William Hague: I had to break Foreign Office’s deference to the Cabinet Office
Former foreign secretary said there was a ‘lack of confidence’ in the ministry when he took control in 2010
William Hague has spoken of his surprise and disappointment at the subservient ethos he found during his first days at the helm of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The former Conservative Party leader, now Baron Hague of Richmond, said he had been “distraught” to discover the FCO’s famed library had gone when he became foreign secretary at the start of the coalition government, and was similarly troubled by the attitudes he encountered among staff.
Speaking to political historian and fellow peer Peter Hennessy for BBC Radio 4’s Reflections series, Hague said his initial experiences at King Charles Street had not been positive.
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“I was upset with the Foreign Office for its lack of confidence, institutionally,” he said.
“On my first day, I can’t remember what it was but something happened and the officials said: ‘We’ll get the line to take on this from the Cabinet Office’.
“I said: ‘No, from now on the line to take comes from the Foreign Office, this is our job. Of course we will consult the Cabinet Office, but we have to do the thinking ourselves. We’re a big-thinking department with a small budget, not small-thinking with a small budget’.
“So, I really did my best in that four and a bit years to build up that confidence in the Foreign Office. I hope my successors will continue that.”
Hague, who stood down as foreign secretary and became leader of the House of Commons in 2014, ahead of leaving parliament at the 2015 general election, said the importance of institutions in government was an “under-debated topic” but one he believed in strongly.
“Ministers pass through, often for two or three years, doing their best but not really giving attention to the long-term capabilities of their departments,” he said.
“Government benefits enormously from departments like the Treasury and the Foreign Office being strong institutions that people have pride in and learn in and want to belong to for most of their careers.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Hague – who chaired the Conservative Party’s negotiating team for 2010’s Coalition Agreement – said he had been surprised by the lack of historical knowledge displayed by his Liberal Democrat counterparts in the wake of the inconclusive election result.
“That was a momentous few days creating the coalition,” he said. “It was a big shock to us, actually, that the Liberals wanted a coalition. We thought it was more likely given the arithmetic that they would want a confidence and supply arrangement; the sort of thing that’s just been agreed with the Democratic Unionists.
“But they were very clear in the first few minutes, that if we’re were going to do anything, we want a coalition; we want to be in government with you. And that was fine with us.
“With my historian’s hat on, I almost wanted to say to them: ‘Do you know what’s always happened to the Liberal Party whenever it’s entered a coalition with the Conservatives over history?’ But I decided not to mention that.
“I think they knew the risks they were taking, but perhaps they underestimated them.”
Hague, who supported the Remain campaign in last year’s EU referendum, also spoke of his belief that it would be impossibly divisive for the nation not to proceed with Brexit.
However, he cautioned that the UK’s new relationship with the EU had to be underpinned by a liberal approach to migration and a strong free-trade agreement.
“You can take back control of a gun but it doesn’t mean you use it to shoot your foot off,” he said.
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