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Does FCO now stand for Foreign and Commerce Office?

By Tim Montgomerie

"David Cameron to lead huge British mission to India" reports The Telegraph. And it is huge. If last week's trip to Washington was low budget there is nothing under-stated about this week's attempt to build a Special Relationship with India:

  • Via Turkey, Cameron is travelling with SEVEN Cabinet ministers, including George Osborne, William Hague and Vince Cable.
  • The Mail notes that the Prime Minister's entourage includes FIFTY Footsie chief executives – including Barclays Bank’s John Varley and WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell.
  • Representing British sport, culture and education the UK party will include Lord Coe, Sir Steve Redgrave, Dame Kelly Holmes, the directors of the British Museum and British Library, and a host of university academics.

The Independent is sceptical about the benefits of what it sees as a "strangely antiquated" approach to trade:

"The best thing governments can do to facilitate such economic interaction is to scrap subsidies, dismantle protectionist controls and then, to put it bluntly, get out of the way. This idea that business deals should be brokered and sealed between national political leaders is dangerous. One only needs to look at the travails of BP to see the trouble that can arise when politicians start to regard themselves as champions of national firms."

I take The Independent's point but in certain sectors - like defence, for example, where big contracts are likely to be signed this week - government involvement is often decisive. The Independent also understates the importance of big events. As Jo Johnson MP writes in this week's Spectator, George W Bush's 2008 decision to help India develop a nuclear power programme was a "game changer".

Like The Guardian, the Independent is also worried that the Coalition government's immigration limit could damage UK-India relations:

"Where there can be said to be a strong connection between our two nations is in the estimated 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora in Britain and the 34,000 Indian nationals studying in British universities. That is where our comparative advantage lies when it comes to trade: micro-level economic and personal contacts. And, ironically, it is here that Mr Cameron's Government has been unnecessarily destructive. Ministers have pledged to impose a cap on non-EU migration and to restrict student visas. They are threatening to make it harder for spouses from the subcontinent to come to Britain."

Mr Cameron is determined to ensure the Foreign and Commonwealth Office focuses on Britain's economic needs. Last week - speaking to business leaders in New York - the PM said "I want to refashion British foreign policy, the Foreign Office, to make us much more focused on the commercial aspects... making sure we are demonstrating Britain is open for business." 

Last week he broke the tradition of appointing a diplomat to be Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. The job went to Simon Fraser, currently the top civil servant at the Department for Business and a former trade adviser to Lord Mandelson, when he was EU Commissioner.

The Foreign Office won't like this redirection of their mission but, at a time of economic peril, David Cameron is determined to see it happen.


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