Rishi who? Sunak slips down pecking order in G20 scramble to court India | Rishi Sunak

When Rishi Sunak finally got to meet his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on Saturday, it was not entirely what the British prime minister had hoped for.

India and the UK are respectively the fifth and sixth biggest economies in the world, and the two countries’ leaders had been scheduled to meet a day earlier, at Modi’s grand residence in New Delhi. But diplomacy can be brutal and Sunak found himself, if not exactly snubbed, certainly shunted down the pecking order.

Instead of the glorious photo op that had been in prospect, the two leaders met in a soulless conference room in the concrete complex where India had been hosting the G20 conference. The prized trip to the Indian prime minister’s house, with all its rich splendour, was reserved for US president Joe Biden.

For those who argue that Britain is now more isolated on the world stage after Brexit, the delay and change of location offered a powerful example.

Sunak, however, was in buoyant mood after the meeting, expressing confidence that a trade deal could soon be signed. “Prime minister Modi and I had a very warm and productive discussion on a range of things,” he said. “I’m confident there is a deal there to be done.”

The changes to Sunak’s schedule reflected the complex logistics and fickle politics of an international summit as much as they did Britain’s reduced standing on the world stage.

Modi was not the only person to cancel on Sunak on Friday night: a delegation of business executives also called off a planned function after struggling to get past the roadblocks erected across the city for the duration of the summit. The prime minister and his wife, Akshata Murty, could not even visit one of their favourite Indian chain restaurants – Haldiram’s or Saravana Bhavan – because of a citywide shutdown ordered by Modi in a show of brute political power. Instead, they ended up eating alone at the Imperial hotel, in what Sunak called a “very rare dinner together”.

Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, meeting local women at an event prior to the summit. Tight security has made it hard for leaders to mingle. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA

It was not the pick-me-up Sunak had hoped for after another bruising week of domestic politics, in which school buildings were closed to check for crumbling concrete and a suspected terrorist escaped prison and went on the run for several days.

No 10 had hoped for a rapturous reception for the prime minister on his first visit to the country since entering Downing Street, describing himself as “India’s son-in-law”. But with Delhi on lockdown, there have been precious few local people for the couple to meet. Instead, Murty’s charm and diplomatic nous have been deployed on fellow delegates.

“There are lots of things that go into building personal relationships, including how we interact with other people’s spouses,” Sunak said.

The greatest diplomatic breakthrough for the UK from the summit could be progress towards an Indian trade deal, given that the two sides have been negotiating for more than 18 months. British officials are increasingly confident that one could be signed later this year. If it happens, the government believes it could help mitigate criticisms that Brexit has impoverished Britain internationally, and provide the prime minister with a much-needed political victory. But it is unlikely to alleviate the difficult fiscal decisions he has to take before then.

Under pressure from Tory backbenchers to cut taxes, Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are reported to be considering cutting benefits next spring to pay for them.

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Sunak refused to rule this out.

“There are lots of different ways you can help people,” he said. “We’ve helped people with energy bills support directly this year. We provided direct cost of living payments. There are lots of ways to get support to the people who need it.”

Nor would he commit to keeping the pensions triple lock in place after the election. “I’m not going to get into our manifesto now, but the triple lock has been a longstanding policy for us,” he said.

Sunak has found enough money for the UK’s largest financial contribution to the international Green Climate Fund, approving £1.6bn to help countries adapt to global heating. Downing Street hopes the new funding will help combat claims the prime minister is not committed to tackling the climate crisis.

The Guardian revealed on Saturday that he had decided not to attend the UN general assembly after being warned he could be excluded from key discussions on climate, though Sunak insisted this was not the reason for his not attending. “Given all the other pressures on my diary, I’m keen to get on and keep delivering for the British people,” he said.

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