Blinded by desire for post-Brexit trade, Theresa May neglected foreign policy matters

Analysis: Theresa May, it can be said, looked at foreign affairs through the viewpoint of a somewhat desperate door-to-door saleswoman, writes Kim Sengupta

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Friday 24 May 2019 17:16

Theresa May was the latest in the line of Conservative prime ministers to be brought down by the bitter divisions over Europe. But, compared to her predecessors, she had the least impact and influence as leader of the United Kingdom on the wider field of international relations.

Ms May’s government was consumed by the convulsions of Brexit. And, ironically it was that issue, one that was supposed to launch an unfettered leap to “Global Britain” which resulted instead in a retreat of British foreign policy, rendering this nation’s view less and less important on issues of global importance.

Ms May, who once declared in a speech that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, had sought to wrap herself in the Union flag to gain favour with her party’s right wing.

Other prime ministers who had been super-patriotic, especially Margaret Thatcher, whom Ms May often compared herself to, had a robust and forthright foreign policy. But the May government was hamstrung by what it saw as the all-consuming need for trade deals after Brexit, making it extremely wary of offending authoritarian states and rulers.

There was, for instance, a good reason why Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose Britain in May last year as the destination for his high-profile foreign visit after calling an election.

There was little chance of Ms May’s government embarrassing him by saying or doing anything about the state of human rights in Turkey and the tens of thousands imprisoned in retribution after the failed coup in the country.

Erdogan was keen to press the point home during his trip, saying: “We are very ready to cooperate with the UK post-Brexit in every field ... I see the strategic partnership between Turkey and the UK as a necessity for the interests of the two countries.” He added: “The UK will need trade after Brexit and, rest assured, Turkey is willing to help.”

There were plenty of other examples of the desire not to jeopardise lucrative prospective deals by offending leaderships that abused human rights and flouted international law, the latter of particular resonance as the UK is supposedly dedicated to championing the Rules Based International System.

Indeed, Downing Street under Theresa May had been quick to stamp down on ministers who raised inconvenient concerns. When Boris Johnson, then the foreign secretary, complained that Saudi Arabia was “playing proxy wars” and “puppeteering” in the Middle East, the prime minister’s official spokesperson was quick to that his views did not reflect government policy, saying: “Those are the foreign secretary’s views, they are not the government’s position on Saudi Arabia and its role in region.”

Ms May let it be known that Mr Johnson was over-reaching and being irresponsible by speaking in that way about a valued ally.

The disagreement with Mr Johnson was in December 2016. The bombs and missiles from the Saudi-led coalition continued to rain down in the bloody conflict in Yemen, killing and maiming tens of thousands of people, while Britain has made a huge amount of money selling these weapons.

One of the latest examples of turning on ministers who had annoyed oppressive but potentially lucrative regimes came when Gavin Williamson proposed sending the aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, to the disputed waters of the China Seas to uphold the right of navigation.

His speech was overfull with phrases of imperial hubris, of “East of Suez” and “Pax Britannica”. But there was nothing intrinsically wrong with upholding international law by sailing in these waters. Other countries – the US, Japan, Australia and India – have all done that.

But even as the then defence secretary was finishing his speech at the Royal United Services Institute, Downing Street was briefing journalists that Mr Williamson was jeopardising trade deals with China.

Mr Williamson was later sacked for allegedly leaking a National Security Council (NSC) decision to allow the Chinese multinational, Huawei, into the UK’s telecommunications network – a charge he vehemently denies. The decision was driven, we know from multiple sources, by Ms May, against the wishes of a number of cabinet ministers.

Politicians reacts to Theresa May's resignation

Britain is under great pressure now on the Huawei decision, especially after US claims that the company is a secret arm of the Chinese state. Huawei denies this, but a number of other European allies, as well as Australia and New Zealand, have placed restrictions on the company over the same suspicions.

The Chinese are trying to head off a possible UK ban on Huawei. Beijing’s charge d’affaires in London, Chen Wen, has warned that there could be “substantial” repercussions for her country’s investment in Britain if measures are taken against the company.

It is unlikely that any of the potential Tory successors to Ms May will allow Huawei into Britain’s 5G network – the strong opposition from the Trump administration is likely to be too strong to withstand for a UK taking faltering steps outside the European Union and dependent more than ever on the supposed “special relationship”.

It may well be that had Ms May stayed in power and become “strong and stable” after successful negotiations out of the EU, establishing trade and security partnerships, she would have pursued a more forthright, even a more moral, foreign policy.

But that did not happen. Winston Churchill once dismissed Neville Chamberlain as “a Birmingham municipal councillor who looked at foreign affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe”. Theresa May, it can be said, looked at foreign affairs through the viewpoint of a somewhat desperate door-to-door saleswoman. It was a demeaning position for a nation that still aspires to global greatness.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments