In little more than five years, the Foreign Office has lost control of EU policy, not won control of trade, and had international development forced on it. It has also lost the cause that gave it a raison d’etre for the best part of half a century: the European project.
Furthermore, members of the armed forces, who put their lives on the line, draw more public sympathy than members of the diplomatic service – even though many of them are also exposed to danger.
This is the medium-term background against which to view Dominic Raab’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee yesterday. The short-term one also matters.
Which is that Ben Wallace, who soldierly instincts have been appalled by the Afghanistan debacle, has been speaking out. Until earlier this week, Dominic Raab, in line with his civil service background and team player ethic, kept his counsel.
Some of the Foreign Secretary’s critics believe that he has made terrible mistakes; some want his job, some fall into both categories – and there has been the traditional media-pile on to a Minister left holding the parcel when the music stops.
How much of the criticism levelled at Raab is wisdom after the event and know-it-all clever dickery, and how much ibeams a searchlight on real mistakes?
The best way of getting at as much of truth as we can know now is to think about three different issues. The first is the Foreign Office’s forecasting; the second is its performance, and the third is Raab’s own response.
On forecasting, the security services and the Ministry of Defence also share responsibility for looking ahead. All will have hedged their bets in peering into Afghanistan’s crystal ball. None seem to have leapt back from it warning of imminent collapse.
Likewise the Official Opposition, by the way. A Hansard search since January finds the following headings for Lisa Nandy, with the exception of the recent Commons debate on Afghanistan after its government folded.
Cyber attack (Microsoft), Hong Kong (National Security Law), topical questions on trade deals and genocide, Belarus (interception of aircraft), Government support for India, Global anti-corruption sanctions, Ukraine border (Russian forces)…
…Human Rights (update), Counter-Daesh (update), topical questions on Jamal Khashoggi, Yemen, and topical questions on Alexei Navalny. India is a player in Afghanistan, but mention of the latter from the Shadow Foreign Secretary came there none.
Next, Foreign Office performance. Much of the truth is shrouded in the fog of inter-departmental war and some of it will come to light in time.
But the department clearly has questions to answer over the conduct of the Ambassador, confidential information left exposed in the British Embassy in Kabul, the deployment of staff to Afganistan, and its role in the management of the refugee programme.
One observer who works there said to ConservativeHome that “Foreign Office civil servants are good at running embassies, which is what most of them want to do, but bad at managing systems”.
If so, the department will have been found wanting in a crisis unlike any in recent history. The flight of Hong Kongers, the Vietnamese Boat People and the Ugandan Asians were not complicated by the after-effects of a big British military presence for a long period amidst war.
Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that the Foreign Office isn’t the only branch of government involved in the extraction of people or the management of refugees: the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Communities Department are in different ways, too.
Indeed, the Government seems to have set up three different schemes for people from Afghanistan, each run by a different government department: British nationals, those who have shown loyalty to the UK, and an “asylum-related” group “based on international law”.
Last then, Raab himself. Remember the background: his hard-driving style isn’t always popular in his own department, and bits of it as well as some of his colleagues have been briefing against him.
He himself acknowledges that he’d have been better to cut his holiday short, and was evasive yesterday about when it began and, therefore, how long it lasted.
However, he claimed that he had been involved in 40 calls that included Afghanistan between March and mid-August this year, and that he has been overseeing back-channel talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Maybe he should uniquely have foreseen the collapse of the former’s government this summer, flown to the neighbouring countries (despite any Covid restrictions), or spoken personally to their UK ambassadors.
Tense, lucid, disciplined, unyielding and isolated he may have been yesterday, as Andrew Gimson wrote on this site, but it doesn’t sound to us as though the Foreign Secretary has been asleep at the wheel.
Raab’s central message yesterday, that the imposition of western democracy from the top down on other countries doesn’t work, was more on the money than the Defence Secretary’s valiant but doomed attempt to form a coalition of the willing to intervene without the Americans.
That said, the latter’s blunt criticism of Joe Biden should raise a cheer – and his rearguard action against the preposterous Pen Farthing and his travelling menagerie deserves two of them.
All the same, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary have been, more or less directly, at each others’ throats for the best part of the week.
This would be no way to run a circus, even were Farthing in charge, and it’s no way to manage a government. Boris Johnson cancelled a holiday in Scotland after Nicola Sturgeon pranged it, and seems now to be grabbing some respite in the Exmoor family home.
He surely doesn’t need to return for senior staff in Downing Street, in his absence, to bang some ministerial heads together – and get all those concerned to focus on the perils facing Brits left in Afghanistan and refugees seeking to flee from it.
We close by pondering the words of a former Cabinet Minister to this site. “When push comes to shove, no department is ever really fit for purpose: not just the Home Office”.
Those who have succeeded him sway precariously at the top of the tree, flaunting their rank and power while they can, but knowing only too well that, at any moment, a mistake below them can bring them falling to earth.
They may not personally have been involved in the error at all. It may have been a failure of the system of the type immortalised by Dominic Cummings and others.
This helps to explain why so many permanent secretaries have been moved on since the last general election. All the same, the ultimate responsibility for mistakes lies not with them, but with their Ministers.
That’s parliamentary government and ministerial responsibility for you. A few go voluntarily, as Peter Carrington did over the Falklands. Most don’t, like…like, well, too long a list to print.
The best a Secretary of State can do is to drive his department strategically, keep on top of his boxes, and dive into the detail when he smells trouble. Raab can have done all those things over Afghanistan, and still be vulnerable.