Rishi Sunak is a prime minister with a famously full to-do list. At the start of the year he set himself five “pledges” — on all of inflation, economic growth, the NHS, debt and small boats — to work on in the remaining few years of his premiership. He has since undertaken what could be considered a more difficult duty, as he crusades against a stale “30 year” political consensus with net zero target tinkering and by reapportioning HS2 funding.
But there are other more unofficial, and rather more pressing, concerns that will be animating the prime minister right now. Polling shows that in his first year in No 10, Sunak has made little progress on his overarching mission of turning around the Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes; of course, underpinning this central objective is his bid to unite the Conservative Party after the trauma and tailspin of the last few years, while creating a vision he can sell to the public. He must do so against a backdrop of recurrent bad news stories, including in recent days those emanating from the Covid inquiry.
There is little sign Sunak has given up politically — as he continues his post-conference relaunch through the King’s Speech and Autumn Statement; but any prime minister 18 points behind in the polls could be forgiven for looking over the horizon of the next election and into the future. Lest he is remembered as a slightly more stable appendage to the drama of the Johnson and Truss years, Sunak might now need to curate a central, dignified policy mission that future generations can exalt.
Forging a legacy, of course, is the perennial occupation of any prime minister, posterity-minded as they are: Theresa May, after the chaos of the Brexit years, surely had one eye on the history books as she committed the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Boris Johnson cites a triplet of triumphs on Brexit, the Covid vaccine and Ukraine support. Liz Truss, well, Liz Truss has the Growth Commission.
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And when Rishi Sunak announced in June that the UK would host the “first major global summit on artificial intelligence safety”, it seemed the PM was setting the foundations for his own credible and readily-citable legacy project.
It has become cliché now to refer to our California-dwelling prime minister as a “tech bro”, but with the Whitehouse occupied by octogenarian Joe Biden, the 43-year-old Rishi Sunak truly thinks he can be an international trailblazer on AI.
Ultimately, if Sunak can’t save the Conservative Party at the next election, assuming a leading role in saving the world from novel technologies might seem fitting default position.
Thus, when Sunak first announced plans for a global AI summit in June, the PM and his officials quickly went about convincing countries to take the UK seriously on technology. Sunak takes pride in how he has helped repair the UK’s diplomatic standing after the testy foreign policies of the Johnson and Truss administrations. But more than this: he has embraced the international stage in a bid to leverage moments of apparent success over his doubters on the domestic front. The AI summit, No 10 may well assess, could help Sunak burnish his reputation on the world stage after recent bruising by-election losses.
In this way, the very pledge to organise such a high-profile event inside just six months — with some world leaders already said to prefer existing governance initiatives like the G7 Hiroshima Process — serves as an indication of how keen Sunak is to be seen as a leader in the AI field. And despite the early confirmed no-shows of US president Joe Biden, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron, Sunak seems to think his AI gamble is paying off.
Yesterday, representatives from China and the United States shared a stage as they signed a joint statement, alongside 26 other countries, pledging to establish a new network to research frontier AI risks. The so-called “Bletchley declaration” reads: “Substantial risks may arise from potential intentional misuse or unintended issues of control relating to alignment with human intent. These issues are in part because those capabilities are not fully understood and are therefore hard to predict.”
Securing China’s signature, after the country’s invite caused considerable disquiet among his party’s foreign policy “hawks”, will be seen as Sunak breaking new ground. Meanwhile, science, innovation and technology secretary Michelle Donelan has confirmed that the next AI summit will be held in South Korea in six months’ time, with a third held in France in late 2024. It seems Sunak has set the ball rolling on a series of COP-style tech summits; if they continue long into the future, it could be a worthy legacy.
Rishi Sunak’s AI dividing line
There is also an argument to say that Sunak is not merely content with an AI legacy, but intends to weaponise his international tech trailblazer status for his own present political purposes.
The prime minister is, of course, an unashamed techno-optimist; in a speech last week, he declared that his decision “not to rush to regulate” AI — against the apparent instincts of the international community — is “a point of principle”. “We believe in innovation, it’s a hallmark of the British economy so we will always have a presumption to encourage it, not stifle it”, he declared. Instinctively, Sunak questions the need for legislation “for things we don’t yet understand”.
It sets up a dividing line with the Labour Party, which is carefully shadowing international opinion on artificial intelligence and stressing the potential dangers. At London “Tech Week” in June, Keir Starmer warned that AI could worsen inequality and leave some communities poorer.
“Can [AI] help build a society where everyone is included, and inequalities are narrowed not widened?”, he mused, adding: “This moment calls for Labour values, of working in partnership with business, driving technology to the public good, and ensuring people and places aren’t left behind.”
And in the wake of the AI summit, Labour has spotted an opportunity to say it would “urgently” impose new regulations on companies involved in frontier AI, the most advanced type.
Shadow tech sec Peter Kyle invoked Starmer’s “inaction man” jibe to slight Sunak’s regulation hesitation. He said: “It is not good enough for our ‘inaction man’ prime minister to say he will not rush to take action, having told the public that there are national security risks which could end our way of life”.
Labour, here, has arguably put its finger on an inherent incoherence of Sunak’s AI messaging. It is a paradox best summed up in his statement to broadcasters this morning, when he suggested we shouldn’t be “alarmist” about AI — but stressed, in the same scripted spiel, that it could lead to risks on the scale of “pandemics and nuclear war”.
It begs the question: does Sunak’s hesitation to regulate AI cohere with his new “long-term decisions for a brighter future” slogan? It’s something Labour could look to exploit down the line.
There is, of course, a question about whether tech policy is salient enough to feature with any level of prominence in a coming election campaign. But Sunak has found another dividing line with Labour, and Starmer looks set to embrace it. One wonders, though, whether the PM might need to rethink an approach built around light-touch regulation and doomsaying rhetoric.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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