Rishi Sunak’s visit to New Delhi on Saturday as the first British-Indian Prime Minister is an “historic moment” but he will be putting the interests of the UK first, including rejecting any demands to hand out more student visas in return for a trade deal, Downing Street has said.
No 10 said Mr Sunak’s visit for the G20 summit was a “powerful reminder of the living bridge which exists between our two countries” but made clear “at the forefront of his mind is achieving what is in the best interest of the British public”.
He is therefore likely to face down any demands from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to liberalise visa rules for Indian students in return for a UK-India free trade agreement (FTA) thought to be in the final stages of negotiations.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman played down the idea a deal could be sealed when the pair meet for bilateral talks on Saturday, with Mr Sunak telling Cabinet on Tuesday he would only do a deal “that works in the interests of the whole UK” with no arbitrary deadline.
He also sought to dampen Conservative MPs’ fears that Mr Sunak could allow more Indian students to come to the UK to get a deal, which could see tariffs slashed on British exports like Scotch whisky or cars.
There would only be a discussion around short-term business visas during the FTA negotiations, the spokesman indicated.
“This is a trade deal, it is focused on trade and business, immigration is a separate issue,” he told reporters en route to New Delhi.
“The only aspect of movement of people covered by an FTA is business mobility, which is the temporary movement of businesspeople for specific purposes.”
He added: “There are no plans to change our immigration policy to achieve this FTA.”
Earlier on Thursday, the spokesman refused to comment on reports that Home Secretary Suella Braverman pushed Mr Sunak not to hand out more student visas to India during Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.
But he added: “I think there’s an important point to stress on visas.
“The Prime Minister has been clear he believes that the current levels of migration are too high.
“He and the Home Secretary, indeed the immigration minister [Robert Jenrick], are united in their commitment to reducing net migration.”
Mr Sunak is also expected to use talks with Mr Modi to urge him to take a tougher stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – with India remaining neutral and continuing to do business with Moscow – while also pushing allies and others to maintain support for Kyiv in the brutal war.
“India has a vital role to play as the world’s largest democracy in calling out Russia’s assault on human rights and indeed democracy itself and we will use meetings with Modi or elsewhere to encourage them to use that influence to bring an end to Putin’s brutal invasion,” the spokesman said.
But Mr Sunak may face pressure from Mr Modi over climate finance, after the Indian prime minister appeared to criticise the failure of Western nations to meet a pledge to spend $100bn a year to help developing countries decarbonise.
It comes after the Prime Minister was accused of a “betrayal” by Lord Goldsmith when he quit as a minister in July amid suggestions that a promise to meet an £11.6bn climate and nature pledge to contribute to the international fund would be missed.
Disagreements between G20 states, which include Russia and China, over Ukraine and climate change could mean the summit ends without a joint agreed position, the spokesman indicated.
A communique was “still being negotiated” but “it is not unusual for there not to be agreement at G20s,” the spokesman said, pointing out there was instead a “leader’s declaration” at last year’s summit.
It is still unclear if Mr Sunak will meet Chinese premier Li Qiang. It is thought he had been seeking a meeting with President Xi Jinping but he is not attending.
Mr Sunak will also come face-to-face with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, with Vladimir Putin skipping the gathering, and the Prime Minister will use every opportunity to remind Russia, “whether Lavrov or otherwise”, of the damage they are causing to the world, the spokesman said.
The Prime Minister will be accompanied by his wife, billionaire heiress Akshata Murty, and the pair are set to visit a number of sites away from the summit itself in what is likely to have powerful symbolic value given India’s status as a former British colony.
Shadow Foreign Secretary/ David Lammy said: “Rishi Sunak arrives at the G20 as a minnow on the global stage.
“Under his leadership, Britain’s standing has been diminished further even than under his predecessor.
“He arrives in Delhi without the UK-India trade deal the Tories promised would be completed by last October. On climate, Sunak is chaotically retreating from his Government’s previous promises. And unlike the vast majority of the other world leaders, he can’t even be bothered to attend the UN General Assembly later this month.
“This G20 cannot just be used as an opportunity for personal networking and Instagram content.
“Britain needs a Prime Minister who will use the G20 to rebuild our credibility with key allies in the US and the EU, while forging new partnerships on trade, climate and critical minerals with rising powers. In government, Labour will reconnect Britain on the world stage, increasing our diplomatic footprint in the economies of the future like India and Brazil.”