Britain has just committed a foreign policy blunder of truly catastrophic proportions, going AWOL from the European Union and casting itself adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Global derision has followed. Securing the trade deals and rebuilding the relationships necessary for going it alone will take years, even decades. In the meantime, government has virtually ground to halt as policymakers grapple with the truly gargantuan task ahead of them. In a nutshell, Britain’s place in the world is mess of truly epic proportions.
Swept to power without so much as even a party vote, Theresa May is the woman who has the unenviable task of propping up Britain’s limping international standing. To do so, she has created two new foreign ministries to accompany the foreign office, splicing off responsibility for Britain’s trade negotiations and the direct responsibility for Brexit from the foreign office. Adding the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the newly created Departments for International Trade and for Exiting the European Union completes the quartet of Britain’s outward looking ministries. All four of these departments have been given to Brexiteers.
Clearly to heal the post-Brexit Tory wounds, prominent cabinet positions were going to have to be given to Conservatives that campaigned for Brexit, and it stood to reason that one of these would have to be the new Department for Brexit itself. But with Britain’s international standing hanging in the balance, dumping Brexit Tories in all four of Britain’s foreign ministries doesn’t bode well for how much May will be prioritising foreign affairs over the next four years. Worse still, aside from David Davis, the appointments May has made to these positions are incompetent right-wing ideologues.
The most headline grabbing appointment was of course cynical buffoon Boris Johnson to the FCO, the corpse of whom May inexplicably reanimated mere days after it had been assumed consigned to the political graveyard by backstabbing from Michael Gove. The most instrumental architect of the Brexit victory, the eyebrows of Britain’s internationalists practically hit the ceiling at news of the appointment of a man whose foreign policy experience extends to offending virtually any foreigner he comes into contact with. We now have a self-confessed Zionist and colonial racist, who accused Barack Obama of a Kenyan colonial grudge and who is despised throughout Europe, in charge of Britain’s international diplomacy.
But the other two of May’s international appointments are equally appalling. Charged with negotiating Britain’s desperately needed post-Brexit trade deals is disgraced-former-minister turned bafflingly-reinstated-current-minister Liam Fox. You may remember him resigning in disgrace as defence minister in 2011, having abused his position by allowing unfettered access to his MoD activities for Adam Werritty, a close friend and business associate. Fox’s bad behaviour included allowing Werritty to accompany him on twenty official foreign visits where he curried favour for his business dealings with foreign dignitaries and diplomats, running his company from inside Fox’s parliamentary office, and even undermining official government policy on Iran by facilitating secret meetings between Fox and Mossad agents. Astoundingly, this doesn’t seem to have proven an obstacle to Fox returning to a prominent cabinet role, whereupon he immediately offended the entirety of Britain’s business community by accusing them of being “fat and lazy”. Not exactly promising for a man whose sole job is to persuade foreign governments of the strength of British industry.
Equally concerning is the appointment of staunch right-winger Priti Patel to DfID, a woman with a hard-line anti-development agenda that places her in virtual opposition to her own ministry. A former tobacco lobbyist and staunch right-winger, Patel’s previous political credentials include calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. As for her stance on the ministry she now leads? Patel previously dismissed international development as “low priority” and advocated for the axing of DfID. Her first hiring was Robert Oxley as a special adviser; Oxley was formerly of the right-wing anti-spending brigade the Taxpayer’s Alliance, which campaigns staunchly against Britain’s foreign aid commitments. In her first major speech in the role, Patel has lambasted DfID because she claims too much of Britain’s aid money is stolen or spent on inappropriate projects, despite being unable to elaborate on this claim when challenged. Now she plans an overhaul of Britain’s foreign aid budget based on ‘core Conservative principles’, which appears to be a euphemism for abandoning aid projects in favour of leveraging British trade. This has been heavily criticised by charities as misguided and damaging to the world’s most vulnerable.
Together, these appointments paint a grim picture of Theresa May’s view of foreign policy as a secondary priority. It is clear that Britain’s international lenses will be focused firmly on Brexit for many years to come. The politicisation of DfID leverage the trade agreements Britain desperately needs by a minister bent on abolishing Britain’s commitment to the world’s poorest is just one sorry aspect of this approach, and the less said about Boris in charge of diplomacy the better. With foreign affairs offloaded to the ideological (or in Boris’s case, cynical) Brexiteers that May was forced to have in her cabinet, the Prime Minister was able to position her allies in the domestic roles that are her focus. But leaving all her focus on Brexit and domestic policy is ill-advised at a time when the ramifications of leaving the EU span far further than simply our relationship with Europe. Britain’s influence in all the world’s regions has been diminished, and it will be crucial that our diplomatic partners, and even those with whom we have a more fractious relationship, are reassured that we remain globally engaged. Even more importantly, spiralling crises in Syria and South Sudan, as well as critical international challenges like climate change and global tax reform, require closer engagement than ever. This toxic mix of global problems will not wait for Brexit to be resolved. Theresa May will learn to her detriment that pushing foreign policy down the political priority list could have disastrous implications later down the line.