Earlier this year, ConservativeHome interviewed Dominic Raab. Andrew Gimson began the session by asking the Foreign Secretary if it’s true, as Dominic Cummings has claimed, that he chairs meetings better than the Prime Minister.
Raab replied simply: “no”. Andrew then read him the full quote (“Unlike the Prime Minister, Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth”.) The Foreign Secretary then asked: “what is the question?”
That terse comeback was typical Raab. The Foreign Secretary isn’t rude. But he is direct. And taut if not sometimes testy when facing inquiries that are inconvenient or impertinent or both.
Few get to the top of politics while being bad with people, and Raab certainly isn’t one of them. He survived two of the five Parliamentary ballots in 2019’s Conservative leadership contest, and would in our view have got further had Boris Johnson not stood. He might even have won.
But he is hard-driven and ferociously organised, projecting both the physicality one might expect from a karate enthusiast, and a certain edginess.
He has brought that sense of control to the Foreign Office, toiling hard at his paperwork (suggestions to the contrary are wrong) and allowing his junior Ministers less freedom than some other Cabinet Ministers. And he is disciplined in carving out space and time for his Esher and Walton constituency, a former safe seat that’s now a more of a Remainery marginal, and his family.
We’ve no window through which to look into the Foreign Secretary’s soul, but it’s clear that he felt last week that he owed his family a summer holiday, would achieve nothing for Afghanistan by cutting it short and returning home – and was working anyway.
In terms of strict fact, that sounds about right. Raab says that he prioritised efforts to secure Kabul’s airport over those to rescue Afghan translators. That will cut no ice with those whose default view is that politicians should never take holidays at all. Let alone at five star hotels abroad.
But with the Afghan Government disintegrating, it’s hard to believe that phone calls to its Ministers from the Foreign Secretary would made much difference.
Nonetheless, fact, like brains, isn’t everything in politics, and Raab lacks the smarm that marks some of his fellow Ministers out – not to mention their rat-like sense of self-protection, at least on this occasion. As he effectively conceded yesterday, he would have done better to cut his holiday short and fly home last week.
There have been rows within the government about foreign office civil servants flying back from Kabul (some have subsequently been sent out). There’s a refugee crisis to address, the collapse of our presence in Afghanistan coming, and a security policy to review.
Furthermore, August is a danger month for Foreign Secretaries – because of the foreign affairs crises it can bring with it (such as a Syrian one, and Parliamentary defeat for David Cameron, within the last decade). So even if coming back early would have been “a futile gesture at this stage”, in the immortal words of Beyond the Fringe, politics sometimes calls for futile gestures.
We suspect that if Rob Oxley, one of the Foreign Secretary’s most experienced SpAds, had not been on honeymoon, the problem would have been gripped earlier, rather than running on for several days. But that’s enough processology.
Two broader, deeper matters arise – in turn, about institutional memory and foreign policy. First, memory. It’s less than two years since the Prime Minister was very seriously ill with Covid. Raab could have tried to grab publicity and power. Instead, he recognised the limits of his authority, kept his head and helped to calm troubled waters.
The civil service training in this former Foreign Office lawyer came to the fore, and his loyalty is part of the reason why his relationship with Boris Johnson has been a good one to date.
The Prime Minister knows a press campaign against a Minister when he sees one (having stirred up a few in his own time), and resists them to a fault: remember how he tried to hang on to Matt Hancock. Though there is no evidence from the polls that the Afghanistan tragedy, however terrible, is having any significant voter cut-through (at least yet).
With so many changes at the top since Johnson was ill, Downing Street little institutional memory at its political top of events scarcely a year ago. This may explain why it didn’t push back harder against anti-Raab briefing from other departments and backbench MPs.
Some of it clearly also came from people working in the Foreign Office, which takes us to the future of that troubled department. Its main mission of which in modern times has been to put the UK’s EU membership near the centre of foreign policy. Within the last five years, not only Brexit has happened and the department is no longer in the lead on Europe-related policy. David Frost is in charge of it.
Furthermore, the department has gained aid, but not trade, a change sometimes floated before Britain left the EU. It’s not really clear since Liz Sugg resigned which Minister other than the Foreign Secretary himself is in charge of aid policy.
Norman Tebbit used to say that the Ministry of Agriculture looks after farmers…and the Foreign Office looks after foreigners. He may have been joking; others take that view seriously. To argue that Raab’s department is incapable of anything else would be a counsel of despair. And it is changing, at least at the top: Sir Philip Barton, appointed Permanent Secretary last year, had never held a senior EU-related post.
That was a break from recent practice, and high in his in-tray will be recovering the Foreign Office’s role in what one senior ex-Minister who served in the department calls “thought leadership”.
With the consequences of Joe Biden’s unilateral rush from Afghanistan playing out before our eyes, there’s an urgent need for it – if policy-making on foreign affairs isn’t to drift towards the Ministry of Defence, where Ben Wallace is having a “good war”, in the sense that he has a soldier’s reflexes, isn’t frightened of being fired, and tells it as he sees it.
Raab has had his work cut out keeping on top of all that post-Brexit change in his department. Now he will have to turn, regardless of what happens in a future reshuffle, to rethinking foreign policy for an age in which America be less committed to Europe than it is has been.
Since the Iraq war and the late Blair era, Downing Street has tended to swallow up foreign policy-making. The only Foreign Secretary to have been a big enough figure in his own right to get a slice of it back was William Hague. The former Tory leader expanded Britain’s diplomatic presence, cut deals with the Treasury and countered a decline in language teaching.
The Foreign Secretary isn’t a former party leader, but neither is he simply a creature of Downing Street, as Margaret Beckett became during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2007. As First Secretary of State, he has the authority to act.