Boris Johnson is gone (for now) and Britain has a new Foreign Secretary. Simon McGee, former press secretary to two British foreign secretaries and executive director at APCO Worldwide, takes a look at Jeremy Hunt’s surefooted start at the helm of the FCO
British Cabinet reshuffles are brutal in their own modest way. Perhaps not as violent as in countries where corruption charges, prison or worse can follow a ministerial career, but stepping down from power can still be pretty unedifying.
One moment you’re being driven around in an armoured BMW, with two grace and favour homes, a team of genial yet well-armed Metropolitan Police protection officers to look after you, and a tray of fascinating top secret intelligence to dip into like a tub of Quality Street chocolates; the next you’re being ushered out the back door by an apologetic private secretary with just a keepsake ministerial red box and a pressing need to call the removal men. Which of course you can’t do because they’ve taken your mobile phone.
As Diplomat magazine readers will be well aware, Boris Johnson’s departure from the FCO was very much self-inflicted, so the resulting loss of ministerial trappings was a short-term sacrifice in the hope of a longer-term prize. But what of the man who has stepped into Boris’s leather Oxfords and now holds the reins of HM Diplomatic Service?
Jeremy Hunt is said to be proud of being the longest serving, (some might say surviving), Health Secretary in British political history, and at almost six years in the job he should be. It is without doubt one of the toughest jobs in British politics; doubly so for a Conservative minister.
Hunt oversaw a National Health Service (NHS) budget of £125 billion and 1.7 million staff, making it the fifth largest employer in the world. And he saw off repeated clashes with the medical establishment and patients’ groups, over everything from junior doctors’ contracts to weekend working, and seemingly secured £20 billion a year more for the NHS by the end of this parliament. The man now looking out from the Foreign Secretary’s office, where Hunt’s predecessor Sir Edward Grey famously spoke on the eve of World War I of lamps going out all over Europe, is battle hardened and shrewd.
I saw this for myself on a couple of occasions in 2014 during meetings of the “COBRA” (Cabinet Office Briefing Room “A”) emergency committee on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa when I served as press secretary to the then International Development Secretary. Hunt’s mobilisation of NHS staff to deal with the actual outbreak in Sierra Leone and his preparations for a potential outbreak in the UKwere impressive and I remember his contributions to the meetings as well argued, to the point and always courteous.
While Hunt was only appointed Foreign Secretary in July, the fact that he seems to have spent not a minute of his summer on a sun lounger provides an early sense of his approach and his foreign policy interests. The holiday period has allowed him precious time to digest weighty introductory briefings prepared for him by FCO regional and thematic directors. It has also given him an early opportunity to be introduced to the cynicism of the Iranian regime over its treatment of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was let out of prison in August to see her four-year-old daughter and then reimprisoned three of days later.
Crucially – given the very thin government majority in Parliament that means ministers are required in London for most of the time the House of Commons is sitting in case of knife edge votes – Hunt has used the summer recess to travel to China and across Europe, to sit in the UN Security Council in New York, and to deliver a carefully drafted first speech as Foreign Secretary in Washington DC. This is what we’ve learned so far.
Firstly, Hunt’s takeover of the FCO has given the department a much firmer mandate on Brexit. Immediately after his appointment, Hunt said his “principal job” would be to “stand foursquare behind the Prime Minister” to help her achieve a successful negotiation with the EU. The contrast with the approach of his predecessor could not be clearer.
But Hunt’s appointment also coincided with the resignation of Brexit Secretary David Davis and the further erosion of the Department for Exiting the EU’s responsibilities, allowing the FCO to step back into owning bilateral Brexit discussions. In the weeks that followed, Hunt went on to be visible and vocal on Brexit, flying to a raft of European capitals to sell the Chequers blueprint directly to EU member states and warn of the dangers of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Boris used to speak of the EU referendum result leading to plaster falling from the ceilings of European chancelleries: Hunt will no doubt see his job as making repairs to those ceilings and bolstering relationships in a way that perhaps only a Foreign Secretary who had voted Remain in 2016 can.
A second indication of Hunt’s priorities was clear from hiskeynote speech at the USInstitute of Peace in Washington DC in August. Hunt is known to put much care and many hours into crafting his speeches, so they are worth a read to understand the man.
What came across strongly was his overwhelming focus on the big powers and the post-war international rules-based order: so much so that he quoted Paul Kennedy, made a passing reference to the “end of history” and dropped in that he would shortly be meeting Henry Kissinger.
On Russia, he delivered a strong, though hardly surprising, rebuke of the Kremlin and its catalogue of misdemeanours, from the annexation of the Crimea to protecting Syriaover its use of chemical weapons on civilians to the use of nerve agents on the streets of Britain. Hunt also called on the EU to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US on sanctions against Russia, remarks that appealed to his US hosts while seeking to reinforce an EU consensus on sanctions that is rapidly fraying.
Yet the most interesting comments were saved for China. Wisely, his first official trip had been to Beijing to placate Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as Hunt’s predecessor had failed to visit China in two years. The fact that Boris has visited Japan had riled the Chinese even more. But if anyone had thought that this choice of first visit or that the nationality of his wife, who is Chinese, would lead to a buffing of the Golden Era in Sino-British relations his speech would suggest otherwise. Hunt tore into China for failing to condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea and refusing to support bans on chemical weapons; he highlighted the deafening imbalance in China profiting from an international order that delivers free trade while failing to contribute to uphold that very same architecture when it comes to protecting lives or the rule of law. It feels very much like a fresh approach to China is on the cards. One to watch.
The third major takeaway must be the policies and countries that Hunt has hitherto signalled little interest in. While the ongoing struggle against ISIL was a feature of his speech, it felt like North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps the Middle East might end up being less of a priority than they were to his predecessor. Where Boris leapt into the mire of Libyaand was determined that Britain should put right a situation that it had helped to create, it seems unlikely that Hunt has the inclination, or frankly the bandwidth given his Brexit responsibilities, to follow suit.
Similarly, with our friends the pangolin and the elephant. Britain is still hosting an international conference on the illegal wildlife trade in October, but my understanding is that whereas it would have been headed by both Boris and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the new Foreign Secretary has other fish to fry and will leave proceedings to Gove. Some in the FCO are glad to see the back of animal diplomacy; many are hopeful that Hunt’s talk of global powers and the need for a Brexit deal signals the FCO taking on a more influential role on big issues.
What is without doubt is that for one group of men and women Hunt’s promotion means more than simply a change in foreign policy direction or leadership style. Boris used to joke that towards the end of his regular morning jogs, made infamous by his colourful choices of alternative activewear, he would still be going flat out while his police protection officers beside him would slow to a walk. Unfortunately for Scotland Yard’s finest, Mr Hunt doesn’t jog: he runs.