If you’re not annoying Lindsay, are you even a Cabinet Minister?
What a joy it is to be Foreign Secretary! Other members of the Cabinet have to worry about crime, or failing schools, or overwhelmed hospitals. The Foreign Secretary just trots around the world saying hello to people.
It’s not impossible to make a mess of it. Boris Johnson managed, announcing incorrectly that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists. And Dominic Raab didn’t cover himself with glory over the withdrawal from Kabul. But by and large, you spend your time as Foreign Secretary making concerned noises about problems that no one thinks are your fault.
The picture of Rishi, hands up, apologising for his media strategy will have to wait
That and having your picture taken. Truss has barely been in the job a month, and there are already well over 200 shots of her on the government’s vanity photo account. Here she is out for a jog in New York, sitting in the cockpit of an F35, strolling through Delhi’s Red Fort like a jollier Princess Di, meeting counterparts from the Baltic states at Chevening (Raab was, one imagines, gluing himself to the driveway at this point). Aside from a brief period in late August when her predecessor insisted on releasing a photo every time he made a phone call to Prove He Was At Work, the Foreign Office has seen nothing like it.
In parliament on Tuesday, the SNP’s Alyn Smith told Truss he awaited many more snaps of her “looking fabulous”. Middle East Minister James Cleverly offered to get him a signed copy of one. And that was pretty much as difficult as the day got for Truss.
Professionally northern Tory Jake Berry told her that “one of the best ways to ensure a global recovery from the covid pandemic is to enable northern businesses to trade freely across the world.” At the World Bank they speak of little else.
They also discussed the situations in Sudan (“dire”), Afghanistan (“painful”), Iran (“destabilising”) and Afghanistan again (“terrible”). And no one made much effort to suggest that any of these things were Truss’s fault, because pretty obviously none of them are. This was made particularly clear when Cleverly explained that the British view of the ideal solution in the Middle East hadn’t changed in decades, and yet, somehow, it remains unimplemented. What a joy to be Foreign Secretary.
Something else that everyone in the House of Commons agrees on without anyone’s behaviour being affected is the importance of Telling Parliament First. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, followed Foreign Office Questions with a rebuke to Rishi Sunak, whose budget has been leading front pages in an episodic fashion for several days.
Sir Desmond Swayne had, as ever, got the wrong end of the stick
“I have repeatedly stated in the clearest possible terms that important announcements should be made by the government first in this House rather than outside it,” Hoyle said. “I did so again yesterday in relation to the briefings issued to the media about the Budget.” And yet there were more “apparently very well-briefed” stories in that morning’s papers. How could this be?
Sadly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was unavailable to explain himself, busy as he was posing for his own vanity snapper (Rishi hand raised, fingers almost touching, as though grasping a test-tube of vaccine. Rishi pointing his pen as though he’s spotted something significant. Rishi with hand out, palm firmly down, as though personally suppressing inflation). In his place we got the amiable new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke. The picture of Rishi, hands up, apologising for his media strategy will have to wait.
In any case, Clarke explained, there was nothing to apologise for, because the government had done nothing wrong, and in any case, every other government did exactly the same thing.
The chamber wasn’t impressed. John Redwood suggested that Sunak was going far further in his pre-announcements than any of his predecessors. Angela Eagle said that for the first time in 30 years, she agreed with Redwood.
Jake Berry, fresh from rescuing the global economy with Truss, suggested that if the Treasury was looking for more announcements, they could make a “huge announcement” about money for the North of England. Clarke told him he’d “have to wait just a few more hours”. Hoyle, grumpy, offered a heckle: “Sky TV tomorrow.”
Sir Desmond Swayne had, as ever, got the wrong end of the stick, complaining that an internal Covid report leaked to this morning’s papers was being suppressed. Given that the report backs the government’s “do nothing” approach to whichever surge we’re currently in, it seems likelier that Boris Johnson has been emailing it to reporters himself. “I will not comment on leaks,” Clarke replied, which may have been a joke.
Finally we got a mea culpa. Clarke had told MPs there would be five days of Budget debate. Hoyle said he thought that was wrong. “My apologies, Mr Speaker,” Clarke replied. “It is a four-day debate.”
“At least,” Hoyle observed, “we have heard it in the House first.”
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