The Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has appalled ambassadors from EU states, anti-Brexit types and quite a few others with his outspoken criticism of the EU. In a speech to Conservative party conference in Birmingham at the weekend he compared the European Union to the monolithic USSR. If the bossy EU made it this difficult for the UK to leave, he said, then eventually other states it “imprisons” might eventually try to leave.
Cue mock fainting and clutching of pearls. It is insulting, says the Estonian government. Ultra-remainers responded with characteristic backing for the EU. It was as though Hunt had declared war rather than merely pointing out that Brussels has behaved appallingly over Brexit. Being made up of democracies, the EU is not the USSR, of course. But it is displaying some of the rigid characteristics of an over-mighty power bloc adhering to its founding, centralising ethos as though this patched together creation is a religion. The EU wants to make leaving messy and painful; it’s behaving badly towards Britain. Plenty of people in Europe are concerned about the attitude of the European Commission, particularly when the rest of Europe wants UK help on security.
In particular, Hunt’s robust intervention seems to have plunged assorted former heads of the FCO civil service into despair, judging by their public comments. They thought Jeremy Hunt had restored normal service at their department. After the Boris experiment the mandarins wanted a return to the days when the British Foreign Secretary could be expected to only read out whatever bland stuff is put in front of him and in the process attract as little attention as possible. They thought Hunt was safe, reliable and boring. Now he has gone a bit Boris, in their view.
The outrage over Hunt’s remarks is overdone. The EU has already been compared to the USSR by the former leader of the USSR, for goodness sake. Hunt’s comments are a little spicy perhaps, but honestly, grow up – Hunt is a politician at a critical moment in politics, trying to make an impact. This sorry government could do with some more oomph in its dealings with the EU.
It is unsurprising that the Foreign Office leadership class should react in this way, however. For all its diplomatic credentials, and the big brains it employs, the modern FCO has long been too wet. On Brexit its leading players give the impression that they haven’t come to terms with the referendum result of two years ago. It is as though they think the naughty electorate has made a mess on the carpet and it is the task of the sophisticated FCO to clean up and then make amends to the EU.
I hope I’m wrong in detecting too little enthusiasm for shaping a future foreign policy in which, by definition, the Foreign Office will have a bigger role. Britain will no longer be part of the ludicrous foreign policy machinery of the EU. Opportunity beckons for the FCO to become bigger and better.
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Yet, Brexit was a rejection of the Foreign Office’s defining policy objective, that is – as they see it – amplifying Britain’s voice globally by membership of the EU. From the late 1950s onwards, that was the aim. The FCO was usually pushing Britain deeper in, when the Treasury was more sceptical. In 2016 the voters blew up the Foreign Office’s main policy.
Hunt’s terminology has offended some mainstream Conservatives too. Isn’t there – one veteran Tory asked me – a touch of Michael Portillo’s calamitous “SAS” speech to Tory conference in the mid-1990s which galvanised opinion against him?
No. Hunt had two legitimate aims in making his attack on the EU as robust as possible.
First, Hunt has become a bit of a born-again Brexiteer. He’s a former Remainer appalled by the EU’s inflexible attitude to the UK. And he is trying in his visits to foreign capitals and public statements to jolt the EU – to get it to listen to his warning that the British are not – as the EU expects – going to roll over this Autumn.
Secondly, Hunt has the Tory leadership in his sights, and why not? That means building support among the Tory membership which is broadly pro-Brexit and anti the concept of Britain being pushed around.
If May falls suddenly before Brexit day, and if the Tories need an emergency leader because a contest would take months, Hunt would be a contender and he knows it. Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid in the cabinet or ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis now outside it, are the likely leaders in such a scenario.
Incidentally, far worse than Hunt’s comments were the tone of the remarks about former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made by Chancellor Philip Hammond in an interview published today with the Daily Mail’s new politics supremo Simon Walters. Hammond seems to have impersonated Boris and generally larked about in a manner it is difficult to imagine his predecessors Nigel Lawson or Gordon Brown trying.
Hammond’s core criticism that Boris does not do detail is justified of course. But a Chancellor should be able to summon an ice cold barb and deliver it with style.
These attacks probably help Boris, by adding to his outsider appeal. He is helped most of all by being denounced from the platform by the twittish Lord Jones (or Lord Digby Jones as he incorrectly styles himself.) For reasons that defy rational explanation, Jones continues to consider himself a sage the nation needs to hear from.