Inside File: Hurd's successor will face difficult task

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SPECULATION about Douglas Hurd's plans to leave the Cabinet has been rife and, he would have us believe, premature. Despite his insistence a few months ago that 'my foreign secretary-ship is in its infancy', the informed view now is that he has had enough and will resign in a reshuffle after the June European elections to earn money and write books.

John Major is said to have made a final decision on what had become a foregone conclusion in the minds of insiders: the next Foreign Secretary will be the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind.

Taking in the degree of calibre in the Conservative Party, the choice is obvious. As one senior envoy put it diplomatically: 'If you look around you, there are very few who have relevant experience. He is a thinking man's foreign secretary; he handles his brief well.'

But Mr Rifkind has in fact been foreign secretary-in- waiting for a decade. As parliamentary under-secretary, then minister of state at the Foreign Office between 1982 and 1986, he earned an unusual degree of respect from his officers, and achieved something even rarer: he was a junior minister people had heard of. It was that which earned him his first place in Cabinet in 1986.

His most noted contribution at the FCO seems especially relevant now. During one of the blackest periods of apartheid in 1985, Mr Rifkind was charged with the high-profile task of repeatedly summoning the South African ambassador, the pugnacious Denis Worrall.

After the shootings at Ui tenhage, Mr Rifkind said that if Britain was asked to regard them not as part of deliberate policy but as an individual aberration, then that required proper investigation and punishment of those responsible. He thereby trod on that most sacred FCO commandment: Thou shalt not interfere in a country's internal affairs. He said it was legitimate 'that in the modern world, it is a pretty vague distinction between what is purely an internal matter and that which is of inevitable interest in the outside world, and that is because I believe that to a much greater extent than at any previous time, the universality of human rights is acknowledged and recognised.'

This was not typical of the era's Thatcher-speak; but then, Mr Rifkind is not only something of a Scottish Morningside liberal; he had long felt a special obligation towards human rights in southern Africa. When he spent two years lecturing in politics at the University of Rhodesia during UDI in the late Sixties, his college was considered Salisbury's hotbed of socialism.

When Ian Smith was cracking down on student leaders and issued a banning order against one of them, Mr Rifkind, as a young lawyer, intervened on the young man's behalf, helped him escape house arrest, and put him up in his Scotland home. The latter still lives in Europe as a successful professional.

Britain should not fear the reaction of the Arab world at the prospect of a Jewish Foreign Secretary. At Defence, Mr Rifkind visited Saudi Arabia soon after the Gulf war to keep the multi-billion-pound al-Yamama arms deal on track. The Saudis quickly overcame their jitters about Mr Rifkind's religious background.

And had Mr Rifkind's party not won the last general election, we would have had a Jewish foreign secretary, anyway, in the form of Gerald Kaufman.

Like Mr Hurd, Mr Rifkind is a frugal man who does not give much away on a personal level. He also, like Mr Hurd, is liked by his staff for ably fighting his department's corner.

This is a crucial ability,

at a time when both departments face onslaught from a Treasury which sees Britain's remaining global role as too expensive, and expendable.