Once the engine room of a global empire, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has in recent years been stripped of influence, prestige and self-confidence.
Britain’s chaotic evacuation effort from Afghanistan in August brought the department’s inadequacies into sharp focus, according to a whistleblower, but critics say the FCDO’s handling of the crisis highlights broad problems in a department once regarded as the Rolls-Royce of Whitehall.
“In domestic terms, the FCDO is at the lowest level of operational competence and respect than at any time in the 45 years I have been studying UK external policy,” said Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank.
Liz Truss, who succeeded Dominic Raab as foreign secretary in September, has the task of turning the situation around. Her political star is in the ascendant — she is the most popular cabinet minister with Conservative activists, who will choose the next party leader — but it will be a big test.
It is also vital that Truss can get a grip, given that this month Boris Johnson gave the foreign secretary and the FCDO new duties: she will have responsibility for EU relations following the resignation of Brexit minister Lord David Frost.
Truss is now charged with repairing tattered relations with the bloc and resolving the dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements, which were first set out in the prime minister’s Brexit deal.
Clarke said the stakes were high. “The FCDO is now at the edge of a very slippery slope, and it will plunge down it very quickly in the eyes of the world unless it restores its former prestige through improved competence and better strategic vision,” he added.
Critics say the FCDO must increase its spending and staffing levels if British diplomacy is to maintain its influence, but years of government austerity have taken their toll.
In chancellor Rishi Sunak’s October spending review, the FCDO was the only Whitehall department due to reduce its budget by 5 per cent by 2024-25.
This month Truss hailed the UK’s diplomats as the “best” in the world, but just days later officials were told in an internal FCDO email: “We are planning on the basis of just under a 10 per cent reduction in our overall workforce size by March 2025.” James Cleverly, a FCDO minister, later denied such cuts would take place.
UK diplomats say their embassies are cash-strapped and a lot smaller than they should be. Some costly diplomats based overseas have been replaced with cheaper local staff.
Meanwhile, there is widespread disquiet over the merger in 2020 of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development — a pet project of Johnson, who served as foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018.
The shake-up has been followed by a cut in the UK overseas aid budget, and one diplomat said the merger had “gone down internally like a bucket of cold sick”.
This month a 25-year-old whistleblower cited the merger as one of the factors that contributed to Britain’s “chaotic” evacuation from Afghanistan, which was led by the FCDO.
Raphael Marshall, a desk officer at the FCDO in London until September, said staff who previously worked at the Department for International Development could not access computers in a London crisis centre because “the DfID and FCO IT systems are not yet integrated”.
He also claimed in written evidence to MPs that during Britain’s evacuation effort, pleas for help from thousands of desperate Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban were ignored, and that Raab, then foreign secretary, “did not fully understand the situation”.
“There has been a real problem of political leadership, which has not helped Foreign Office confidence, or its impact in Whitehall,” said Peter Ricketts, former top civil servant at the Foreign Office.
Insiders describe the department in King Charles Street as “demoralised” after years of poorly performing foreign secretaries.
“The leadership of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab has been a pretty depressing experience for those working in the department,” said one.
Alexandra Hall Hall, former British ambassador to Georgia and ex-Brexit counsellor at the UK embassy in Washington, said the job of foreign secretary did not any longer necessarily go to a minister with a long record of thinking about the UK’s strategic global challenges.
“It is a top prize — one of the top cabinet posts that is given to politicians for their loyalty, or to keep them quiet, or out of the country,” she added.
As well a high ministerial turnover, critics say the FCDO’s standing has also been affected by strategic drift, just at a time when the UK needs to flesh out its post-Brexit, “global Britain” foreign policy.
Brexit is said to have badly hit morale at the department: it had no role in the UK-EU negotiations that followed the 2016 referendum on leaving the bloc. “The Foreign Office has obviously had a very difficult five years,” said Ricketts.
In 2017, Sir Ivan Rogers announced his resignation as Britain’s ambassador to the EU, claiming the then prime minister Theresa May’s team ignored his warnings on the complexity of Brexit.
“There has been a lot of self-censoring since then,” said one former ambassador, who left the FCDO two years ago. “You just felt that you couldn’t give honest advice, there was a risk you would be accused of being a ‘Remainer’ who couldn’t be trusted.”
Diplomats say they still feel bruised by Johnson’s failure to defend Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the US, who was forced to stand down in 2019 following the leak of a cache of confidential diplomatic cables that criticised Donald Trump’s administration.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The foreign secretary has set a clear strategic direction for the FCDO and is empowering staff across the world to deliver it . . .
“The department is prioritising building closer economic and security ties with friends and allies as a way to exert more global influence, draw more countries into the orbit of freedom-loving democracies and create a network of liberty across the world.”