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Rishi Sunak Says "Hostile" International Environment Is The Greatest Challenge Facing UK

Rishi Sunak appeared in front of the Liaison Committee on Tuesday (parliamentlive.tv)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak told senior MPs that the "increasingly complex and hostile international environment" was the greatest challenge facing the UK, as he was questioned by the Liaison Committee on his work as prime minister.

Sunak was called in front of the Liaison Committee on Tuesday, a House of Commons committee made up of the MP chairs of the select committees. 

Asked by Liaison Committee chair Bernard Jenkin what he believed the greatest strategic challenge facing the UK is, Sunak responded that conflicts across the world had become his primary concern. 

"The increasingly complex and hostile international environment is something that over the past year has occupied more of my time than one might have anticipated," he said.

"And you can see that not just in the situation in Russia and Ukraine, but we've talked in the past in this forum about the risk posed by China's activities, Iran and now most recently in the Middle East, in particular, the situation in the Red Sea is deeply concerning."

He said that as a "maritime nation", the UK had always believed "very strongly" in free and open shipping lanes, but that that has now been threatened by malign actors was "further evidence" that the international picture is complex and more challenging.

The Prime Minister added that the UK could no longer "take many of these things for granted" and that the government would need to invest in defence capabilities and strengthen alliances.

Asked where the war between Russia and Ukraine would rank in these concerns, he replied that it was "very much uppermost in our minds", and that for Ukraine to be defeated would be "existential" for Euro-Atlantic security.

"Ukraine would rightly consider us one of their closest allies, we've stood shoulder to shoulder with them from beginning of this crisis, but also been ahead of all our allies in providing particular capabilities in times when they've most needed it," he said.

"Whether that's tanks, or most recently long range weapons, combat training, again, all evidence of the UK being a step ahead of everyone leading the global conversation. We will continue to do that because this is existential for Euro-Atlantic security that Russia cannot succeed in its efforts."

Asked by International Development Committee chair Sarah Champion whether he considered himself a leader on the world stage, Sunak did not give a direct answer.

"I think others will make that determination," he said.

"I'm very proud of the UK's leadership in multiple areas over the past 12 months, Ukraine being an obvious example.

"These are things that I've done on behalf of the UK, sat the end of the day, these are things we do as a country as a government, but I'm the one to take the decisions.

He said he does not regret cuts to the foreign aid budget when he was chancellor, after Champion challenged him on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and how this year the government cut UK aid to Yemen to a third of what it was in 2019/20.

"I don't regret the cuts to the overall aid budget, the decision I made as Chancellor that was actually approved by the House of Commons in a vote," Sunak said.

"I think it is the right thing for the UK, given the fiscal situation that we faced in recovering from the pandemic, that we reduced our aid budget from 0.7 to 0/5 [per cent].

"You asked about leadership, we remain one of the largest aid spenders anywhere in the world."

Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, then asked Sunak about what conditions he believed needed to be met for a sustainable ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. 

He replied that there was not a "perfect formula" but that a ceasefire would not last if hostages were still being held on either side. 

"A ceasefire is clearly not going to last if hostages are still being held and also if Hamas, whose stated aim is to destroy Israel, is still able to operate in underground tunnels and launch rocket attacks into Israel," he said.

"So those are important facets that we need to grapple with and ahead of a permanent ceasefire, what we'd like to see are immediate and sustained humanitarian pauses which allow releases of more hostages and more aid to enter Gaza."

He said that since the beginning of the conflict the UK government had made "repeated calls" for Israel to adhere to international humanitarian law in its attacks on Gaza, but struggled to give specific examples of where the UK had achieved influencing Israel to show "restraint or a change in their behaviour".

Moving onto the contentious issue of migration, Home Affairs Committee chair Diana Johnson the prime minister whether he was confident the legacy backlog would be cleared by end of the year.

"Well, we're not at the end of the year yet, so the final statistics have not been published, but we are making very good progress," he said.

He insisted the government had also "made progress" on stopping the boats, but said there was not a "firm date" for when this would be achieved.

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