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Tuesday, 28 November 2023
Challenging Covid and China, enraging France and Europe
Ian Black
Last week was unusually turbulent for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government – even by the standards of the Covid pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit reality. First there was a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle and then an angry French and European reaction to a deal struck between the US, Britain and Australia, which was all about confronting China.

Johnson’s principal goal was preparing for the next general election, due in 2024 or possibly earlier, by sending a positive message about his plan for post-Covid economic recovery. It was also obviously about his control of his own party. “Boris has shown people he’s in charge,” one Tory said. “People won’t mess around now. Anyone can get chopped.”

Not surprisingly, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary was the most prominent minister to be sacked. He has been struggling with a poor reputation due to incompetent handling of the pandemic’s effect on schools and especially exams. He is being replaced by Nadhim Zahawi, born in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, and whose last job was a chairman of the successful Covid vaccines rollout.
Johnson’s many critics are unhappy that the home secretary, Priti Patel, has not been replaced. Of Asian origin herself, she has been widely seen as anti-immigrant in her hostile approach to asylum-seeking foreigners.

The main change in the reshuffle – in terms of Britain’s external relations – was the replacement of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, by Liz Truss (previously the international development secretary) who is only the second woman to hold the high-profile role. Raab has been demoted to justice secretary, but was given an artificial boost by Johnson as his deputy prime minister.
Raab was a victim of the controversial US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan without consulting allies, including the UK, which has long boasted of a “special relationship” between London and Washington. Raab compounded the sense of crisis by going on holiday just as Kabul fell to the Taliban. His unpopularity with British diplomats and defence ministry officials did not help either.

Truss will accompany Johnson to New York this week to attend the UN General Assembly. In her previous role she gained experience of international diplomacy but is quite outspoken for her demanding new job. It has dismayed many liberal Tories who see it as yet another sign that the UK’s foreign policy ambitions are diminishing.

And the global challenges for the UK became painfully clear a day after the reshuffle, when French ministers reacted furiously to the agreement between the US, Britain and Australia. Under that pact, known as Aukus, Washington and London will share sensitive technology with Canberra to let it develop its first nuclear-powered submarines – though not nuclear weapons.

The pact was described by the UK’s national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, as “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades”. It means Australia will end the contract given to France in 2016 to build 12 diesel electric-powered submarines to replace its existing fleet. The deal marks the first time the US has shared nuclear propulsion technology with an ally apart from the UK.

Broader questions about the agreement are mostly about how to respond to China following President Joe Biden’s policy of confronting Beijing, given the perceived scale of the Chinese threat in what Biden described and “the free and open Indo-Pacific” and to address the region’s “current strategic environment”.

China condemned the three English-speaking countries as in the grip of an “obsolete cold war zero sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts” and should “respect regional people’s aspiration <…> otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests”.
Paris was also very angry. A statement issued by the French embassy in Washington said the decision to “exclude” France “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret” while the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, less diplomatically, called the deal “brutal and unilateral” and ”a stab in the back”. Florence Parly, the defence minister, called it “an enormous disappointment.” In an unprecedented move France then withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra and was scathing about “junior” British participation in the pact. Germany warned that the deal threatens western unity.

It means China now faces a powerful new defence alliance in the Indo-Pacific, one that has been welcomed by regional partners such as Japan. It also reaffirms that, after leaving the EU, the US still wants the UK, and not the EU or Nato, engaged as its principal military partner. That is good news for Johnson – with his post-Brexit slogan of “global Britain” but bad news for Nato, which French president Emmanuel Macron described recently as “brain-dead.”

It also gives Biden focus for his post-Afghanistan tilt to Asia. On 24 September, he will chair the first in-person summit of the Quad –involving Japan, the US, Australia and India. Canberra’s blunt demand for an enquiry into the origins of the Covid pandemic is another factor in mounting tensions with Beijing.
In these profoundly uncertain times, whatever happens next, one thing is crystal clear: Liz Truss is going to have her work cut out as the UK’s new foreign secretary.