Liz Truss to accuse Rishi Sunak of being soft on Russia and China

Liz Truss has opened a new front in her battle with Rishi Sunak - Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Liz Truss has opened a new front in her battle with Rishi Sunak - Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Liz Truss has opened a new front in her battle with Rishi Sunak for the Tory leadership as her supporters accused the former chancellor of being “soft” on Russia and China.

The Foreign Secretary will portray herself as a “hawk” and Mr Sunak as a “dove” as she seeks to broaden her appeal beyond her main policy promise of tax-cutting.

A briefing war between the two candidates has already begun, with supporters of Ms Truss accusing Mr Sunak of being overly cautious about sanctions with Russia and pushing for increased trade with China even in the face of growing human rights abuses.

Ms Truss, who has built a commanding lead in polls of Conservative Party members - who will choose the next leader and prime minister - believes foreign policy and national security are “winners” for her, and is expected to use forthcoming hustings events to contrast her wide ministerial experience with Mr Sunak’s single-department Cabinet career.

Supporters of Mr Sunak point out that it was under his stewardship of the Treasury that Britain imposed tough sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, and that he has insisted China’s human rights abuses cannot be ignored in UK-China economic relations. They say he will be talking “much more” about the issues in the coming week.

Many MPs believe Ms Truss already has an unassailable lead in the leadership race, but her campaign team is taking nothing for granted, and they believe foreign policy is one of her strong points, as well as being one of Mr Sunak’s weaknesses.

They are aware that Mr Sunak, the better media performer, may have the more statesmanlike demeanour in the eyes of many Tory members, but will counter that by attacking him over foreign policy and saying Ms Truss will be “ready from day one” to tackle the twin threats of Russia and China.

One ally of the Foreign Secretary said: “Liz is the one who has the experience, the credibility and the resolve when it comes to Ukraine and China, which puts her at the hawkish end of the party, while Rishi is more at the dovish end. It’s a bit of a winner for us.

“Liz’s pitch is that this is a more dangerous time than at any point since the Cold War and she can put Britain in a leadership role on the world stage.

Rishi Sunak speaking in Lincolnshire on July 23 - John Robertson/John Robertson
Rishi Sunak speaking in Lincolnshire on July 23 - John Robertson/John Robertson

“She has called out China for using economics as a coercive tactic against other countries in a way that harms Britain and she raised this at the G7 summit. She doesn’t think we should cut off ties to China, but she wants to recalibrate, to diversify supply chains and make sure Commonwealth countries don’t become client states of Beijing. I don’t think Rishi is quite in that space - he still harks back to the ‘golden era’ of trade with China that David Cameron and George Osborne wanted, and has taken softer positions.

“On banking sanctions against Russia, the Treasury under Rishi was reluctant to move as quickly as Boris and Liz wanted. The Treasury was very backward-leaning when it came to banning Russian banks from the Swift system (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication).

“The default setting for the Treasury is to be cautious and only think about the maths, but sometimes you have to take tough decisions. There’s no point having a prime minister or a chancellor who is just a spokesman for Treasury officials.”

Ms Truss has consistently said that Russia must pull out of the whole of Ukraine - including Crimea - before sanctions can be fully lifted.

Rishi Sunak is behind in polls - Simon Walker/Simon Walker
Rishi Sunak is behind in polls - Simon Walker/Simon Walker

James Cleverly, the Education Secretary and former foreign office minister who is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army and is backing Ms Truss, told The Telegraph: “I was in the Foreign Office when she came in and gave real clarity on these issues. She said that pushing back on Chinese economic activity was absolutely the right thing to do, because while it would have some economic implications for Britain, a failure to grip the problem would have even worse consequences in future, as well as geopolitical implications.

“It was the same with Russia. She was adamant that we had to go very hard on sanctions very, very early and that would inevitably put economic pressure on us but we had to be at the forefront of that so that we could persuade European neighbours like Germany, who are more dependent on Russia, that they had to go further.”

Earlier this month there was uncomfortable reading for Mr Sunak when the Global Times, China’s largest state-run tabloid newspaper, praised him for his “pragmatic view” on strengthening trade links with the country.

In 2021, he used his Mansion House speech to the City of London to call for a more “nuanced” approach to trade with China, and spoke of “realising the potential of a fast-growing financial services market with total assets worth £40 trillion”.

Last December, Mr Sunak asked Treasury officials to revive the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, which had been suspended for two years because of tensions over Hong Kong and Covid.

He formally agreed to hold the trade talks on a telephone call with Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, and a source said at the time the decision represented a "complete sea change" in relations with Beijing.

Critics said a summit would be wrong in the face of diplomatic rows over the telecoms equipment maker Huawei and continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang province. In the event, the summit was cancelled after China imposed sanctions on seven MPs, including Tom Tugendhat and Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Sunak has also faced questions about potential conflicts of interest between British foreign policy and his wife’s business interests.

Rishi Sunak is considered to be the better media performer - John Robertson/John Robertson
Rishi Sunak is considered to be the better media performer - John Robertson/John Robertson

Mr Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, owns a £700 million stake in Infosys, which was founded by her father, and which employs 3,300 people in China through a subsidiary. Infosys also continued to operate in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, but has since pulled out.

Supporters of Mr Sunak say the Truss camp has mischaracterised his response to China and Russia, and also said he would take a tougher stance as prime minister than as chancellor, a job in which he had to focus more on the economic effects of foreign policy.

One source within the Sunak campaign said: “All the sanctions that were put in place against Russia, like freezing assets, were put in place by the Treasury and Rishi was instrumental in making those sanctions happen.

“He gave the Ministry of Defence the biggest uplift in spending since the Cold War, and even before he was an MP he was writing about the threat from Russia to our undersea cables.

“He is incredibly firm on the need to make sure any economic relationship with China does not endanger national security, and his view is that there should be no compromise on economic grounds when the values we share are not being followed by other countries.”

Bob Stewart MP, who is backing Mr Sunak and is a retired Army Colonel who has a degree in international politics, said: “He isn’t one for the big showpiece like sitting on top of a tank, but I don’t think for one moment he is in any way weak on China or Russia.

Liz Truss is Foreign Secretary and that means she has a different job from someone who is chancellor. It is far more difficult being chancellor than being Foreign Secretary, particularly at this time.

“If Rishi was to become leader, and I very much hope that happens, he will be far more balanced and concentrated on foreign affairs than he was able to be as chancellor. He is a highly intelligent man and his logic and his analysis of the situation will put him in a strong position.”

Analysis: Rishi Sunak must now show he can stand up to the UK's enemies

Rishi Sunak remains wedded to the economic policy he pursued as chancellor, but the subject of foreign affairs gives him a chance to show that prime minister Sunak would not be the same man as chancellor Sunak.

Foreign policy is comfortable ground for Liz Truss. She is, after all, the serving Foreign Secretary, and has been undeniably hawkish when it comes to Russia and China, which will play well with Conservative Party members in the ongoing leadership race.

In order to overtake the woman who is favourite to be the next prime minister, Mr Sunak must, among other things, show Tory members that he is prepared to be tougher than he has been in the past when it comes to standing up to our enemies.

His supporters argue that when he was chancellor, he had a duty to point out the economic risks of bold foreign policies, in order for the Prime Minister to be able to come to an informed decision on issues such as sanctions.

But as prime minister, Mr Sunak would be freed from the shackles of Treasury caution, and those same supporters are confident he would show the courage that is needed when it comes to dealing with foreign aggressors.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss taking part in a televised debate on July 17 - Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss taking part in a televised debate on July 17 - Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA

Boris Johnson trod a similar path on his journey from Mayor of London to Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister: an instinctive Sinophile, Mr Johnson inherited one of the most pro-Chinese countries in western Europe when he entered Downing Street, and called China a “great and rising power”. He had to change tack and take a tough line on Huawei by ordering all of the Chinese firm’s technology to be stripped from the UK’s 5G infrastructure, then stood up to Beijing by offering three million citizens of Hong Kong the chance to live in Britain in response to China’s security crackdown, which broke the terms of the 1997 handover agreement.

Mr Johnson was reacting to events, but Mr Sunak has a chance to get on the front foot this week by toughening his stance on China and Russia, something his campaign team has suggested he will do.

Voters may be preoccupied with the cost of living crisis, but Russia and China will remain problems long after that has been resolved, with long-term implications for the economy, national security and the supply of everything from fuel to food and consumer goods.

Mr Sunak believes he, not Ms Truss, is the only candidate who can beat Sir Keir Starmer at the next election. In order to prove it, he must convince Tory members that his statesmanlike manner has substance behind the style.