David Cameron’s return has put the pro-EU, anti-Israel blob back in charge

The Foreign Office has been emboldened to defy Rishi Sunak, and restart all of its old campaigns

David Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary was meant to strengthen Rishi Sunak. Two weeks on, it is clear that it has had the opposite effect. 

The Foreign Office, which had been kept on a tight leash by pro-Brexit ministers, is acting as if it has won the political lottery. Its officials have clearly taken the appointment of a former PM – one whose views are aligned with its own biases, to boot – to head their department as a cue to act like a state within the state, severely undermining the actual Prime Minister. 

In the space of just a few days, Lord Cameron’s Foreign Office has torn up Sunak’s pro-Israel stance, threatened to sabotage his efforts to tackle the small boats crisis, and adopted the most pro-European tone since 2016. Sunak has been left to confect a row with Greece over the Elgin Marbles, a classic displacement activity which merely highlights his reduced grip over Britain’s real foreign policy. 

There are three centres of power in the British Government, guaranteeing dysfunctionality in the absence of strong political leadership. The first emanates from the Prime Minister, No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary; then comes the Treasury, master of spending and policy; and last but not least there is the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

Sunak is aligned with the Treasury, and was able to keep the FCDO broadly under control under James Cleverly. Cameron’s appointment has shattered this fragile balance of power, with dire consequences for British interests if the PM doesn’t urgently reassert himself. 

Treasury orthodoxy has generally been wrong over the decades, and has been a drag on Britain’s economy. But at least its mandarins are financially literate: their Foreign Office counterparts have few redeeming features, and FCDO orthodoxy has been an even greater disaster

Officials inevitably make the wrong calls, often work against Britain’s genuine national interests, and appear to view democracy as an irritant. Their arrogance is matched only by their mediocrity. They are obsessed with “influence”, “relevance” and “reputation”, ooze declinism, and love to suck up to cash-rich autocracies. They are desperate to sign up to global agreements to make themselves look good among other bureaucratic elites.

The FCDO is vehemently opposed to pulling out of – or derogating from any clauses from – the European Convention on Human Rights and any of the other international treaties that make it impossible for nation states to control immigration or to introduce Rwanda-style plans.

One reason for this is that the department’s erstwhile support for empire has mutated into backing for technocracy and juristocracy. It didn’t believe in nation states in the past, and it doesn’t believe in them today. It opposed Brexit and it dislikes Zionism, the ultimate anti-colonial project of national self-determination. Its prejudice against Israel is especially severe: the FCDO appears never to have recovered from Lord Balfour’s declaration promising support for an independent state of Israel in 1917. Officials never allowed the late Queen to travel to Israel, and remain Arabist in outlook. They retain a weakness for the extremist regime in Tehran.

For a brief while, the FCDO was in retreat, its flagship policies destroyed by post-Brexit reforms. Simon McDonald, its ludicrous former permanent secretary, recounts how officials were in tears when the referendum results came in. The shift away from China was another blow: the FCDO still cannot accept that it makes little sense to allow authoritarian foreign governments to control vital British assets such as nuclear power: such “state capitalism” makes a mockery of genuine free markets. 

The cuts to foreign aid under Sunak, and the reallocation of 29 per cent of the remaining cash to help refugees in Britain, were another bitter blow to the mandarins: they love nothing better than spending taxpayers’ money abroad. The Aukus partnership between Australia, the UK and the US was a disaster for European defence integration. Ditto the decision to sign up to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, shifting the UK further away from the single market. 

Boris Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss were to thank for Britain’s generous support for Ukraine, not the FCDO machinery. Rishi Sunak’s unequivocal backing of Israel after the Hamas terrorist pogroms was great, but horrified the denizens of King Charles Street. They still managed to wreak some havoc, vetoing any serious crackdown on Iran and quietly refusing to support Israel at the UN, but the defenestration and downgrading of the FCDO was one of the great unsung triumphs of the post-Brexit years.

All of that is now over: Foreign Office orthodoxy is back with a vengeance. Lord Cameron’s first interview – with the BBC, appropriately – was hugely disappointing. He claimed the number of casualties in Gaza was “too high”, implicitly blaming Israel rather than Hamas, and accepting the terrorists’ propaganda at face value, by failing to realise that many fatalities are Hamas fighters and somehow forgetting that they use civilians as human shields. 

The war would end were Hamas to unconditionally surrender and release all the hostages – why didn’t Cameron ask for that, rather than stating, insultingly, that he “stressed over and over again that [Israel] must abide by international humanitarian law”? Can’t he see that Israel is doing more than any other country to follow the rules of war, and that it is succeeding to an almost superhuman degree? Is the FCDO trying to harmonise British policy with that of Emmanuel Macron and other anti-Israel European powers? 

Cameron also appeared to blame the lack of peace on Israel not delivering “safety, security and stability for the Palestinian people”. This gets the causality wrong. Israel has endlessly attempted to trade land for peace, only to be rebuffed by a Palestinian establishment that doesn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist.

Sunak needs to impose his authority. He must slap down the FCDO. He needs to stop wasting time on the Elgin Marbles, and reassert his control of foreign policy. He must make another pro-Israel intervention and be clear that he still supports the destruction of Hamas. He needs to push through a “full-fat” immigration reform. The past fortnight has been a step backwards for Sunak, but all isn’t yet lost.