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Alex Bigham: Test of strength as Hague finds his feet on the global stage

Article by Alex Bigham

April 7, 2011

The first lapse was over intelligence. A rumour developed that Colonel Gaddafi had fled Libya to the Venezuelan island of Margarita, where one of his sons is said to be in exile.

Hague fuelled the fire by suggesting the stories were true, which later turned out to be wrong. Intelligence can be notoriously unreliable, and, as a senior minister, a lot of information is shared with you on a confidential basis. Hague’s judgment was questioned for publicly discussing such unconfirmed information.

The second failure was a bureaucratic one – the slowness of getting British citizens evacuated from Libya. While countries such as France, Germany and Turkey managed to evacuate most of their citizens in a few days, Britain had left its nationals stranded owing to apparent incompetence at the Foreign Office, with planes sitting on runways and emails from British workers left unanswered, forcing the Prime Minister to step in.

A foreign policy analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week: “You have seen in recent weeks Cameron asserting himself in foreign policy far more than in his first few months in office, something he’d previously seemed desperate to avoid. Hague’s wobble in the early stages of the crisis did knock his reputation but not irretrievably.”

The third episode was the failed Special Forces mission in Eastern Libya. The operation was a joint effort between the Special Boat Services (SBS) and the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS, also known as MI6).

The mission was authorised by both Cameron and Hague, but a lack of co-ordination led to some officers entering Libya via Land Rovers, while others flew in on Chinook helicopters, the noise of which alerted rebels to their presence. The botched operation ended in the humiliation of Special Forces being kidnapped by a group of rebel farmers.

With an unfavourable press, a number of his Cabinet colleagues were said to be in the frame to replace the Foreign Secretary in a reshuffle, though it looks unlikely as Cameron wouldn’t want to see a disgruntled Hague active on the backbenches.

Possible successors have been positioning themselves, with the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, appealing to the right of the party by sounding hawkish on Iran, Michael Gove being assertive over democratisation and security in the Muslim world (something on which he has written a book), and Andrew Mitchell, who has gained plaudits for his quiet effectiveness at the Department for International Development, rumoured to have been on “manoeuvres” in recent weeks.

However, despite these managerial problems, William Hague maintains the full confidence of the Prime Minister and seems popular among many ordinary Conservative party members.

How has a man who has suffered such slings and arrows, and endured a humiliating defeat in 2001 as party leader, remained as a great survivor of British politics?

There have been some successes in his time at the Foreign Office. The fact that Britain worked so closely with France and the United States in securing UN Resolution 1973 speaks of the efforts that Hague made behind the scenes along with his diplomatic team, although some more Eurosceptic MPs were said to be uneasy at the leading role France took.

The military campaign has progressed fairly smoothly with no major failings in terms of losses or civilian casualties so far, though things may prove more difficult as the long-term objectives of the campaign remain unclear.

Hague handled the defection of Moussa Koussa effectively too. Something of a coup for Britain, the defection of one of Libya’s most high-ranking officials must have dealt a psychological blow to Gaddafi.

Hague has been careful to navigate the tricky legal and political issues surrounding it, by refusing to grant immunity to a man accused of being involved in the Lockerbie bombing and support for the IRA.

One of the great difficulties of being Foreign Secretary is that the best laid plans can be undermined by the outcome of what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”. Hague was unfortunate enough to have visited Bahrain in February and praised its democratic progress, only to watch in horror as it invited Saudi troops in to crush a rebellion by its Shi’a citizens.

As another foreign policy expert told me: “Hague has learned the hard way that response to events, rather than execution of pre-determined strategy, determines success in foreign policy. His early foreign policy has been washed away in a sea of change, and he has now been marginalised by an increasingly activist Prime Minister.

“Ironically, this may help explain his survival, as David Cameron’s new interest in foreign policy has taken him out of the firing line.”

Like many Prime Ministers, the longer Cameron stays in the job, the more his day is taken up with international issues and security concerns. While he will want to do all he can to protect his Foreign Secretary, it remains to be seen how many more lives the great survivor has left.

This article was first published by the Yorkshire Post.

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