Friday 25 March 2011

Should the Foreign Office send for Paddy?

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, celebrates his 50th birthday tomorrow.

The crisis of Hague's missing mojo appears to have receded somewhat, with Hague helping to lead the government's efforts to coordinate the military action in Libya in a way which seeks to sustainthea broad but potentially fragile coalition of international support.

But there is an unwelcome birthday message for Hague in the new issue of Prospect where commentator Ian Birrell makes the case that Hague must go, promoting Paddy Ashdown as his successor.

Birrell is a close Cameron ally, responsible for writing the Prime Minister's speeches during the General Election campaign, as well as an independent commentator. (There is no reason at all to think that the PM sympathises with the article, or would have known anything about it). But this is an example of the extremely small Coalitionist tribe among the Cameroons thinking about ways to maintain Coalition cohesion, and to ensure that Nick Clegg's public and private loyalty should not go entirely unrewarded.

Here's his case for Paddy Ashdown as Foreign Secretary:

There is a solution: press Paddy Ashdown into service as foreign secretary. The unfortunate truth is William Hague has looked unconvincing in the spotlight of diplomacy—indeed, many in the party wonder if the fire has gone from his belly when it comes to politics. So why not move Hague into the party chairmanship or some other key role in which his undoubted talents would be better used, and bring Lord Ashdown back into the political frontline?

He has an impressive record on foreign affairs, especially during the break-up of Yugoslavia, when he showed political courage in lobbying for action to halt the atrocities. Given his unstoppable energy, his military record and his diplomatic service in Bosnia, he could, if necessary, reassure both his party and the nation that supporting oppressed people demanding civil society is very different from supporting a US president seeking to impose democracy in Iraq.

Hague has sufficiently recovered his appetite for the job to see it through the current crisis at least - and even his later departure would make Tories nervous about the Coalition's internal balances.

So the identity of the next Foreign Secretary has become a more distant and hypothetical discussion than it was a few weeks ago.

Ashdown would make an excellent Foreign Secretary - and might even be sellable to robust Tories as well, though the issue of Europe would inevitably raise suspicions.

Still, as Birrell notes, there is no Cabinet member on the Tory side nearly so well qualified for the role were Hague to move on.

Downing Street would certainly trust Ashdown in the role more than Defence Secretary Liam Fox after their very public spats with Fox over MoD cuts and the highly inadequate and cost-driven 'Strategic' Defence Review (which all expert opinion believes should be reopened).

Ashdown was never quite offered any substantive government role by Tony Blair. He had to turn down the tempting role of Northern Ireland Secretary under Gordon Brown's non-coalition goatish gambit, for reasons of party cohesion. And he had reportedly been lined up to join this government as Business Secretary until Vince Cable decided he could stay on with fewer responsibilities.

Ashdown's historic role may have to be as the man who saved his party from its near death experience after merger in 1988. But, whether as Foreign Secretary or elsewhere, it may be premature to rule out the chance that he may yet find himself in the Cabinet.

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