10 May   2006
British Foreign Policy

After Jack Straw:

Blair reclaims the reign of foreign policy from Sir Humphrey.  

By Adel Darwish


As New Foreign Secretary , Margaret Beckett was,  flying over the Atlantic ( and testing her ability at reading double the speed of sound,  through many reports to help bluff her way into a meeting with the other four permanent security council members foreign ministers plus Germany), Prime Minister Tony Blair was quizzed by hacks, in his monthly presser on her suitability for the job which she was thrown into 48 hours earlier in a cabinet reshuffle resulted from English voters whipping his government at local  election elections.


The prime minister said Britain's foreign policy under Beckett, who has earned an international profile in climate change talks, would not shift direction. "I chose Margaret because she is an outstanding politician and a very, very safe pair of hands," adding that he has no doubt that the foreign policy that was articulated by former Foreign Secretary  Jack Straw “ will not change one iota under Margaret."


However, hacks familiar with foreign policy know better. No one expected  Mrs Beckett to wield the authority  her predecessor would have had in New York, in the latest talks on the Iranian quest of nuclear energy crisis. And what can the new kid on the block do with a non-existent knowledge of an ongoing drama, where a small cast of ministers engaged in four year diplomatic duel to talk Tehran out of its nuclear ambitions?


The replacement of Straw with Beckett still stands out as the big surprise in Mr Blair’s last months cabinet reshuffle, not because she is Britain’s first ever woman Foreign Secretary,  but because of  Straw’s  departure from the FCO.

There is an almost universal agreement that the change has ushered an uncertain time for the presentation of British foreign policy.


Blair put her there, many say, to take a tougher line, according to the leftist conspiracy theorists and certainly the Iranians. But the jury is still out on this. Others say that having sold the world the war on Iraq , it would have been very hard for Mr Straw to sell the of bombing Iran.


Mrs Beckett, an old campaigner with CND ( the 1960's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), could be easily persuaded, the theory goes, of the  danger to world peace  if Iran was allowed to develop nuclear weapons  triggering a nuclear arms race in the volatile region. Some effective sound bytes could be written for her to deliver effectively, paving the way for attacking selected targets in Iran, if needed. Thus, observers say, Mr Straw's absence will give Blair a greater control over foreign policy, especially in Iran, where Mr Straw had built some good working relationship. He favoured stopping Iran by demands, initially, and by sanctions if necessary; but he has been against a military attack,  even dismissing the option of  using tactical nuclear weapons as ' nuts'.


Straw’s  approach was well-judged — just hold on there until the Iranian regime changed — and he did have the merit of experience.

However, the last thing he needed was compliments from Tehran, which did come as Mrs Beckett landed in New York, by a noisy Teheran Mullah’s lamenting his exit.

Teheran conservative paper Jam-e Jam editorialised  Mrs Beckett as being “totally loyal to Tony Blair,” as it praised Straw for his “independence” from Blair; and warned him that his predecessor Robin Cook(  whom it wrongly said  was “dismissed” for the same quality) , had met “ultimately...with [a] suspicious death”. 


Straw's replacement has equally surprised the Americans, especially after Straw and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have spent a great deal of time and effort getting to know each other. Mr Straw went to Alabama, Dr Rice's home state and recently Dr Rice went to Blackburn, Mr Straw's constituency; a highly  publicised event  that  was too photogenic; the anecdote of her giving up her bed to him on the flight to Baghdad more memorable than their efforts when they arrived. Another reason cited by commentators for Mr Blair to move him into a lesser media photogenic cabinet post, that of the Leader of the Commons.


Condi/Jack show was the kind of personal contact  unusual in modern diplomacy, which moves at such a fast pace that people do not normally have time to pay house calls. Such investment has now gone down the drain leaving Mrs Beckett to develop her own relations.

The two girls seem to have got on well according to Miss Rice’s comment to the press that they spent a bit of time ' knowing each other's back ground'; but wisely, Mrs Beckett observed a silent vigil before the press pack and the two ladies  took no questions from waiting  hacks.


It was  a rather brutal lesson to the Americans of how the parliamentary system works.  Or perhaps the real reasons for Straw’s move were subtler: springing from the prominence and, all right, “independence” that a minister gets after five years in the job, by ‘going  native’ muddling the party line with that  of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s KCB, MVO, MA , the  silky-smooth senior civil servant with a treasure trove of baffling phrases, paradoxical reasoning and enigmatic explanations in ‘ Yes Minister,’ the BBC immortal comedy on the working of White Hall.


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