James Frayne: Foreign and defence secretary are the glamour roles again

Written by James Frayne on 15 November 2016 in Opinion

With the election of Donald Trump, both Boris Johnson and Michael Fallon have both received big promotions. But are they up to their new-look jobs?

For the last 25 years, British politicians have played a role within tight constraints. Our security was built on our close relationship with the US, who pursued an active and interventionist foreign policy, and on our membership of NATO. Trade policy was looked after by our membership of the EU and our wider economic policy was influenced by historically strong economic links with parts of the world like Africa and East Asia.

While the roles of Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary were once top ranking Cabinet positions, they increasingly became middle ranking roles. Fundamentally, these politicians could not think too much. Much more latitude – and therefore seniority – was given to politicians running big domestic policy Departments – above all, the Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Health Secretary.

This might now be changing. The last few years have turned global politics on its head. China has been taking steps towards a global leadership role. Russia has begun to assert itself in its own backyard more aggressively than any point since the break-up of the Soviet Union. And now, most importantly for the UK, we have had the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump – who has indicated a potentially reduced international role for the US.

Together, these might account for massive geopolitical change. The consensus we have relied on for the last 25 years – of an activist US, a stable EU, and regionally contained big powers – might be coming to an end. And thinking about the UK itself for a moment, our impending exit from the EU means that many policy orthodoxies of the past are coming to an end too. Things that were previously banned – like state aid or certain tax cuts – are viable policy options again – regardless of their merits.

To say British politicians have a blank sheet of paper in front of them overstates things. Britain lacks the power and influence to make the world – or even our part of it – as we desire. Britain will always be playing something of a responsive role. But without those anchors to British policy, politicians and advisers are being forced to think about our foreign and security policy and our approach to the global economy from first principles.

In a previous column, I suggested Liam Fox had the most difficult job in Cabinet because of the importance of trade policy in creating a stable and prosperous economy outside the EU – but our lack of experience in trade negotiation. With the election of Donald Trump, and the potential impact this will have on the actions of countries like China and Russia, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon just received big promotions. Their jobs are now amongst the most important in Government again.

Are they up to the job? Both of them pass the competency test – Michael Fallon more obviously than Boris Johnson, but Johnson has now led a series of highly effective and disciplined campaigns and was a decent Mayor. Under the air of chaos, there is a competent executive with excellent political judgement.

However, the challenge to both politicians stretches beyond basic competence. The demand to think from first principles means that, for the first time in a generation at least, the roles of Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary require real creativity, strategic capability and diplomatic skill. In other words, we need both politicians to help devise a new role for Britain within an uncertain world – and to deliver that vision.

Here, Boris Johnson appears more naturally qualified than Fallon. A politician with a deep sense of British history and an interest in the outside world, Johnson was the most senior politician to break with David Cameron and to back Vote Leave. Not everyone will agree with that decision of course, but it marked out a man that was prepared to think for himself and go with his own instincts. This is the sort of quality that we need in a Foreign Secretary in 2016. Fallon, we must hope, will simply rise to the challenges of the job he has been placed in – as he usually has.

There is much to be done. Some of this is about maintaining the status quo in an uncertain world. That means: (a) maintaining close trading relationships with the EU; (b) working with our European allies to ensure the security of the continent of Europe; and (c) maintaining the viability of NATO and our close security cooperation with the US. But we also need a very significant number of new trading relationships with the rest of the world and to construct new security alliances as the reality of a multipolar world emerges (regardless of US actions). Here, we should be looking to John Hulsman’s concept of a Global Free Trade Alliance.

There is a tendency within British politics to put too much responsibility on individual politicians – partly because they have a high profile and because people overstate their power to control their own Departments. At this time, however, the focus on individuals is right. Boris Johnson, Michael Fallon, Liam Fox – and of course Theresa May - are going to have to drive British policy to a much greater extent than before.

I see little sign that their respective Departments have the creativity or the drive to create the sorts of policies required to deliver an influential new global role for the UK. These politicians are going to have to use talented outsiders that have the confidence and creativity to reimagine a new role for Britain outside of those previous policy constraints. For the foreseeable future, Defence and Foreign Policy are the glamour roles for ambitious and talented politicians again. 



Picture by: Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images

About the author

James Frayne is director of the communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation. He was previously director of policy at Policy Exchange.

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