A Labour government would not disband the Department for International Trade despite having been opposed to its creation, the shadow foreign secretary has said.
Speaking at the Institute for Government in London today, Emily Thornberry said the creation of two departments in July 2016, said the Foreign Office had been damaged by the decision to “carve out large chunks of its capacity to create DIT and the Brexit department” after the vote to leave the EU.
However, she said she would not attempt to reintegrate them into the Foreign Office because it would only cause further disruption in government. “It wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests, I don’t think, to go through the disruption of amalgamating,” she said.
Creation of DIT “was disruptive in a way that was unnecessary but it’s done now”, Thornberry said. She added: “Of course, the Department for Exiting the European Union has allegedly got a short shelf life so we’ll see how that goes.”
Speaking on what the Foreign Office would look like under a Labour government, Thornberry said the department she hopes to one day run had in recent years suffered a loss of influence, morale and resources under successive governments.
She said the government’s handling of Brexit had undermined confidence in Britain’s overseas diplomatic service, which had long been known for “common sense, competence and clear-headed decision-making”.
This was worsened by the installation of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in July 2016, she said. She argued that Johnson, a leading figure in the Leave campaign during the referendum, had had to great a focus on “delivering the Brexit result that he had helped to engineer", to the detriment of other departmental priorities.
But she said the Foreign Office’s woes had begun some time earlier. Labour bore some responsibility for department’s loss of clout, she said, because it had ceded influence to Number 10 in the post-9/11 era under prime minister Tony Blair. This meant the department’s authority was diminished but that it was “nevertheless carrying the can for failures beyond their control”.
She said she wanted to rebuild this influence and address what she called a “crisis of morale” that had arisen in the Foreign Office as a result.
Thornberry also pledged to increase funding for the department, which underwent significant budget cuts under the 2010 coalition government she said had “reduced our presence or our influence in dozens of countries”.
She said this funding would be used in part to “reverse the trend where in our overseas posts, it is now too often only the ambassadors and heads of mission who are expected, encouraged and resourced to engage with key players in the countries where they work”.
Under Labour, she said, all overseas officials would be given the resources and mandate to build links with groups such as NGOs, faith groups, human rights activists and academics, and to present feedback to ministers on how best to support these groups.
However, Thornberry did not make any clear commitments on the level of funding a Labour government would provide.
Thornberry also said she would like to oversee a fundamental shift in how the Foreign Office operates.
“We have seen a perceptible shift to make the promotion of trade, business links and the financial bottom line not just the top priority of Foreign Office staff based here and overseas, but one allowed to override all others – most notably, protection of human rights,” she said.
She said having too much of a focus on trade had made the UK “dangerously indulgent of authoritarian regimes” and “blunted the government’s ability to take a tougher line with Donald Trump over his consistent undermining of the world order”.
She also reiterated a commitment to carrying out a root and branch review of arms regulations to ensure weapons the UK sells to other countries are not used to commit war crimes or suppress internal dissent.
She said a Labour government would reform the Foreign Office in five ways: by reversing funding cuts to give diplomats the resources and mandate to go out and promote British values overseas; ensuring commercial interests are not allowed to trump the department’s values; being “clear sighted in dealing with the world as it is now, rather than how we want it to be”; by setting long-term goals and seeing them through; and by leveraging international alliances to tackle foreign policy issues.