Can the Foreign Office find a place for Britain post-Brexit? Photo: Prospect composite

An island apart: the inside story of how the Foreign Office is failing to prepare for Brexit

"Global Britain" has become an oft-repeated phrase. Yet in reality, the Foreign Office is losing its battle to find a place in the world for Britain post-Brexit
October 14, 2018

In the summer of 2016, a few weeks after Theresa May became prime minister, Number 10 approached the White House with an idea. Leaving the EU, as May herself had pointed out during the referendum, would mean losing international influence. But if May could lead Britain into a new alliance, she thought, perhaps some of that damage could be fixed. Britain and the US, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, already co-operated on intelligence through the “Five Eyes” alliance. What if, May suggested, this alliance expanded beyond intelligence and became a formal political bloc? Barack Obama’s response was blunt. “That’s crazy,” he told his aides. “What are those five countries going to do?” They didn’t have an answer and the offer was declined (in slightly more diplomatic language).

Since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, huge questions surrounding the UK’s place in the world have been left unanswered. May has come up with a slogan, Global Britain, but nothing so far resembling a strategy. The cabinet has been at loggerheads about how far—or not—to remain “aligned” with the European economy. But even to the extent the UK is tempted to try something different, there is no agreement about what that is—whether to concentrate, as George Osborne did at one time, on aligning with China? Or forging new links with other emerging economies? To double down on the relationship with Washington, or look back to historic colonial connections?

Attempts to forge closer trade links with the Commonwealth have been mocked as Empire 2.0, while this year’s Commonwealth summit was overshadowed by the row over the ill-treatment of the Windrush generation. May has sought to work with European leaders on Iran, climate change and Russia, but has also angered politicians on the continent with heated rhetoric over Brexit. Meanwhile, early attempts to befriend Donald Trump ended in embarrassment. All that seems clear is that the country is leaving a club without any real idea where it is going.

Office politics

The institution charged with helping a confused country chart a way through this muddle is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is one of the most venerable institutions in the world of diplomacy. Since the post of foreign secretary was created in 1782, his (or, in the single case of Margaret Beckett’s tenure, her) office has helped Britain forge and then shed an Empire, and guided it through more than two centuries of shifting alliances in war and in peace. It masterminds a global network of diplomats, embassies and consular offices, to provide Whitehall’s window on the world. It has been involved in brokering everything from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and has served as the power base for political giants of the past, from Canning and Castlereagh through Palmerston, Salisbury and Bevin. Its imposing structure—designed by Gilbert Scott, and following the personal intervention of the prime minister, in the classical rather than the Gothic style—makes it appear like a rock-solid institution, on which a country can rely on in uncertain times.

And yet the Foreign Office is also struggling to define its role, as those who know it best have told me, in language that was anything but diplomatic. It is “exhausted,” said one current ambassador; in a “malaise” said a recently-retired senior diplomat; a “shambles” said a former ambassador. The Foreign Office has “no clout” according to Peter Ricketts, a man who was its top mandarin—permanent under-secretary and head of the diplomatic service—in the 2000s. It is “timid” added Simon Fraser, who took over from Ricketts before retiring in 2015. Indeed, it has “lost its way,” according to Tom Tugendhat, who—as chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs committee—is the chief Parliamentarian tasked with keeping an eye on its work.

How did the Foreign Office end up in such a mess? Like all government departments it has absorbed deep cuts, while its influence has been further reduced by a series of decisions taken to remove many of its functions—aid in 1997, national security in 2010 and trade in 2016. Then there is Brexit, which has reduced—and will continue to reduce—the Foreign Office’s effectiveness in Europe and, arguably, beyond. But the most important factor has been the organisation’s leadership.

Just a few decades ago, the foreign secretary was one of the very top jobs in government—the equal of the chancellor. But its status dwindled with Britain’s role in the world, and it is no longer guaranteed to be filled by a politician of the top rank. William Hague—foreign secretary from 2010 to 2014, and also a former party leader with independent clout—is still spoken of warmly by those who used to work with him, but the same cannot be said for his successors. The FCO “lost its mojo” under Philip Hammond, said a former ambassador. “Diplomats felt brutalised by him. He was very dismissive of advice and projected a sense of ‘I don’t know why you guys exist.’ By the time he left it was a very demoralised organisation.” A current senior official, who worked with Hammond on a daily basis, said the now-chancellor “could take the warmth out of the room with one look.”

Then, along with Brexit, came Boris Johnson. Almost every single person I spoke to for this article—diplomats, British and foreign, current and former; politicians, outside experts—criticised him in some way. One official who worked with him closely described the problem well: Johnson had two duelling jobs, foreign secretary and Brexiteer-in-chief. And he always seemed keener on the latter. His two years in office were marred by a series of blunders: one senior official recounted how “embarrassingly” out of his depth he was in a meeting with the Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, another squirmed when he recalled a similarly ill-prepared meeting on Syria with the French foreign minister in Paris.

For Robin Niblett of Chatham House, a thoughtful policy wonk not prone to exaggeration, Johnson wasn’t simply shambolic—he was dangerous, having played “with the populism that took Europe to its darkest period. Most European leaders can’t help but be frightened by the naked appeal to nationalism. What Britain says and does legitimises what others, like [Italian interior minister] Matteo Salvini and [Hungarian premier] Victor Orbán, can do.” (After Orbán was re-elected, following an anti-Semitic campaign, Johnson tweeted his congratulations.)

Johnson’s resignation, over May’s Chequers plan, was greeted with relief inside King Charles Street and in embassies around the world. In Jeremy Hunt the Foreign Office has a secretary of state who ticks two important boxes: he is not a hardline Brexiteer and he has the trust of the PM. One attendee at the weekly ministers’ meeting remarked at how professionally it was run now that Johnson wasn’t sat at the head of the table -cracking jokes, casting around the room for someone to laugh with him.

But while the mood initially lifted slightly, Hunt’s recent comments at Conservative Party conference comparing the EU to the Soviet Union were met with shock by seasoned diplomats.  “I still can’t believe he said that,” one told me, days later. But then few with ambitions in today’s Brexit-fixated Tory Party are likely to strike a measured note about Europe in a conference speech. The deeper problem is that Hunt’s appointment has still not answered the question of what a post-Brexit foreign policy will look like. Nor has it solved the other leadership issue—the one surrounding the current permanent under secretary and head of the diplomatic service, Simon McDonald.

Decline and fall

The PUS, as he is known inside the foreign office, is no ordinary senior civil servant. He—and it always has been a he—is far more influential, able to make and break careers. In the past, he was considered a “God-like figure,” said Ricketts, who was the first grammar-school-educated PUS and is credited by many inside the Foreign Office with beginning a process of modernisation. His successor, Fraser, was also seen as a moderniser, attempting to bring an institution more male, pale and stale than most other departments into the 21st century. McDonald, on the other hand, was most often described to me as “traditional,” even by those who speak well of him.

“Simon sees himself as redressing some things,” said one senior official who works with him. A former ambassador agreed: “He’s unapologetically 19th-century foreign office.” In the Fraser era, McDonald was “always the guy at the back of the room groaning.” Another former diplomat noted that McDonald “enjoys the appointments”—working out which middle-rank diplomat will be ambassador in Cairo in 10 years’ time—but is less interested in strategy.

McDonald has made one concession to modernity. He is an avid tweeter, although here he has his critics. One foreign affairs expert I spoke to ranted for five minutes about “that fucking cat,” the Foreign Office’s pet, called Palmerston, who stars in many of McDonald’s tweets. (Since the referendum, the PUS has sent 42 tweets about the cat and just 25 about Brexit.)

An official who works on international affairs elsewhere in Whitehall has more substantive complaints, accusing McDonald of failing to accept that the Foreign Office no longer has full control of all areas of foreign policy. “Simon is the opposite of collaborative. He wants 100 per cent control over a small amount of territory rather than shared control over a larger territory. It’s destined to fail.” Rising stars, he claimed, don’t want to be at King Charles Street, choosing to stay abroad or work in another department. McDonald and Johnson were, said the same official, a “fatal combination.”

In a rare interview, McDonald brushed off much of the criticism aimed at him. Traditional? Well, up to a point. “The part of traditional which I completely embrace is the idea of standards, the idea of being the best.” The suggestion that he is “some kind of stuck-in-the-mud… I don’t recognise.”

It would be wrong, though, to lay all the blame at the feet of McDonald or indeed Johnson—the Foreign Office has been in decline for some time. There was Tony Blair’s spinning off of aid into its own department, which now has a far bigger budget, and then David Cameron’s creation of a National Security Council which sapped yet more influence.

Budget cuts, particularly since 2010, have had a devastating effect. The Foreign Office has been “cut too far and stretched too thin,” said Ricketts. Fraser suggested why the institution might struggle to fight its own corner. “Institutionally, the Foreign Office is a bit timid. One of the difficulties of being a diplomat is you tend to be diplomatic and actually government is a brutal world.” Those cuts have had an impact on quality. Privately, senior officials admit the standard of ambassadors is not as high as it should be. Soon after leaving the Foreign Office, Tom Fletcher, a former ambassador and private seceretary to the prime minister, was tasked with compiling a report on its future. While presenting it to the board, he quoted one senior minister saying a third of ambassadors were not good enough. To which a board member—now retired—muttered, “is that all?”

By June 2016, the Foreign Office had lost money and influence. Then came Brexit. “Most people inside the Foreign Office believe Brexit was a strategic mistake,” said one former senior official, speaking anonymously but spelling out something that everybody already knows. The Treasury is currently seen as pro-European, but that is a recent development, produced by panic about what Brexit could do to the books. In the days of Gordon Brown the Treasury, like many other Whitehall departments including the Home Office, would frequently kick against restrictions imposed by EU rules.

The Foreign Office, on the other hand, has been pro-EU for decades, believing in the importance of working with Britain’s partners inside and outside the continent. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider that it has been about the most central part of Britain’s foreign policy machinery for 45 years—even retired mandarins, such as Ricketts who joined 12 months after the UK “went into Europe,” have no professional experience of what life was like before. There is no institutional memory of life outside the EU, no instinct for how it is meant to work.

The referendum result—and what it has led to—has not gone down well. “Everything we’ve worked for, for generations, has been ripped up in the last couple of years,” said one ambassador. “It’s been a really challenging two years for our whole worldview.”

Brexit has undermined the Foreign Office way of working in two practical ways. First, it has withdrawn the department from the principal channel by which it leveraged its diplomatic effort into multilateral influence around the world. And second, because May has carved out separate departments covering trade and Brexit policy, it has further reduced the Foreign Office’s responsibility. “The Foreign Office has had its limbs amputated,” said Ricketts. “Separating the Foreign Office machinery from policy making on the EU is not efficient.” Even McDonald, who is understandably reticent to criticise the government, does not offer a full-throated defence of the new arrangements. (Is it a good thing, I asked him? “It’s a… thing,” he replied.)

Global spin


More fundamentally, Brexit created deep uncertainty about where the country goes. The government’s answer, so far, boils down to two words: Global Britain. But the official Global Britain strategy, which the Foreign Office has been tasked with drawing up, doesn’t yet exist.

What is Global Britain? “Good question,” said one person who has sat in those Global Britain strategy meetings at the -Foreign Office. “A joke,” said another who has listened to presentations on the topic at the national security council.

“Vacuous,” said one senior civil servant in another department. “A slogan without any content.” A European ambassador to the UK is equally scathing. “Is there an idea? No. An architect? No. I don’t know what ‘Global Britain’ means.”

“I sort of understand what it means,” said one senior Foreign Office official. “But if you’re asking me what the strategy is, no, I don’t.” Other officials are wary of the slogan because, as Niblett puts it, it’s a “strapline that is loaded with partisan utility.”

McDonald made a stab at defending the idea of Global Britain—“it’s about the UK remaining engaged around the world”—but was hazier when it came to outlining a strategy. There are “various groups” working on it, producing “various documents,” he said. The prime minister is “fleshing it out.”

Meanwhile, the slogan—which to non-British ears can sound arrogant—has done little to mend relationships with allies. “There is a risk that the rest of the world will discount Britain until we have settled our issues with Europe,” said Fletcher. “Sadly some of our key allies have checked us into the Priory. They hope that we will come out renewed and reinvigorated as an international force. But they are not counting on it.”

Confidence crisis


If Britain doesn’t know where it wants to go, how can this institution provide wise counsel about how to get there? On the other hand, if the country’s leaders are not receiving the best advice how are they going to set the right direction? The impasse leaves the FCO convulsed by a “crisis of confidence,” said one former ambassador. “The organisation is exhausted. They’re all working longer and longer hours. People are knackered.” And yet, at the same time, there is a sense of drift. “There are lots of people asking ‘what are we really for?’”

Some try to look on the bright side. Fraser pointed out how many civil servants in the organisations carved out of the Foreign Office are its secondees (Mark Sedwill at the NSC, Matthew Rycroft at Dfid, Antonia Romeo at DIT, Alex Ellis at DExEU). The “Foreign Office view,” it could be argued, is now instilled across more departments. And inside the FCO, not everyone sees the loss of major policy areas to other departments as a bad thing. “Grandees want to own policy on development, trade and Europe. Frankly it’s rubbish,” said one official, though his reasoning is not suggestive of institutional confidence—“If we ran development we wouldn’t have a clue how to spend the money. If we ran European policy we wouldn’t have a clue on regulatory affairs, security, justice.”

What can the Foreign Office hope to do well? It should, said this official, see itself as a consultancy, “managing relationships” with other countries, not working on policy. “There’s always this hankering here for being ‘strategic command.’ It’s never going to work like that.” Tugendhat worries that the Foreign Office has “become a lobbying organisation. Some embassies see their roles as campaigners in domestic politics rather than as foreign representatives of the British people.” The department, he argued, risks turning into an NGO.

Ricketts, who isn’t the sort of man to show exasperation, struggles to hide his frustration. “No one is doing anything about UK foreign policy. What will it be after Brexit?” For Niblett, the answer will ultimately have to be the same as it was before Brexit: Europe. “We’ve got to think of Europe as our next special relationship.” Forget Global Britain, Niblett argued we need to “steadily ease back to European Britain.”

Fraser agreed. “We’ve got to find a way of redefining our European-ness.” One way forward, he suggested, would be a formal “E3” grouping with France and Germany, though convincing those two to join up would, he accepted, be difficult. Britain should become comfortable with being a middling power. “Our voice among those who lean towards a rules-based order can still be powerful,” enabling us to “reacquire some... agency and sense of purpose.”

For more traditional diplomats like Ricketts and Mark Lyall Grant, the former national security adviser, the answer is initiatives. Ricketts cited Cameron’s conferences on Somalia and money laundering—important, mid-level issues where Britain’s mid-level leadership could make a difference. That sounds well-intentioned, though it’s hardly the kind of vision to set Palmerston purring. Lyall Grant sounded a touch more ambitious, suggesting high-profile projects with France or Germany—echoing past partnership over the Channel Tunnel and Concorde—that would highlight Britain’s continued commitment to co-operation. “Something iconic which binds us together. There are things we can do if we’re sufficiently brave.”

Bravery is one thing, but real direction is quite another—and so is the FCO’s vanishing sense of itself. Is the Foreign Office an NGO-style campaigning organisation? A consultancy in the style of PwC? Or should it try to restore itself to its former glories? Until it works out what it wants to be, Britain’s role in the world will remain unclear. “At the moment,” said one former ambassador, “we just look like a shambles.”