Keeping the UK in AUKUS

In an unexpected gamble, the UK Conservatives have called an early general election for July 4, significantly earlier than legally required or than pundits expected.  With the government trailing in every opinion poll published since January 2022, and a particularly inauspicious start to the campaign, suggesting a change of government is likely, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to assess the health of the AUKUS partnership in the event of new leadership.

If the polls are to be believed, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might have a better chance winning a jackpot in Vegas than winning re-election with his Conservative party predicted to lose a staggering 130 seats. Despite this, the path to majority government for UK Labour might still be just out of reach. To win outright, Labour will need to secure a net increase of 125 seats, meaning a record breaking national swing of at least 12.7%. As such, pundits and pollsters are predicting a minority Labour Government.

If Labour does win majority government the party promises broad continuity on foreign policy and Labour will continue to strongly support the AUKUS alliance. Indeed, even back in 2021 when the alliance was first formed, Labour said it would have signed up to AUKUS themselves if they were in power; a position reaffirmed as recently as a little over a week ago by Labour’s shadow foreign minister for Asia and the Pacific, Catherine West. West stated that a serious approach to China includes a ‘wider-ranging British approach to the Indo-Pacific’ and ‘without a doubt’ AUKUS is a cornerstone of that approach.

If Labour does not win majority government, it will need to assess its options to secure the magic number of 326 seats. One option for Labour would be the Scottish National Party (SNP), which currently holds 45 seats in the Commons. Based on current polling, a deal with the SNP would give this coalition a majority of roughly 17 seats. In the event of a deal, the SNP has made a list of demands, including winding back Brexit as far as possible. Regarding AUKUS, the SNP have significant reservations. In 2021, several SNP members expressed concern over the alliance due to the party’s stance on nuclear weapons and fears the alliance would be a steppingstone for the development of more nuclear weaponry around the world. SNP member Drew Hendry stated that the party is ‘morally, economically, environmentally and strategically against’ the use of nuclear-powered submarines. Additionally, the SNP have also expressed that Britain’s foreign policy should not focus on a region so far away. Notably, such a coalition is unlikely, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer repeatedly stating that he would never form government with the SNP.

Whilst Starmer has unequivocally stated he would not do a deal with the SNP, he has not ruled out a deal with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats currently hold 15 seats, but if the recent local elections are any indicator they would hypothetically reach 39 members in July – making a majority of 11 if the two parties teamed up. The marriage would not be perfect as the two parties disagree on issues such as Brexit and immigration. With this said, the Liberal Democrats have welcomed the AUKUS alliance. In this regard, a coalition between the two parties would likely see continued strong support for the pact. However, given the Liberal Democrats were almost completely electorally obliterated between 2010-2015 as a result of their ill-fated coalition government with the Conservatives under David Cameron, the party might be understandably wary about signing up to another coalition government.

If Labour does not join a coalition, they can instead do a confidence of supply deal. This would mean another party would agree to support Labour in motions of confidence and on budgetary matters; support for all other legislation would be on a case-by-case basis. 

According to a poll by British think tank Policy Exchange, only 17% of Britons do not think AUKUS is beneficial. Even with a change of government, and in the event of a coalition (likely to be between Labour and the Liberal Democrats), AUKUS will continue to see strong support from the UK.

28 May 2024 | Authored by Sarah Coward, Principal Consultant; and, Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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