Prime Minister Imran Khan might visit Britain next month at the invitation of his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, sources in the British government said on Friday.
They said that the prime minister’s visit might take place alongside Pakistan cricket team’s tour of England in July to play three One Day Internationals (ODI) and three Twenty20 Internationals (T20I). The ODI series will form part of the inaugural 2020–23 Cricket World Cup Super League.
The sources revealed that an extraordinary warm telephonic conversation between the British and Pakistani prime ministers took place on June 7. And in a frank conversation, the sources added, both the prime ministers addressed each other by their first names, ‘Imran’ and ‘Boris’.
“This is hugely reflective of the close personal relationship between the premiers, while also accentuating the strategic relationship between the two countries,” said a source.
“It was not only a frank telephonic conversation, but also the avid endorsement of the British prime minister of the Pakistani prime minister’s 10 Billion Trees Tsunami.”
Imran and Johnson had previously met in September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The two had also met in November 2016, when Johnson, then the British foreign secretary, visited Pakistan.
If Prime Minister Imran’s visit goes ahead next month, it would be the first meeting between the two prime ministers in Britain, as Imran had not undertaken any visit to the UK since becoming the prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018.
In the early 2019, when Theresa May was the prime minister, an official visit by Prime Minister Imran was discussed at the diplomatic level but the proposal was shelved because Britain was embroiled in the Brexit deal process at that time. Coronavirus pandemic further delayed any prospects of a visit in 2020.
In recent months, there is a warm build-up in the bilateral relationship in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s announcement of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
There are apprehensions that US withdrawal might plunge the region into another frenzy of a prolonged infighting like before.
The British military and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are aware that if they don’t stay involved in the post-US exit situation, they might become increasingly irrelevant to the South Asian region in the coming years.
It must be taken into account that the Brexit has turned Britain into an inward-looking country. The UK has cut down hundreds of millions of pounds from its foreign aid programme recently which is considered to weaken its soft power in Pakistan and the Commonwealth.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Imran does not seem too keen to merely have a photo session outside the 10 Downing Street.
The diplomatic circles are abuzz with the possibilities of both the countries entering into another comprehensive strategic dialogue that could open many doors of bilateral cooperation and collaboration.
In 2011, prime ministers David Cameron and Yousuf Raza Gilani had initiated a strategic dialogue that witnessed increasing cooperation between the two countries in many areas.
Some quick wins for Pakistan included was the grant of the Generalised Scheme of Preference-Plus (GSP+) status by the European Parliament with the backing of Britain.
However, in the last five years, things started getting stale with the UK giving cold shoulder to Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) issue.
The sources indicated that although the July meeting looked promising, one thorny issue might cause a delay to the meeting, which is the presence of the former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in London.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has said many a time that he would bring Sharif back to Pakistan to face his prison sentence. However, given the almost three decades long stay of Altaf Hussain in asylum and the independence of the British judiciary, it seems like a Herculean task.