Boris Johnson has been “hobbled” as foreign secretary partly by a Whitehall refusal to make the Foreign Office a strategic department spanning diplomacy, trade and overseas development, according to the chair of the foreign affairs select committee.
Tom Tugendhat suggests that bringing trade, intelligence and overseas development issues under the control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) would provide better coordination to meet the challenges of the post-Brexit era.
In a speech to be given on Tuesday to the Rusi defence thinktank, Tugendhat says his proposals will require a revolution at the heart of government.
After the EU referendum, the FCO was dismembered, with the responsibility for Brexit negotiations going to the new Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Tugendhat argues that this shift led to a further power grab by the Cabinet Office, taking key Brexit talks closer to the prime minister.
At the same time, responsibility for trade negotiations was handed to a self-standing department, diminishing the Foreign Office’s clout in the commercial area of foreign relations.
In his speech, Tugendhat will say: “Successive foreign secretaries – including the current one – have been hobbled. They’ve had the title, but they haven’t had the power.”
The Foreign Office “has lost control of key aspects of overseas influence, like trade and development, and has been obliged to take part in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office over anything that involved national security and the EU. This has created silos in our foreign policy, reducing our ability to balance across areas of influence.
“The success or failure of our foreign policy is now more important to the future health and prosperity of our nation than it has been at any time since the end of the second world war. We need to make the Foreign Office the strategic engine of our foreign policy again.”
Tugendhat, seen as a possible future Conservative party leader, has used his status as the foreign affairs committee chair before to criticise the Foreign Office’s lack of strategic direction, claiming the phrase “global Britain” used by Johnson to explain his vision of UK influence was little more than superficial branding.
There is also frustration in the Foreign Office that Johnson’s preoccupation with the Tory leadership means he spends more time positioning himself in relation to Theresa May, and Brexit, instead of developing a coherent stance towards Europe, China and Russia.
Tugendhat will argue that “insight, influence, trade, alliances and force” are the five UK strengths that must be balanced, and call on the government to bring them together under the Foreign Office.
The diplomatic service has long been jealous of the large budget available to the Department for International Development. In conjunction with the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office has been surreptitiously clawing back some of the DfID budget.
Control over parts of the overseas development budget has been handed to other departments to use through new spending streams, such as the Conflict and Stabilisation Fund, or the Prosperity Fund. There has also been a rise in the number of ministers working in DfID and the Foreign Office.
The international development select committee is due to publish a report that criticises the lack of accountability of the funds, and questioning whether the money is being spent on overseas aid as defined by international rules.
The Foreign Office expects the DExEU, headed by David Davis, to fold back into its remit again at some point. Some inside the Foreign Office argue this should happen next year, if and when Britain legally leaves the EU, and the union regards the UK as a third party.
Others claim the bulk of the detailed negotiations over trade, security and foreign policy will remain to be sorted after March 2019, meaning Davis’s department will need to remain in place at least until the end of the transition period, which could extend beyond 2021.
There are also growing doubts about the extent to which Liam Fox’s trade department will have a worthwhile role, especially if, as seems increasingly likely, the UK remains in some form of customs union with a common external tariff.
Depending on the attitude of the EU and the terms of the final deal, a close EU-UK customs union would restrict the department’s ability to negotiate bilateral trade deals outside the EU, making the department largely redundant.
This article provided by NewsEdge.