Global Policy Forum

How the US Fired Jack Straw


By William Rees-Mogg

Times, London
August 7, 2006

When Jack Straw was replaced by Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary, it seemed an almost inexplicable event. Mr Straw had been very competent — experienced, serious, moderate and always well briefed. Margaret Beckett is embarrassingly inexperienced. I made inquiries in Washington and was told that Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, had taken exception to Mr Straw's statement that it would be "nuts" to bomb Iran. The United States, it was said, had put pressure on Tony Blair to change his Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw had been fired at the request of the Bush Administration, particularly at the Pentagon.

Shortly before he was dismissed, Mr Straw went on his charming tour with Condoleezza Rice, in which they visited his Blackburn constituency. This had been given two explanations. One was that the US Secretary of State was hoping to protect Mr Straw, as a fellow foreign minister, against the undiplomatic attack from the Pentagon. She wanted to keep Mr Rumsfeld's tanks off her turf. She had found Mr Straw competent and effective. If that were so, Dr Rice lost that battle in the Washington turf war.

The alternative explanation was more recently given by Irwin Stelzer in The Spectator; he has remarkably good Washington contacts and is probably right. His account is that Mr Straw was indeed dismissed because of American anxieties, but that Dr Rice herself had become worried, on her visit to Blackburn, by Mr Straw's dependence on Muslim votes. About 20 per cent of the voters in Blackburn are Islamic; Mr Straw was dismissed only four weeks after Dr Rice's visit to his constituency. It may be that both explanations are correct. The first complaint may have been made by Mr Rumsfeld because of Iran; Dr Rice may have withdrawn her support after seeing the Islamic pressures in Blackburn. At any rate, Irwin Stelzer's account confirms that Mr Straw was fired because of American pressure.

Yesterday the Mail on Sunday went back for a second look at the story in the light of subsequent events, particularly the Israeli counter-attack on Lebanon. A US source told them that "Mr Straw's views did not find favour in the White House and its concerns were passed on to the British Government". That confirms that the Foreign Secretary was effectively dismissed by an American President.

This is not entirely unprecedented, but the precedent is a bad one. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain wanted to pursue his policy of appeasement, which was opposed by the young Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Chamberlain conspired with the Italian Ambassador in London, Count Grandi, at a Downing Street meeting. Eden was virtually forced to resign on the appeasement issue. I do not know of any other example of a British Prime Minister allowing a foreign power, friendly or otherwise, to decide a senior Cabinet appointment.

Mr Straw was in a relatively strong political position at the time that he was moved to the job of Leader of the House of Commons. His statement on Iran must have been calculated. He was probably right to think that it would be "nuts" to bomb Iran, because that might have led to a critical rise in the oil price — experts talk of a price of between $100 and $150 a barrel. It could also have led to a Shia revolt in Iraq. If Iran had been attacked, by the US or by Israel, Mr Straw might have resigned rather than give Britain's support.

It is also possible that Mr Straw was moved sideways because Mr Blair already had preliminary information that Israel planned to hit back hard at any aggression by Hezbollah. When the Hezbollah kidnapping and the Israeli counter-attack took place, the United States and Britain jointly refused to call for an immediate ceasefire. The fighting, with its terrible impact on Lebanon, has now continued for four weeks. There is an allegation that Israel's plans for the counter-strike were given to the Americans, and that information was passed to the Prime Minister. These questions will be pressed if Parliament is recalled. Obviously Mr Straw's potential resignation in these circumstances would have been very difficult for the Prime Minister.

There was, however, no resignation issue at the point at which Mr Straw was actually moved. He had the problem of handling the Islamic vote in his constituency, but he had been a supporter both of Mr Blair and of the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, he accepted the Foreign Office when Robin Cook resigned. He is not an anti-war protester.

There are now three main political positions. Most of the Cabinet, including Mr Straw, and most of the Conservative Opposition, including David Cameron, support the action in Iraq, but have serious reservations about its conduct. I suspect that may also be Condoleezza Rice's viewpoint. The Liberal Democrats and the probable majority of public opinion in Britain see the whole action as a blunder. The American neocons, including Donald Rumsfeld and the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, still take a more messianic view on the possibility of democratising the Middle East. The Bush-Blair partnership is still poised uneasily between the hawks of the Pentagon and the doves of the State Department. It was a bad mistake for Tony Blair to sack Jack Straw, who was handling this divergence rather well. It was also an insult to our national independence.

The "who knew what and where" issue will not go away. If there is no immediate and effective ceasefire in Lebanon, there will be increasingly urgent demands for the recall of Parliament. Lebanon will be raised at the Labour Party conference, as will Iraq and Afghanistan. The Labour Party is pro-Palestinian, critical of Israel, and hostile to the Bush Administration. Many Labour Members of Parliament want a new leader, if only to save their seats. The annual July political crisis started in April this year, and will still be running in November.

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