Despite its fading grandeur, Britain’s Foreign Office has forgotten its former self-confidence. Foreign Secretary David Cameron needs to rediscover it fast to avoid humiliation

Fromer PM and now British Foreign Secretary David Cameron EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER


Three British diplomatic heavy-weights, recently retired, have just released a report calling on the Foreign Office to be “re-branded”.

They say the Foreign Office needs to learn humility. It needs to remember Britain is now just an offshore, mid-sized country. It needs to deal more with trade and the environment, less with foreign diplomacy.

And it needs to shift those colonial portraits and vast pictures of Britannia out of the Foreign Office, then find some way to redesign all that gilt and marble. It needs to be less elitist, less rooted in the past.

Get that.

These three ex-diplomats have used the “elitist” Foreign Office to climb out of a middling life in England. Two were educated at grammar schools, one at a state secondary school, and if you are a reader who is not familiar with English education, none of that is elite.

Now they have risen through diplomacy to international positions (I dare not call them jobs, they are too elite for that) with such operations at the Rothschild Bank.

All that gilt and marble must have looked okay to them when they first checked in for junior management training years ago.

Now though, well, they have climbed the ladder, so they might as well pull it up behind them. To the coming generations, they peer down from their elite positions and say, get humble.

To which I say, No, and I am not even British.

Coming generations must walk across the sculpture-encrusted three-story high Durbar Court like they belong there.

Any diplomat must sit under whatever 15ft high picture he likes, Lord Curzon or the Duke of Wellington or any full-bosomed image of Britannia receiving the riches of the West Indies, and regard his foreign visitor with the relaxed look of a man at home.

His Majesty’s diplomats must remember who they are, and on whose shoulders they stand.  The Foreign Office is their home. In the old language of international diplomacy, “Doré et marbre c’est moi.”

Humble is not why they are there. Effective is why they are there. But that is where the Foreign Office must be criticised.

The diplomats are not delivering on British foreign policy, and it has nothing to do with an excess of Greek, Sicilian and Belgian marble.

Look at David Cameron, the present Foreign Secretary. He carries pride in all the wrong parts of his character and diplomatic intelligence in none.

He does indeed seem to think that he is at home on the Grand Staircase of the F.O., but he does not have the brains to see how to deserve the honour.

Earn it, man.

Right now, he is off in the United States embarrassing British foreign policy by trying to negotiate Donald Trump into supporting more military billions of aid to Ukraine.

Despite past personal insults aimed by Cameron at Trump, the former president agreed to see him. That is natural, because it looks to Americans like the foreign secretary of an important European country is coming to Trump for advice and persuasion.

Nothing wrong with that during an election campaign.

But you know what Trump thinks of Cameron because the former president will not forget the nasty comments Cameron aimed at Trump in 2016. He called him “divisive, stupid and wrong.”  Later he called Trump “protectionist, xenophobic, [and] misogynistic.”

There was no political or diplomatic gain to be had from those comments. However, the comments confirm one thing about Cameron. He is a short-term politician and no diplomat.

Now he wants Trump’s help. Trump’s help is lost back with the “stupid,” and the “misogyny.” Trump will agree to nothing Cameron wants.

Matters of diplomacy change over years. There is no point in insulting a first-term US president when all those years of politics lie ahead.

The line from the great mid-19th century foreign secretary Lord Palmerston is so well known you would have to wonder how Cameron missed the direction: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Which means, be a diplomat who says Trump is wrong, that is okay. Say he is stupid and you are on his enemies’ list for life.

This is not Cameron’s first diplomatic screw-up.

When he was prime minister and agreed a referendum on membership of the EU, he promised he would negotiate a deal with the German chancellor Angela Merkel and other Continental leaders to reduced immigration from EU countries. That was the immigration Britons were most concerned about then.

Cameron indicated he would travel across Europe and pull a diplomatic rabbit out of the hat which would show the British voters that the UK could get the concessions it needed from the EU.

Cameron came back with nothing.

And yet he retains this vain confidence.

This week Peter Mandelson, former Labour party top politician, recalled Cameron’s confidence before a three-way debate with the leaders of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the 2010 election.

Mandelson said, “Cameron reckoned he would be fleet of foot. He would be charming. He would tap dance his way to success.”

Nope. Cameron failed to win a majority in the election.

Yet he keeps tap dancing, as if he will persuade anyone of anything.

Repeat, his failures are nothing to do with the history and grandeur of the Foreign Office. They are down to his bone-headedness and vanity.

The Foreign Office should be brainy when negotiating. It cannot go around with brainless comments like the one former foreign secretary James Cleverly came out with after a visit to China last year. “It would be a mistake to isolate China,” he said.

Arghhh. How would you isolate China? It has 1.4 billion people, in 2022 it had $25.684 trillion in real GDP and more than two million fighters active in the military.

Cleverly was just repeating old clichés. That is not thinking. That is not diplomatic intelligence.

What we need is a Foreign Office that is brainy. Brainy, slippery, ready to find allies in all the most unlikely places, with a constant view of what Britain, Britain first, needs.

I would advise Cameron and every other diplomat who has the honour to work in that gilt and marble palace to sit and contemplate how to arrive at those skills. Marble walls are good for framing the right outlook. Tap dancing is irrelevant.