Sir Alan Duncan’s resignation will only leave a hole in the Foreign Office for a couple of days before the new prime minister replaces him. But he’s not the only missing minister in that department: Mark Field is suspended while the incident at Mansion House is investigated. Duncan had been covering some of Field’s responsibilities over the past few weeks, and now he is off too, just as the crisis in relations with Iran deepens.
Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, has been busy conducting a leadership campaign, all of which gives the Foreign Office, normally the most composed and regal part of Whitehall, a slightly chaotic, neglected feel. This may change mid-week when Boris Johnson, if he does indeed win the contest, appoints his new government, though memories of Johnson’s tenure at the Foreign Office aren’t particularly rosy either.
Not only is the department reeling after the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as UK Ambassador to Washington, but it is also in the middle of responding to the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged tanker. Tory MPs haven’t bothered to keep their views to themselves on the way the government has handled this so far: Philip Hammond’s PPS Huw Merriman last night told the Westminster Hour that ‘I take the view that we have dropped the ball here’, and argued that the British government had known there would be a reprisal for the seizure of an Iranian tanker earlier this month, but hadn’t made adequate preparations for that. ‘It was hardly a surprise when one of ours got taken,’ he added.
One of the problems has been the British government’s unease about appearing too close to the Donald Trump administration, and refusing to work with the US to ensure there was a convoy protecting vessels. And just as a new prime minister will change the ministers in the Foreign Office, so will that stance towards the US alter: Johnson believes it is much better to work closely with Trump, and that he understands the man. But the department isn’t going to have much time in which to get up to speed and avoid dropping the ball once again.