John Rentoul: Wanted: foreign policy. Must suit PM

William Hague has not covered himself in glory, but his real problem is the guidance given by his boss
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The Independent Online

Something happened in British politics last week. David Cameron's media honeymoon ended. A lot of the criticism of him and of the Government may have been arbitrary and unfair, but the mood has changed. One of the Prime Minister's phrases helped the ridicule to achieve a critical mass. On an internet forum in Oman he was asked what he would like to say to Libya: "My question right now would be to Colonel Gaddafi, which is: 'What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it.'"

The tone, of Lady Bracknell transposed to Dad's Army, may add another layer to perceptions of him, if only because of the apparent hopelessness of his government's attempts to extricate British nationals from a civil war.

Another quotation that may stick was William Hague's on Monday: "You asked me earlier about whether Colonel Gaddafi is in Venezuela," he said to reporters in Brussels. "I have no information that says he is, but I have seen some information that suggests he is on his way there at the moment." Sceptical journalists said to the Foreign Secretary's officials that they, too, had "seen some information" that coincidentally suggested the same thing, because they had been on Twitter. "Diplomats said Hague was not referring to rumours circulating in the media about Gaddafi's whereabouts, but to separate sources for the information," Reuters reported solemnly. Within hours, the Foreign Secretary was made to look a fool.

But not half as foolish as he looked when it turned out that his department could not organise a plane to Tripoli and back without a week's notice (already given, you might have thought, by the people of Tunisia and Egypt). The front-page headline of Thursday's Evening Standard with Cameron and Hague's faces, "We're Sorry", was one thing. Quite another was the sarcasm of the Daily Mail's front page the next day: "Makes You Proud to Be British!" Ominous for Cameron was the similarity between the Mail's treatment and the Mirror's "Is Anyone Actually in Charge?".

Both newspapers listed the same sequels to Lemony Snicket's series of unfortunate events. Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, had blown the gaff on a top secret SAS mission to rescue plucky Brits from the desert. While Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, in an interview with Metro supplied the third great memorable quotation of the week: asked if he was in charge of the nation, he said, "Yeah, I suppose I am. I forgot about that."

These missteps would not matter if the Government had a sense of purpose. But they have done lasting damage because they seem to reflect Cameron's lack of either a foreign policy or a Foreign Secretary worthy of the name. Let us return to William Hague in a moment. Cameron's foreign policy, or lack thereof, is perhaps more important. To start with the formative issue, he only just supported the Iraq war. He classified himself as one of "the confused and uncertain", who voted "grudgingly, unhappily, unenthusiastically" for military action.

Since then, he has stuck to his principles with the constancy of a pinball. Some of his best friends are liberal interventionists, and he is an admirer of Tony Blair, but in a speech in Pakistan in 2008 he said: "I am a liberal Conservative, not a neo-conservative". In the same speech, he preferred cliché to meaning: "We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000ft and we shouldn't try." Did that mean policy in Afghanistan and Iraq had been mistaken; or just Iraq; or just the democracy bit?

During the election campaign last year, he was a muscular interventionist pledging whatever it took to get the job done in Afghanistan, and to protect defence spending from the worst of the cuts. Soon after he was elected, he had spun on a bayonet-point to do the one thing that the interventionists thought was an open invitation to the Taliban to fight on: namely to set a deadline for British troops to pull out of Afghanistan.

Then he as good as declared that the main aim of foreign policy was trade promotion. He went to India with a ministerial team that could have played football matches with substitutes to spare, and a gaggle of business leaders looking for government contracts. Then he, the squad and the hangers-on went to China for the next leg of the trade tour.

It was only when the plane was already in the air on its way to Kuwait last week that the Prime Minister seems to have realised that the same approach might not look quite so good against a backdrop of freedom-chanting uprisings across the Arab world and beyond. He looked over his shoulder as if to say, "Gosh, a plane-load of arms dealers; how did they get there?" And when he landed, he gave a speech all about democracy. He said that people who implied there was a contradiction between promoting democracy abroad and defending British interests (as he had done) were entirely wrong, and that, as Tony Blair always said (he didn't say that bit), the two were, in fact, mutually reinforcing.

Only he dodged any difficult choices about whether people demanding freedom in undemocratic parts of the world should receive any material or military help (even in the limited form of no-fly zones), and preferred to say that democracy was good and violence bad – in other words, nothing.

So the hapless and oddly disengaged Hague will be the sacrificial victim of last week's Lemony Snicket. The Foreign Secretary has been exposed as lifelessly unsuited to his role. He may stay in office until Cameron's big planned reshuffle next year, but the Prime Minister flew back from the Gulf on Friday to be his own foreign secretary, as prime ministers always are. And that does not solve the real problem, which is not Hague, but Cameron's own indecision. Someone needs to say to him: What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it.;