Foreign News

And, just like that, Boris Johnson is no longer foreign secretary. The initial appointment of one of the most prominent advocates for Britain leaving the European Union to Theresa May’s cabinet was seen by some to be a stroke of tactical skill from the prime minister – this when she was still an incipient titan in the process of dominating British politics for a generation, rather than the dead woman so many now see walking.

Johnson’s critics viewed his getting the job in different terms. Such people thought the appointment of such an unserious character to an office which at least aspired to seriousness strange, perhaps even surreal.

One should make one’s own views clear. Personally, I had drawn attention to Johnson’s writing in favour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad while the former was mayor of London and Assad little more than the mayor of Damascus.

When Johnson was made foreign secretary, I thought this professed support for Assad worth commenting upon once more; and, I noted, Johnson’s conduct during the EU referendum campaign had hardly covered him in glory.

Other detractors were more personal, suggesting that Johnson was a feckless opportunist, a charlatan deserving denunciation.

His time as foreign secretary provided some evidence for the latter view. Johnson’s successor, Jeremy Hunt, is in some sense an unlikely foreign secretary, and an unlikely follow-up act.

Hunt was a politician whose public views were, outside of the usual debates surrounding elections, in which members of the political class are expected to become unlikely generalists, largely confined to the domestic.

He was secretary of state for health; this had immense responsibilities, firmly grounded in the reality of how the parochial health service functioned, how it interacted with British lives.

There was opportunity, in the attaining of cabinet rank, to express opinions on foreign affairs, but when Hunt did so, he did so unostentatiously. He stuck to the party line; he never stepped over it.

Something which characterised these limited interventions could also be seen to typify Hunt’s time in government more generally.

He was largely quiet, largely calm – and it was possible for his presence to go unnoticed by those who were not looking.

Hunt achieved prominence and permanence as health secretary despite being unpopular. He weathered scandals and storms which would have killed other political careers. This was done so effectively that Hunt not only became the longest serving health secretary since the modern office took shape.

Longevity of this scale, especially in a disputatious political climate and a difficult office, is not a product of mere silence and caution. The luck of heath secretaries cannot last for ever.

Hunt was more than lucky. And, more than that, he was able not only to refuse relocation, but also to add to his responsibilities while in office. Hunt expanded his post, assimilating social care into a ministry which was already one of Whitehall’s most consequential departments.

The post which already handled life and death, from the cradle to the grave, added social care to its responsibilities.

Such things matter. All this meant that Hunt became powerful – able to dictate his own terms.

But along with this power came trust. Hunt was, in the end, proven to be trusted by the prime minister, as both someone who was loyal, but too well entrenched to be a mere lickspittle.

Hunt’s name is not one associated with public relations triumph. But the association is not an entirely inapt one. The health secretary managed to have his name associated with campaigns for patient safety – a popular and necessary cause.

Hunt also seemed genuinely passionate about health, something which allowed him to avoid succumbing to massive public animosity, sustained strike action, simmering tensions among medical professionals, and hostility in a department which many political analysts regard as a poisoned chalice in any case.

All that passion was not a mere act. One can only speculate that something special must have induced him to move after the longest tenure as health secretary in the office’s modern history. The job’s burdens are not likely to have been the primary motivator, after so long in the post; nor can following Johnson specifically into an office the latter is perceived to have squandered.

It could be ambition that impelled Hunt to change. That is possible. But generalised ambition is perhaps less important to Hunt that what the job of foreign secretary represents.

For Hunt, it is, at least nominally, a major promotion. Taking on one of Britain’s Great Offices of State must make one briefly puff out the chest and hold the head a touch higher. But this is not the nineteenth century; it’s not even the last century. And the post of foreign secretary is a diminished office, one whose functions are increasingly devoted to one thing – Brexit – a national endeavour which also has two other departments, and two other cabinet ministers, on the same case.

Two opposite – and equally dramatic – courses of action therefore present themselves to a man once considered a silently powerful member of the cabinet.

Hunt could make a success of his job – the calm head taking the place of a clown. This juxtaposition on its own is welcome. Achievement is a more logical consequence of consideration than bluster.

But an alternative is just as possible – that Hunt’s very quietness will afford him less status and less power than before, effectively leaving him eclipsed amid a government and a Conservative party with more important things to do, and bigger personalities present.

In such circumstances, broader failure is inevitable.

And this has little to do with the sphere in which the new foreign secretary is meant to work.

Foreign relations themselves are rather left out of the above analysis. This is a pity and a problem, the preserve of a British government which is monomaniacally focussed on a single still ill-defined objective – barely keeping its head above water in the process; it is a process which began before the referendum.

In any case, Britain requires some good foreign news. Let us hope the new man can provide it.

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