Foreign Secretaries since 2016: has the UK been well-served?

The position of Foreign Secretary is one of the Great Offices of State. It requires tact, command of a brief, outstanding communication skills, and a real interest in the wider world. Here’s a look at recent incumbents, picking a random starting point of June 2016.

In January 2017, Boris Johnson accused the then French president 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 into her captors’ hands.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/06/boris-johnson-mistake-could-harm-case-for-nazanin-zaghari-ratcliffe-say-family

After her release, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe told Johnson, now prime minister, that his words had “had a big impact on her and that she had lived in their shadow for the best part of four and a half years”. He didn’t apologise.

Johnson was followed by Jeremy Hunt, a much more natural diplomat with a serious interest in the job. 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 which remembered Soviet occupation all too clearly. He didn’t apologise.

Next was Dominic Raab. Hardly a charmer, maybe he would at least bring sound geographical knowledge? Surprising, then, that in a previous role he’d said that he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant the UK trade in goods was on the Dover-Calais crossing.

As foreign secretary, in July 2021, Raab went on holiday despite prophetic warnings from the British Ambassador to Kabul that Afghanistan was likely to fall very quickly to the Taliban once the US military pulled out.

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.”

Three years on Truss is preparing to introduce legislation which would unilaterally rewrite elements of the Northern Ireland protocol agreed with the EU, in violation of international law.

Some people might call that the hostile act of a nascent rogue state, but maybe we can be confident that Liz Truss knows what she’s doing and would do nothing to harm the UK’s reputation. She’s Foreign Secretary, after all.

And say what you like about her, she knows her own mind and ploughs her own furrow.

So there you have it. Diplomacy. Tact. Command of a brief. Ability to persuade and understand others. None of these have been present in the last four years – quite the contrary.

Just as ministers break the ministerial code with abandon, so they practise a form of anti-diplomacy in which they do everything a foreign secretary shouldn’t.

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 read meat to fanatics.

And it drags Britain, a country once famed for its diplomacy, ever deeper into the mire.