Among the many surprises sprung by the recent Cabinet reshuffle, one stands out. This time last week the notion that we would be hearing the name Margaret Beckett and the job of Foreign Secretary combined in the same sentence would have seemed the height of improbability. The Foreign Office just did not seem to be Mrs Beckett's natural habitat. For all her Cabinet seniority and political longevity, caravanning weekends in Derbyshire always looked more her scene than jet-setting to solve international crises.
Yet within days of the announcement, here was Mrs Beckett stepping on a plane to New York, chatting to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and successfully picking her way - with only a little diffidence - between thorny questions about the use of military force against Iran. Granted, the Foreign Office flatteringly sees itself as a Rolls Royce that purrs along regardless of who is in political charge. Granted, too, British government ministers are expected to be generalists, not specialists. Even so, to go straight from dealing with air quality and agriculture to UN talks on Iran is quite a conceptual distance to cover.
We see no reason, however, why she should not make the transition convincingly. Of course, her career path falls short of classic qualifications for the Foreign Office. She made her early career in the Labour Party, when her politics was of the left. She lacks the star quality of Ms Rice. But we do not share the pessimism of some who find her hopelessly ill-equipped to take the helm of British diplomacy.
She may have no conventional diplomatic experience, but she was a successful Leader of the House; she was deputy leader, and acting leader, of the Labour Party. As Secretary of the rambling Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she had to juggle many competing interests. The Government's record on the environment leaves much to be desired, and the delay in farm payments - for which her successor apologised yesterday - is a serious lapse. In all, though, she coped more than competently with a very tricky department.
Mrs Beckett's chief merit, however, is her political instinct and her calmness under pressure. A highly effective media performer, she manages to speak jargon-free English and avoid political mistakes. She is strongest in the presentational department, where her predecessor, Jack Straw, was weakest.
This will be a change. After a hesitant start, Mr Straw had come to command respect abroad. He was the driving force behind the European initiative on Iran - even if his determination to stick with the diplomacy may have cost him his job. But his lack of influence with 10 Downing Street as the Iraq war was in preparation and his tongue-tied way with the media were real liabilities. Earning plaudits abroad is not enough; foreign policy has to be "sold" to the home constituency, too.
Britain faces a host of foreign policy dilemmas, of which Iran is currently only the most acute. There is the disaster of Iraq, the looming disaster in Afghanistan and, in the Middle East, the repercussions of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority. There are still post-Iraq fences to be mended in Europe and the future architecture of the EU to be negotiated. The very basis of the transatlantic relationship would also be on the agenda, should the US decide to act against Iran.
This is where we hope that Mrs Beckett might come into her own: a seasoned Labour politician strong enough to say "No" to George Bush. With her clear head, firm sense of purpose and keen awareness of the national mood, there is no reason why Britain's first female Foreign Secretary should not be the right woman in the right place at the right time.Reuse content