Absolute Control: Brexit and Number 10’s growing hold on foreign policy

Nine months into office Theresa May has appeared increasingly to centralise foreign policymaking back in No.10. Long gone are the days of the laissez-faire approach of David Cameron, which was often represented by a high level of ministerial autonomy reinforced by collective decision-making.

Instead May’s premiership has so far been embodied by a controlling caution which inevitably reflects both her personality and the mood of the country as we are propelled towards Britain leaving the European Union.

And who can blame her approach? Brexit, above all else, will define her premiership, and how her foreign policy credentials are viewed, even with ongoing difficulties caused by the flashpoint that is Syria, and the West’s failure to engage with Russia’s re-emergence. Brexit was the issue that brought May to the most powerful office in the country and it could invariably be the issue that, like her predecessor, sees her leave it. Her personal success or failure as prime minister is inextricably bound to the success or failure of the UK’s negotiations with other EU members on the terms of our exit.

In appointing Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office, she has followed a long line of premiers who have sought to isolate leadership rivals by cutting them off from domestic policy. Where May differs in this is the unique decision to use Brexit as a precursor to split the Foreign Office into three. Brexit is a mechanism for structural change in government, even before negotiations begin. For the Foreign Office this represents a serious shift away from the heart of foreign policy decision making, just as Cameron was content to allow it to regain its authority after many years of dominance by No.10.

The re-establishment of a Department for International Trade and the creation of a Department for Exiting the European Union have drained resources and more importantly power from the Foreign Office. Pair this with clear departmental crossover of responsibility, a lack of certainty in its remit and three secretaries of state, each with big egos and a different unique view on what kind of Brexit Britain should have, and it appears chaotic. However this misses the big picture; that the diminution of the Foreign Office merely empowers the centre, where all the real decisions on Brexit will be made.  And for this reason alone Mrs May is seeking a mandate based on a sizeable increase in her majority.

Her actions have so far shown no signs of any particular foreign policy ambitions. Instead her foreign policy initiatives have continued the foreign policy objectives of her predecessor.  On Russia she has maintained a tough line, asking for sanctions after the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. On Syria, she has maintained the policy that Assad has no future as President. On Saudi Arabia, she has continued support for intervention in Yemen through the selling of weapons. On China, she has upheld the business and trade overtures established by George Osborne.

Brexit is no exception; while Cameron chose resignation over the implementation of the will of the British people, May is following the strategy set out by Cameron when he attempted to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union. His playbook was simple: to negotiate a new relationship and better terms or to walk away from the EU entirely. She is merely following through.

The British Prime Minister now spends close to 90% of his or her time on issues with an international dimension. For the winner of the General Election on June 8th, who has the uniquely complex task of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, it will probably be even more.

However this is not reflected in general election campaigns. In the last General Election campaign, foreign policy was rarely mentioned. The Labour Leader, Ed Miliband gave only one speech on foreign policy. Aside from Europe, which was focused on domestic concerns, it was rarely mentioned in the prime ministerial debates. In Jeremy Paxman’s BBC in-depth interviews with the leaders he asked only two questions on foreign policy, one to David Cameron about the collapse of the state of Libya and another to Ed Miliband on the situation in Syria. An exception was the General Election in 2005 which focused heavily on the Iraq War and cost Tony Blair millions of votes.

This election could be different. This is after all the Brexit election, called by Theresa May specifically to bolster her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in negotiations with our European partners. Foreign policy under the guise of Brexit negotiations and their aftermath is therefore likely to dominate the general election debate in some part. It may also lead to sub-Brexit debates focusing on the more traditional foreign policy issues such as the establishment of free trade agreements and the wider debate over Britain’s role in the world.

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have an opportunity to use Brexit to stake out a new foreign policy vision for the country, independent of the foreign policy of the last seven years. However if past actions and past elections are anything to go by, this is unlikely.  Corbyn will be keen to play to Labour’s strengths centring on domestic concerns over the National Health Service and the state of the economy. May has rightfully earned herself a reputation for caution. Being 24 points ahead in the polls, this is her election to lose. So do not expect any bold pronouncements or risky policy moves on her part.

Instead it falls to the third and fourth estates. Elections are fought on issues that are driven by popular concerns even if framed by politicians. Elections bring with them the unique opportunity for genuine civic participation in both directing debate and policy discussion.  In the coming election it is incumbent on both the national media through its reporting and ordinary citizens to recognise the shift of the Prime Minister’s role in foreign policy and to move the debate accordingly.

Brexit cannot be allowed to subsume this election or wider British foreign policy. The path we are about to choose to tread presents a once in a generation opportunity to redefine and reset Britain’s foreign policy priorities and relationships across the world. It cannot be wasted.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.