US President Joe Biden is thought to be “leaning against” attending the coronation of King Charles III in May, iunderstands, but has accepted an invitation to attend commemorations of the Good Friday agreement next month.
The Prime Minister has been in the US in recent days to meet with President Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to discuss details of the Aukus security pact between the three countries.
During a whistlestop trip to San Diego for the three-way summit, the Prime Minister and the President swapped invitations: Mr Biden will come to the UK for next month’s 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, while Mr Sunak will head to Washington in June on the first dedicated bilateral visit by a British leader for more than six years.
The Prime Minister said on Monday evening: “It’s great that we’re going to see each other a lot over the next few months”.
But Mr Biden is currently leaning against the option of a further trip to Britain for the King’s coronation in May, i understands.
The guestlist for the coronation is said to be causing a diplomatic headache for the government, with about 3,000 dignitaries set to be invited – a fraction of the 8,000 guests who came to the Queen’s coronation more than 70 years ago.
Among those expected to be invited to the event on 6 May will be major foreign leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, new Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The event is being seen by many as an opportunity to restore the UK’s international reputation, which took a significant knock in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s funeral last autumn.
Having received worldwide praise for the pitch and tone of the funeral, the country then saw its global image severely dented when Liz Truss’s economic plans sent the markets into a tailspin that resulted in her being ousted after only six weeks.
Rishi Sunak is also set to tour the US this summer in a bid to cement his friendship with Joe Biden as the Prime Minister seeks to repair the reputation of post-Brexit Britain on the world stage.
Some in No 10 believe the possibility of a UK-US free-trade deal is not dead, although they acknowledge it is not a priority for the White House.
Mr Sunak has longstanding links to the US, having studied and worked in Silicon Valley before he entered politics; while in America this week, he stocked up on supplies of the Mexican version of Coca-Cola and his favourite type of chocolate muffin, which he enjoys for breakfast.
But he may not have appreciated the President’s very public reminder of just how deep those links go when Mr Biden remarked to the press: “He’s a Stanford man, and he still has a home here in California. That’s why I’m being very nice to you, maybe you can invite me to your home in California.”
The two leaders spoke one on one for an extended period, with no aides or officials in the room – a practice which is historically unusual in British diplomacy but which Mr Sunak has become increasingly fond of, doing the same last week with Emmanuel Macron.
His trip to San Diego to unveil the next steps in the Aukus submarines pact concluded a period of frenetic diplomatic activity, starting with the Windsor Framework deal with the EU aimed at solving trade issues in Northern Ireland, then followed by the Franco-British Summit in Paris last Friday.
Although the timing is mostly coincidental, Mr Sunak regarded the flurry as a crucial opportunity to set out a coherent vision of a Britain which does not retreat from the world after Brexit but instead carves out a new role, combining close relationships inside Europe with the ability to act as a bridge to further-flung allies including English-speaking allies and the rising powers of the Pacific.
Unlike his two predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who both served as Foreign Secretary before entering No 10, Mr Sunak had no formal experience in foreign policy until he became Prime Minister, meaning he has had a steep learning curve.
Nonetheless, Mr Sunak has in private been frank about the need to restore the UK’s international reputation after the chaos of Brexit, Mr Johnson’s demise and the short-lived premiership of Ms Truss which featured a spectacular markets meltdown.
During the summer leadership election and subsequent Truss era, he was taunted by old friends from his American business school who would post memes in their WhatsApp group chats mocking Britain’s predicament, including one which joked that the rapper 50 Cent was changing his name to “One Pound”.
Within weeks of taking over, the Prime Minister attended the COP and G20 summits where he held introductory meetings with multiple leaders, although aides said he was most comfortable in the company of his existing contacts such as Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary.
But Mr Sunak’s advisers believe the chats he had then swiftly began to pay dividends. “It’s amazing how far you can get just by being nice,” one said.
WhatsApp chats with his friends, now off the table after his personal phone was taken away to avoid the risk of hacking, were replaced by banter with world leaders on his new secure mobile.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s top foreign policy aide John Bew was working on an updated version of the “integrated review” of Britain’s foreign, defence, security and development stance – one of the few policies promised by Liz Truss which was continued by her successor.
Mr Bew, an academic who was hired by Mr Johnson and has been kept on in No 10 ever since, had compiled the original integrated review in 2021, only to find some of its conclusions rapidly overtaken by events due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He and his new boss, along with most military thinkers, believe that the pace of the geopolitical risks facing the West has dramatically increased, with threats which seemed a decade or more away now potentially imminent.
The new integrated review, published on Monday, now mentions Taiwan as a major flashpoint, while Britain’s defence chiefs have worked to ensure that the Armed Forces are capable of making a meaningful contribution to a Western force defending the island against Beijing if that becomes necessary.
Another scenario preoccupying military planners is that of China sending its navy into the Atlantic for the first time, which will become easier in the coming years because the melting of Arctic sea ice due to global warming creates new shipping routes in the far north.
That is one prompt for the Aukus pact, which will see the US lend its technological know-how to Britain and Australia with the three countries also joining forces on patrol.
Top brass are understood to regard the submarines alliance as a historic moment comparable to the UK-US mutual defence agreement of 1958, binding the three countries together for decades to come in a way that no individual political leader will be able to undo.
The UK’s strategists hope that the global response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine will hold lessons for China: while Western allies took some time to agree on a unified response, it has been far more wide-reaching than many would have predicted.
Another lesson from the Ukraine war is that the British public is more likely to engage with global issues if they have a direct knock-on effect on life in the UK.
Mr Sunak warns privately that the Government’s increase in defence spending must be seen to create jobs in Britain and keep citizens safe on an everyday basis, as well as upholding more abstract ideas of national pride and values.
One problem with foreign policy is that domestic issues always seem to get in the way, and the Prime Minister’s San Diego jaunt was no different.
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank meant Mr Sunak had to spend much of the weekend liaising with the Treasury and Bank of England about how to stop financial contagion, and he spent part of his flight to the US on Zoom with the Bank’s Governor Andrew Bailey, as well as encouraging HSBC bosses to take over the UK arm of the bank despite not having time to do full due diligence on the deal.
In the run-up to the trip, the Prime Minister was told he had to choose between two planes: one which could make it to California in a single journey but does not have internet access, or another which would need to refuel on the way but comes with wifi included.
As he reflected on the SVB fallout with aides in San Diego, Mr Sunak expressed relief that he had plumped for the longer but more high-tech option. No leader can escape trouble at home even when they would rather embrace the global spotlight.