Leading article: What is the point of the Foreign Office now?


Not so long ago, a visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would have been a central feature of an official visit to these shores by a foreign leader. But times have changed. The first appointment of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on arriving in Britain yesterday was a meeting with Tony Blair at Downing Street. His photo call later in the afternoon with the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, gave the impression of being little more than a polite afterthought.

This small but telling episode helps to illustrate just how diminished the Foreign Office has become under this Government. No longer is it one of the great offices of state, feted and lobbied by diplomats and leaders from overseas. The real decisions concerning UK foreign policy are all made elsewhere.

More evidence of this shift in power came at the weekend. On Saturday, the junior Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, visiting Beirut, criticised the disproportionate and counter-productive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. It is conceivable that this was a calculated move to appease those voices calling for a more robust British response to the crisis. But it was more likely to have been part of an unplanned release of tension by a Foreign Office frustrated by Mr Blair's refusal to let a cigarette paper come between himself and the White House, whatever the cost to his nation's international standing.

This particular Government cannot take all the blame for marginalising the Foreign Office. The process began under Edward Heath, and quickened under Margaret Thatcher. And, to some extent, this appropriation of the traditional duties of foreign secretaries by prime ministers is inevitable in an age of global politics, high-speed communications and high-profile summits.

But Mr Blair has taken the process further than any of his predecessors dared. And nowhere has this been more evident than over Iraq. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, Foreign Office advice was repeatedly ignored. Secret documents have come to light which show that, a year before the invasion, the Foreign Office warned explicitly of a lack of a comprehensive plan for stabilising and reconstructing Iraq. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, tried to form an independent axis of sorts with his American counterpart, Colin Powell, who was sceptical about the justification for military action, but both were eventually forced to toe the line.

The diminishment of the Foreign Office stems partly from Mr Blair's informal "sofa" style of decision-making, which was painfully exposed by the Butler Report two years ago. This disregard for Whitehall convention in Downing Street is reflected in a general disregard for civil service expertise. And this manifestly includes advice from the Foreign Office.

Mr Blair promised to change his ways after Lord Butler's report. But there has been little evidence of this. The involvement of the mandarins of King Charles Street would surely have encouraged a more nuanced response to the present crisis in the Middle East. And the unfolding mess in Afghanistan - highlighted by the surprise visit of the Conservative leader David Cameron yesterday - is another indication that an appreciation of the complexities of another region is sorely lacking among our political leaders.

There needs to be a debate about the point of the Foreign Office. Should it be little more than a rubber stamp for decisions made between the US President and our Prime Minister? Or do we want it to be a real force in the formulation of an independent British foreign policy once again? We need to ask such questions because, if things continue as they are, the world will begin to wonder why we bother having one at all.

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