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There's a brave new world out there for the Foreign Office to explore

By Paul Goodman
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William Hague: From the hero of King Charles Street...

A stuffed anaconda called Albert played a cameo part in a speech by William Hague that wowed the diplomatic and journalistic world only a few months ago.  The Foreign Secretary explained that this lifeless vertebrate is now suspended over the empty shelves of his department's venerable library - a volume-stripped legacy of the Labour years.  "Books from the period when such an unusual foreign gift found its way into the Foreign Office have been dismantled around it, and can never be reassembled," he declared.  Hague thus deftly presented the department's ruined library as a symbol of the worst of the Blair and Brown years: their contempt for the past, fixation with newfangleness, and carelessness with the future - their conviction that ignorance is strength.  He painted a picture of the Foreign Office as a temple plundered by New Labour's barbarians.

The world applauded.  Peter Oborne wrote that Hague had "restored the Foreign Office to its proper dignity", describing in wince-inducing detail how Labour ran down the department - "on one occasion, our honorary consul in Toulouse was put to work finding the Blairs a villa to rent" - and how Hague is building it back up again.  His view reverberated widely: in particular, it was acknowledged that the Foreign Secretary, unlike his recent predecessors under Labour, carries real clout in Downing Street.  But the whirligig of time and of EU summits brings in their revenges.  In the wake of last week's event, Britain was left - the next word is so shaming for King Charles Street that I can scarcely bring myself to write it - isolated. This provoked enough negative briefing about the Foreign Office - and counter-briefing too - to fill those gaping library bookshelves many times over.  Was Sir Jon Cunliffe to blame?  Was Britain's EU ambassador left out of the loop?  Was it all the Treasury's fault?

...To the villain of the Euro-sceptics...

A senior source told me that although "institutional relationships should be improved" - he meant those between Whitehall departments, not between nation states - "Sarkozy would have done what he did anyway".  One riposte to this is that David Cameron should have spent more time since the Coalition was formed strengthening ties with foreign leaders, in the way that John Major did with Helmut Kohl - a relationship that paved the way for the opt-out from a common currency at Maastricht.  In particular, it is claimed that the Prime Minister should have striven harder to lead a combination of the outer ring of EU countries - a rough circle stretching from Portugal through Sweden to Hungary and south and west to Italy - against the Franco-German core.  This is a dubious claim.  A source says that Ed Davey, the Business Department, has spent time and trouble building an alliance over the single market, but that "it consists of eight "ins" and eight "outs" - eight Euro members and eight non-members.  There is no 'outer ring'," he said.

If or when the single currency cracks up, it may be that the Prime Minister's phone calls to Dublin and Prague and Stockholm last week will have played a part in nudging a new alliance into being. But until or unless this happens, there is no eating to be proof of the pudding.  The Foreign Secretary also has his own restorative work to do.  Euro-sceptics far from the Whips' Office list of usual suspects have been critical of what they complain was his lack of readiness for the Eurozone crisis - particularly when it comes to preparing the ground for any repatriation of powers.  The Foreign Office pushes back by arguing vigorously that since the party isn't governing on its own, King Charles Street is constrained in how much it can do, and is bound by the coalition agreement in any event.  This is indisputable, but it is hard not to read recent stories about the Foreign Office opening its doors to the new all-party group on European Reform as an admission that it came a bit late to the party.

...And back again?

Hague may or may not recover his position with some of the Euro-sceptics, but it is worth remembering that he has never lost it with Cameron.  After all, he was with the Prime Minister at the summit, and it is very unusual for foreign ministers to accompany their premiers to such events.  It is also worth asking whether the Foreign Secretary's original foreign policy vision has really been knocked off course.  In his first major speech as Foreign Secretary, he said that Britain should be "agile and energetic in a networked world".  In crude terms, this is a code for looking beyond America and Europe towards growing economies - China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia: "the latest figures show that at the moment we export more to Ireland than we do to India, China and Russia put together", he said.  He may find it hard to persuade the older generation of foreign office civil servants to do so, especially those who rose to the top in the Brown and Blair years.

Keynes's words are familiar: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist".  A way of recasting it is to point out that mandarins are sometimes the slaves of some former mandarin - in this case, perhaps Sir Michael Palliser, the original foreign office enthusiast for the common market, whose ideas rose to the top in step with his career, and stayed there.  Sources claim that these are now being questioned - that some of the younger generation of foreign office civil servants have grasped that there's a world out there beyond Paris and Washington and Brussels.  (There is a residual suspicion in some Tory quarters of the Permanent Secretary, Simon Fraser, Peter Mandelson's fomer chef de cabinet.)   Hague is the first Foreign Secretary to have visited Australia since 1994.  Cameron is trying to build a northern alliance of Baltic and nordic states.  The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood will test the capabilities of British diplomats.

"Frankly, Labour dumbed down the foreign office," I was told.  Climate change and diversity were in.  They are not exactly out.  But now policy thinking and diplomatic expansion are in too.  The Foreign Secretary's anaconda speech was crafted to suggest a department returning from the New Labour doldrums (into which the Iraq venture plunged it) to Tory high standards.  But something bigger may be going on.  Europe remade itself after 1945, and the Foreign Office slowly responded.  It may be about to remake itself again, which could raise the gaze of King Charles Street to new horizans.  Stranger things have happened.


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