say this reflects positively on the UK in particular (he says, shamelessly plugging one of his own columns).

Even if Sunak does lose the next election, this is one change that I think is going to stick. No one in the Conservative party proposes unpicking the Windsor framework and returning to the Johnson era approach of constant confrontation and tension with EU, nor are they likely to do so. Sinoscepticism is increasingly dominant within the Tory party, and there are important and distinct reasons why the UK is never going to be able to be as friendly to China as its European peers. But the Sunak approach is going to be closer to where the Conservative party ends up than the cold war 2.0 style favoured by Liz Truss.

As far as this conflict in particular is concerned: if Sunak, Biden, von der Leyen, Macron and others fail in their objective in the region and this conflict widens and deepens, then that is a tragedy for everyone. But in terms of UK politics, Sunak has very little to worry about here. It is Keir Starmer, whose party is already divided over how best to respond, who will face a political headache if Sunak and his fellow national leaders fail in their Middle East mission.

Now try this

I had a lovely evening yesterday at Backstory, the Balham bookshop founded and run by one of my oldest friends, the former Economist journalist Tom Rowley. I’m always on the hunt for nice things to do when visiting a marginal constituency, which south London used to have, but these days really the only seat worth looking at is Wimbledon. Let me know your out-of-London suggestions for places I should visit in between taking the public pulse.

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