Coffee House

Liam Fox’s attack on Foreign Office peeves former ambassador

10 December 2012

Liam Fox sparked a row with a former diplomat today after accusing the Foreign Office of an institutional bias towards greater integration with the European Union.

The former Defence Secretary is building up a reputation for himself as a rallying figure for the eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative party with a series of speeches on Britain’s relationship with Europe, and today he attacked the civil service for having a weak spot for the continent. He told an Open Europe event at the Royal United Services Institute that the government’s desire to renegotiate its EU position was impaired as a result of the FCO being ‘totally wedded to the concept of ever-closer union, for whom integration into the EU is virtually an article of faith’. Fox said:

‘I think it is the conventional wisdom, and has been for some considerable time, in the Foreign office that integration is largely Britain’s foreign policy. I think that we need to move away from a position that presumes we can’t do things unless the EU agrees to them. That is what William Hague has been doing as Foreign Secretary and I’m not sure he always has the total united support of the office. We have the complete expertise within our country to renegotiate, it’s now a question of helping it find its way into the civil service.’


But though that position might be popular with many Tories, Fox’s words offended Sir Paul Lever, the former British ambassador to Germany and Assistant Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, who told Coffee House Dr Fox was deliberately shifting the focus of debate to make political points:

‘Civil servants, whether you like it or not, work for ministers. Those in the Foreign Office worked as enthusiastically for Mrs Thatcher when she was waving her handbag as they did for other Prime Ministers of Foreign Secretaries who had completely different views. For former ministers to rubbish civil servants because they are afraid of criticising their party friends is a cop out.

‘If you don’t like the country’s policy on the EU, criticise the ministers who are making it. The idea that they are all just prisoners of their civil servants and they just do what the department tells them to do is bollocks, that’s not how government works and he knows its not how government works.’

Fox’s talk comes before David Cameron’s long-trailed speech on Europe, and his interventions are clearly designed not just to pressure the Prime Minister into a eurosceptic-friendly foreign policy, but also to position himself as someone who understands the concerns of those in the Conservative party who are worried about its current direction on European policy. Like many of his colleagues, he pointed to the growing threat of UKIP, saying:

‘If we’re approaching a new consensus, at least in the Conservative party and amongst our natural supporters, who incidentally number many more than our recent voters, then we need to be aware of the dangers that the constraints of time place upon us. If Conservatives are to have the credibility on the European issue in the eyes of the electorate, then we must have a settled position that is clear, concise and consistent, and we do not have an infinite length of time in which to set it out. We will be fighting European elections in 2014 and we cannot allow the contents of our 2015 general election manifesto to look like a reaction to that most unpredictable event.

‘We must have a clear position before 2014. I believe that if we have to have a policy in place by the time of the party conference season in 2013. The longer we hold a clear position, the more likely we are to be credible and thus to be able to both take advantage of a growing trend among the British electorate and to see off parties such as UKIP by supplanting them rather than accommodating them.’

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  • barbie

    The problem as I see it is both want to rule the country, one elected one not. Ministers can ask for things to be done and Whitehall boffins delay or ignore the the demands. Who really runs this country, and why do we pay MPs or elect them? Its a good question when you read things like this. The EU has created problems for this country beyond what we realised, their constant interfering, and silly laws by the barrowful, who wants or needs them. Whitehall should realise the ‘will of the people’ is done through the democraic system with elected MPs, they serve the government not themselves. Its bad enough getting MPs to follow the will of the people, but if government boffins begin to join in the fray we’ve no chance. What all should realise its our ‘will’ that should be adhered to no one elses. Party dogma, party dictators, MPs chosen by headquarters and not locally, have also made governments quota of MPs less likeable. We see the results, ignoring those who voted for them. Its time for change and that change should be total; and by that I mean a new party. Vote UKIP and rekindle local MPs, and MPs who speak for the nation and not themselves.

  • Ajay

    The question is always “Would we be better of in or out of the EU?”

    Although I happen to believe that we would be financially better off out, I don’t care. I just want my country back, to elect or get rid of my own government, even if it costs me to have that.

  • Idris Francis

    Mrs. Thatcher famously said 2There are many very intelligent people in the Foreign Office – its a shame they are not on our side.” Hiw right she was – as usual. I would no more trust rhe Foreign Office – or for that matter the current Foreign Secretary William “Eurosceptic” Hague than I would trust Blar, Brown Clegg, Cameron etc.

    The resoise of the former Ambassador – who might have been expected not to use foul language – reminds me of that famous Mandy Rice Davis reply in the witness box at the Profumo affair trial “He would, wouldn’t he?” What did anyone expect him to do – admit it? We all know that Diplomats are people sent abroad to lie, no reason to think they do any different when they come home.

    Fox, like him or not, is at least right about one thing – Cameron does not have the slightest chance of avoiding this issue until the 2015 election – on present trends he risks coming not second behind UKIP in the 2014 elections but third, behind UKIP and Labour.

    Would I, as a UKIP voter since the mid-1990’s vote for Cameron in 2015 on the basis of a manifesto promise of a referendum in which he will campaign ti stay in? Fool me once, Mr, Cameron, shame on you – fool me twicem shame on me,

  • Andrew Fairhead

    Of course the whole establishment is pro europe integration, and as one writer has rightly commented, ministers (not least Prime Ministers), would never get a job unless they took such a line, whether to a greater or lesser degree.
    What is also clear, is that the Government, and indeed maybe, the Establishment also is strongly biased against Israel, and has not the courage to say anything unless equal credence is given to the Palestinian Terrorist organisations, elected or not, West Bank or Gaza.

  • In2minds

    There will be many, many years before a new EU treaty is in train. We
    need an in/out referendum and then spend a long time disentangling
    ourselves from the EU and associated treaties after invoking Article 50
    of the Lisbon Treaty. Dr Fox is prescribing soma by trying to pretend
    that renegotiation is a quick fix or even that the Conservatives can
    work out exactly how to renegotiate the 170,000 pages of the acquis

    • Chris

      Two years to renegotiate after an Article 50 application. Cameron’s long awaited speech will have to negotiate all this. It is going to be fun to watch. Meanwhile UKIP gets more support. He really should not delay any longer-but he probably will.

  • Robert_Eve

    Fat chance of seeing off UKIP.

  • Colonel Mustard

    I think Lever has underestimated the politicisation of the civil service under New Labour, and the conformist gleichschaltung now permeating through it as a result of the work of Common Purpose and a general embrace of a left of centre, authoritarian orthodoxy. The lack of true empowerment for ministers is demonstrated by May’s regurgitating of New Labour’s snooping Bill – the imperative of civil servants rather than representatives of the people. And some think ID cards will be back on the agenda as, reputedly, Serco is still busy installing the infrastructure.

    The Spectator itself recently carried an article by a Tory ex-minister on the frustrations of not being able to direct civil servants within his department and the frustrations involved, so I’m surprisedt wasn’t cross-referenced by Oliver Duggan as a counterpoint to Lever.

    • mikewaller

      If it is all the fault of New Labour then “Yes Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” must have been written in a time warp! Indeed, I can recall the story of a new Minister in Atlee’s government who on being given a paper prepared by civil servants, said something along the lines of “Thy’s given me a paper saying how can’t be done, now give me one that says how it can”.

      In general terms, the civil service is a force for stability and will therefor prefer the status quo. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong. For my money, on the question of the EU the Foreign Office has it about right. Unlike the Government, it has the good fortune not to have a rag-bag of Eurosceptics snapping at its heels. The service as a whole is also in an excellent position to judge whether the UK is likely to make a good go of it on its own. I should be unsurprised were they as doubtful as I am.

      • Colonel Mustard

        There is a quantifiable difference between the civil service wishing to pursue its own agendas (as it always has) and the politicisation of it under New Labour. I did not say it was “all the fault of New Labour”. Read again, more carefully please, what I actually wrote. It was that Lever had underestimated the politicisation. The combination – pursuing their own agenda but doing so in a politicised way – is doubly pernicious.

        I’m afraid I no longer believe the civil service is “a force for stability”. I see it increasingly as an executive arm of the progressive movement, prone to ill conceived, expensive and ultimately flawed projects and a verifiable incompetence whilst so often taking its eye of the ball of what it is actually supposed to be doing. In fact I believe that its idea of driving change upwards is directly counter productive to stability. Instead of an overriding duty to simply deliver policy it is more and more seeking to influence and implement policy change, too often publicly.

  • swatanra

    The man is an absolute disgrace. The shiftiest looking politician around since Powell.
    Fox by name. Fox by nature.
    Most Business leaders want greater integration with Europe. And the FO has always been pro-Israeli.

  • Davidh

    This is the same Mr Liam Fox who, as Defence Secretary, was getting his foreign policy direction not from the elected government of Britain but from hush hush meetings with American lobbyists and the Israeli secret service.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      … opposed to those who take their cue from the Mu$lim Brotherhood and european ex-communists?

      • Davidh

        Muslims and ex-communists??? I was trying to point out that Mr Fox is being blindingly hypocritical and thinks foreign policy should be decided by proper democratic process only when it suits him.

  • Vulture

    The FCO have been a nest of traitorous vipers at least since the era of Appeasement when it was presided over by flabby faced Wab Butler and Lord Halifax. It is also notoriously pro-Arab, a policy driven by public school chaps whose deepest desire is to be buggered by a Bedouin boy in the shade of a sand dune. Their sycophancy to the EU just continues a long and inglorious tradition. The whole place should be shut down – it would save us a fortune.

    • mikewaller

      Given what Israel gets away with, the FO Arabists you identify must be amazingly ineffective.

      • Vulture

        They are!

      • Hexhamgeezer

        No not ineffective – patient – they take their cue from their !$lamist chums and play the long game.

      • RealTory

        Another anti-semite muppet who believes that the efete arabists in the FCO have any influence over the mighty Israelis. They laugh at us numbnuts.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Lever is a lying disengenous cnut. Ministers in recent years have not needed to be taken prisoner by the FCO – they wouldn’t be in the job under Major, Blair or Brown if they were anti-Europe and Lever knows it. The idea that one will get a range of options presented on EU issues by the FCO is frankly risible. To a man and woman they back all the orthodox left positions of the EU and it’s policies of cementing us into ‘ever closer union’.

    It is also a fact that our much vaunted FCO is also prone to making errors due to lack of knowledge of the arcane rules and regulations governing the day to day workings of Brussels – these mistakes cost money but are usually succesfully buried ‘in house’

  • Border Boy

    As a retired civil servant I had regularly to work with the FCO. While Sir Paul maybe right in saying that civil servant carry out the policies prescribed by ministers, he is being disingenuous in implying that FCO is not institutionally pro Euro integration. Why, for example, do they continue with Robin Cook’s decision to provide the Euro value of salary on their pay slips?

    The FCO is driven by what it perceives as British interests and this, fundamentally, means maximising British influence around the world. The obvious way to do this is to maintain a close relationship with the USA and to sit at the top table in the EU. Submissions to ministers on any issue explore options and usually make recommendations. It will come as no surprise to to discover that this provides a regular opportunity to influence ministers decisions in favour of Euro integration. It is all very well saying officials operate within ministerial policy, but at the same time they cannot help pressing the house line. It drives a lot of people mad.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    And as anyone who has worked in a Whitehall head office knows what Sir Paul Lever said is complete bollocks as well. Civil Servants have for decades (and certainly back to the Thatcher years) attempted to thwart their Ministers’ policies if they did not like them and replace them with alternatives they like better. A favourite they used to attempt to thwart in the 1980’s was outsourcing, for example. Clearly though they had no objection to outsourcing their masters’ power to Brussels!

  • Malfleur

    There is certainly evidence available that the FCO is pro-Arab, some would say notoriously so, and has been so down the years contrary to the national interest. See for a recent example:

    Why should it not be credible that the FCO leans towards the European Union as a consistent stance; or indeed, to put it more sharply, that for the FCO “integration into the EU is virtually an article of faith”?

    • telemachus

      The so called pro Arab stance has not stopped illegal West Bank Settlements

      • RealTory

        It didn’t stop Blair invading Iraq or Afghanistan either you moron. As ever it is impossible to divine whether you are being ironic or stupid. I go for the latter.

      • Robert_Eve

        Nor should it.

  • David Lindsay

    We need someone who will stand up for Britain and for Parliament against all comers, not Liam Fox. His resignation was for conducting a proxy foreign policy on behalf of three foreign interests.

    One was the American neoconservative movement, not then in government in its own country, and now deprived of any hope of ever being so. The second was the Israeli secular Far Right, sadly very much in government in its own country. And the third was the government of Sri Lanka. That’s right. Sri Lanka.

    Why is this man still in receipt of the Conservative Whip? Why has he not been expelled from the House of Commons? Why has he not been prosecuted for treason? Why?

    • mikewaller

      I doubt we would agree as to who is right regarding the content of the Fox/Lever exchange, but I think you are bang on the money with regard to Fox as a person. He has always seemed to me totally ego-driven and having destroyed his own ministerial career now seems hell-bent on cobbling together any platform that will give him a back-bench power base. An awful man.

    • Rahul Kamath

      This whole storm in a teacup seems like a way for Dr. Fox to feed some ‘news’ about himself to sycophantic right wing journalists.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Do you habitually use the term “sycophantic left wing journalists” too? How about the “sycophantic left-wing BBC”? No need to reply. Rhetorical questions and I already know the answer.

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