Another uncomfortable week at the Foreign Office. Just days after Baroness Warsi stood down as Senior Minister of State in protest against the government’s position on Israel, so Mark Simmonds, MP for Boston and Skegness, has resigned as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Citing an ‘intolerable’ strain on his personal life, Mr Simmonds confirmed that he will not be standing at the 2015 general election despite taking ‘enjoyment and personal fulfilment’ from the demanding role. He had apparently informed the Prime Minister of his decision during last month’s cabinet reshuffle, but opted to remain in post to fulfil an obligation as Chair of a United Nations meeting. His responsibilities for Africa and British Overseas Territories will now transfer to the eurosceptic James Duddridge, MP for Rochford and Southend East.
Although Baroness Warsi and Mr Simmonds have both exited the Foreign Office (officially) on quite different grounds, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond must surely be a little hot under the collar just weeks following his promotion. Fresh into an election year, he will have wanted to avoid undue controversy, not least ministerial resignations, on his watch. The Evening Standard has gone as far as to mockingly enquire if the Foreign Office is ‘experiencing a cull of Northerners’ from its ranks. Mr Hammond will feel he has barely had a chance to shine before facing a string of embarrassing setbacks.
His department has been under mounting pressure to push through sanctions against Russia, reconsider weapons exports to Israel, and most recently, prepare for the potential spread of Ebola. The loss of William Hague, a staunch supporter of human rights, will also have taken its toll. Whilst he looked out of place alongside star-turned-activist Angelina Jolie during a drive to end sexual violence, he couldn’t be faulted for his commitment to improving lives. Mr Hammond, on the other hand, bears all the hallmarks of a utilitarian, rewarded for his ruthless reforms at the Ministry of Defence. It is unlikely we will see such emotive policies for the duration of this parliament.
In the Prime Minister’s absence, he pragmatically headed up COBRA to consider British involvement in Iraq. Helping the MoD to organise the deployment of C-130 Hercules cargo planes and Tornado fighter jets, the Foreign Office has faced a race-against-time to provide Christian refugees with aid as they flee from the brutal Islamic State (formerly ISIS). The terrorist group has vowed to massacre all non-Muslims who refuse to convert and inhabit the new caliphate. Working in close harmony with his American counterpart John Kerry, Mr Hammond has been experiencing first-hand the regretful legacy of a foreign policy conceived a decade ago.
David Cameron meanwhile has been bearing the brunt of cross-party criticism for not taking a grip of Britain’s foreign policy. Former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt, a long-time critic of Whitehall’s defence reforms, told the BBC this week that ‘we have a real emergency. There needs to be military support very quickly….It is difficult for us to say that this is not our problem.’ Indeed, a perceived lack of government urgency has spawned protest from Conservative MPs Nick de Bois and David Burrowes (Enfield North and Enfield Southgate respectively), who articulated their frustrations in a letter to Downing Street. The situation, they argue, ‘impose[s] both a moral obligation and a duty to our constituents to reconvene so that the escalating crisis can be properly debated.” Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth South, and Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Ilford South and a former chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, have expressed similar sentiments.
It remains to be seen whether the furore of activity around the Foreign Office this summer will impact upon the Conservative Party’s electoral ambitions, especially when Labour is seven points ahead in the polls. Opponents will question the Prime Minister’s ability to make ministerial appointments and his apparent preference for avoiding military action in an election year. Whilst it is difficult to condemn a humanitarian agenda, discomfort prevails in the shadow of the Iraq Dossier. The fact is that mission creep is too a great risk, especially when the potentially dangerous Scottish independence referendum is just weeks away. And let us not forget that when Mr Cameron tabled intervention against Assad last year, he was burned in Parliament by ‘Labour’s unconscionable sabotage of an initially bipartisan strategy’. Something Ed Miliband remains mysteriously proud of.
As summer fades away and the remaining weeks of recess pass, Number 10 will look to reign in the Party fringes and ensure Philip Hammond’s departmental authority is intact before further complications arise. If US air strikes fail to turn the tide in Iraq, the calls for action will be deafening. It is a brave Prime Minister who overlooks the Middle East.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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