The position of foreign secretary is one of the four great offices of state. It demands tact, diplomacy, a sharp intellect, command of a brief, an ability to communicate without antagonising and a genuine interest in the wider world.
After Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016, it would have been reasonable to assume that these attributes would be more critical than ever. What could be more challenging, after all, than trying to negotiate a divorce with our closest neighbours, allies and trading partners while ensuring relations suffered as little as possible?
And yet when you reflect on the last six years, all four occupants of the role, including Jeremy Hunt – in his own way, possibly the most normal – seem to have gone out of their way to display anything but the required attributes. Here’s a quick look back at some of the lowlights.
As foreign secretary under Theresa May in January 2017, Boris Johnson accused President Hollande of France of wanting to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape [the EU], rather in the manner of some World War II movie”. He didn’t apologise.
Later that year, he wrongly told parliament that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalism when arrested in Iran. In saying this, he played inexcusably into her captors’ hands.
It was perhaps the most fateful example yet of how Johnson’s sloppiness with his words and refusal to take an interest in his brief can do real and lasting damage. Since her release, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has told Johnson that his words “had a big impact on her and that she had lived in their shadow for the best part of four and a half years”. Once again, he hasn’t apologised.
Johnson was followed by Jeremy Hunt, a more natural diplomat with a serious interest in the job, and who was better liked by his officials. But that didn’t stop him, in September 2018, from making a crude reference to the Soviet Union in comparing the EU to a prison. Hunt’s comments caused great offence elsewhere in Europe, not least in the Baltic republics where Soviet occupation is remembered all too clearly.
Hunt was followed by Dominic Raab, hardly a man suffused with the people skills you’d expect in a foreign secretary. Whatever his credentials for the role, though, they were clearly neither his knowledge of geography nor trade. In his previous role as Brexit secretary Raab had said, without any sign of embarrassment, that he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant the UK trade in goods was on the Dover-Calais crossing.
His most notable act as foreign secretary was to be absent on holiday as Kabul and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and fail to come home immediately. Nobody can be blamed for taking a holiday. But just before Raab departed, the British ambassador to Afghanistan had warned that the country was likely to fall very quickly to the Taliban once the US military pulled out.
Even without the benefit of hindsight that we now have, sticking to his holiday seemed remarkable, taking into account the scale of the UK’s presence in Afghanistan, and commitment to the Afghan people over 20 years.
Which brings us to Liz Truss. We now know from former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall that it was Truss who told a US audience three years ago that, in Ireland, Brexit would merely “affect a few farmers with turnips in the back of their trucks”. A cynic might say this demonstrated the perfect credentials for a modern British foreign secretary.
She is now preparing to violate international law having introduced legislation which, if enacted, will unilaterally rewrite elements of the Northern Ireland protocol agreed with the EU. Whatever reasons she uses to justify this to herself, hers is not the act of a person who understands, or even cares about, the international rules-based order which is so important to our collective security. Her every utterance on Ukraine is undermined by her actions on Northern Ireland.
Though he wasn’t foreign secretary, it’s worth also mentioning Lord Frost, who for two painful years was the UK’s chief negotiator with the EU. In an article last year for the European Movement in Scotland, I wrote of Frost’s special blend of “anti-diplomacy”, in which you “seek division while pretending to look for common ground; you see others’ mistakes as a chance to score points; you rub salt into wounds rather than look to heal them”.
Frost has probably played as full a part as anyone mentioned here, except for Johnson, in the trashing of the UK’s international reputation – all the more reprehensible given his previous career as a diplomat.
So there you have it. Diplomacy. Tact. Command of a brief. Ability to persuade and understand others. Knowledge of the world. None of these have been present in our foreign secretaries these last six years. Quite the contrary. Just as ministers break the ministerial code with abandon, so they seem to go out of their way to behave in a manner which is the antithesis of what you’d expect from a foreign secretary.
Hunt doesn’t really deserve to be lumped in with the others. And yet his own comments are in some ways the most telling. This is what Brexit does to people. It corrupts. It makes moderate people say outrageous things. It turns them into liars who throw red meat to fanatics.
And it drags Britain, a country once famed for its diplomacy, ever deeper into the mire.