Sharp rise in number of EU nationals applying for UK citizenship

The number of German, Italian and French nationals applying for British citizenship has more than trebled in three years as the impact of the Brexit referendum is felt, government data has revealed.

Almost 30,000 EU nationals applied to become British citizens between June 2016 and June 2017, double the previous year.

By volume, Poles topped the list of those seeking British citizenship in the past three years with just under 6,200 applying in the year to June 2017, up 44% on the previous year.

The sharpest rise in applications was among Germans, whose applications jumped from 797 in the year to June 2016 to 2,338 in the year to June 2017.

The number of Italians opting for citizenship rose from 1,109 to 2,950 for the same period, while the number of Spanish almost tripled from about 500 to approximately 1,400.

The biggest jump in percentage terms was among Finnish people, although the volume of applicants was small at 220 – a jump of 255% on the previous year.

Half of the 28,502 applications made in the year after the Brexit vote were made on residency grounds according to the figures provided by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act.

A further 6,839 applications were made in the same period on behalf of minors, up 77% on the previous year and more than double the 2014-15 figure.

Figures provided by the Home Office showing the grounds on which individuals applied for citizenship in the year after Brexit compared with previous years

The looming divorce between the EU the UK appears to have consolidated many continental relationships, with a sharp rise in EU nationals applying for citizenship through marriage. Numbers were more than double those recorded in each of the two years before the referendum, standing at 4,342.

Italian, French and German citizenship applications more than trebled in three years.

The uncertainty over Brexit has led to record numbers of EU27 nationals living in Britain trying to secure their status. Recent Home Office figures show that 168,913 permanent residence documents were issued in 2017, the highest ever number and twice the 65,068 issued the previous year.

More recent headline figures from the Home Office show the number of citizenship applications for British citizenship from EU27 nationals has not dimmed: in the full year 2017 there were 38,528 applications, two-and-a-half times the 2016 figure (15,460).

Compared with overall numbers of EU citizens living in the UK, those opting for British citizenship remains very small. Latest ONS data shows there are 907,000 Polish-born citizens in the UK, 299,000 Germans, 220,000 Italians, 164,000 French and 157,000 Spanish.

Applications for citizenship through marriage were highest among Polish, German and Italian nationals

Just over 15,000 of the citizenship applications made in the year after the Brexit referendum were made on the basis of residence in the UK, a 61% rise on the year before the EU referendum.

To become naturalised, EU citizens need to have been resident in the UK for five years if the application is being made on residence grounds. Naturalisation costs £1,282.

Economist Paul Johnson: ‘We are nowhere near out of austerity’

When the chancellor Philip Hammond sits down on Tuesday after delivering his first spring statement – the streamlined replacement for what we used to call the budget – one man will be greatly in demand, popping up on every media outlet to tell us what the figures on borrowing levels and the projected deficit really mean. That man is Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). I suggest to him that his official role is to pour a bucket of cold water over Hammond’s head, and he doesn’t disagree. “Economics is the dismal science, after all,” he says.

Happily, 51-year-old Johnson is not at all dismal. He is clever, sparky and down to earth – probably because he sees life through the lens of a father with four demanding sons going through the education system. He crunches all the numbers, but he also understands the personal stories behind those numbers. He has written about how his dyslexic second son has battled through further education and been disappointed by the threadbare nature of Britain’s vocational training system. That, in turn, informs his critique of a society unduly preoccupied with universities and graduates. Johnson, despite a mildly nerdy manner, is the opposite of the ivory-towered academic.

The idea of the spring statement, with the budget now pushed back to autumn, is to tell us where we are financially, and to kickstart consultations about the long-term fiscal challenges facing the UK. That, for Johnson, is the important bit. If the spring statement works, it is an opportunity to counteract the short-termism that bedevils British politics and to start thinking about the issues that really matter – the ageing population, the buckling health service, the lack of any coherent plan for social care, the fact that soon taxes are going to have to rise or public services will fall to pieces. There comes a point when you can no longer kick the can down the road because the road is no longer usable.

The Office for Budget Responsibility numbers cited in the spring statement will be better than those projected last autumn because tax receipts have been higher than anticipated, and Johnson reckons Hammond will indulge in some self-congratulation for having met the government’s austerity targets (albeit two years later than his predecessor George Osborne forecast) and eliminated the deficit on day-to-day spending. But Johnson is ready with his bucket of cold water. “Chancellors always talk up the positive numbers,” he says, “but we’re not out of austerity; we’re nowhere near out of austerity. There are still big spending cuts and big social security cuts to come.”

Johnson says the chancellor, Philip Hammond, will indulge in some self-congratulation for meeting austerity targets, but warns there are still big spending cuts to come.

Johnson says the chancellor, Philip Hammond, will indulge in some self-congratulation for meeting austerity targets, but warns there are still big spending cuts to come. Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock

He says the government has done well to get the deficit under control, but thinks the pips are now starting to squeak. “If you look at the period up to 2013/14, spending came down without big political consequences or things falling apart. But, in a whole range of areas, that is no longer true. If you look at what’s happening in prisons it’s just disastrous. Local government until 2014 was coping fine. It really isn’t any more. Clearly, the health service is struggling in a way that, three or four years ago, it wasn’t. So it feels as if we’ve got to the crunch point. We’re really beginning to feel the cost.”

Government borrowing is now back to pre-financial crash levels. “It is quite an achievement to have got borrowing down from the highest level since the war to pretty much normal kinds of levels,” he says. “It’s come down from about 10% of national income to 2%, so from well over £150bn to a number somewhere in the low 40s.” That’s annual. It’s an achievement that we are only running up extra debt of £40bn a year. My head is starting to spin.

It spins further when he tells me what the national debt is – approaching £2tn, which equates to around 90% of GDP. When, I ask, do you hit the panic button about the size of the debt? “Who knows?” he says. “We are not close to that at the moment. Interest rates are still incredibly low, and despite the fact that the debt is twice as big as it was in 2008, we are not paying any more interest because rates are so low. The risk that the Treasury is balancing all the time is that at some point we’ll have another recession and if the debt then goes up by another 40% of national income, can we manage 130% of national income debt? Maybe. Probably. But at the point at which you can’t and people stop lending to you, then you lose control in quite a big way. You’re managing a very small risk of a very bad outcome.”

Johnson reckons it is time for politicians to level with the public about the financial challenges facing the UK. Brexit, plus our ageing population and the resultant pressure on health, pensions and social care, means something has to give. “It’s very hard to see what’s left to squeeze,” he says. “There is no defence budget to squeeze. There is no industry budget to squeeze, no housing budget to squeeze. Where do you go next? Unless you say, ‘Well, we are going to have to increase spending as a fraction of national income and increase taxes over the next 10 or 20 years’, which at least until the last Labour manifesto was a conversation that no politician was terribly keen to have.”

He says both of the main political parties are living in a fantasy world. “On the one side you have a party saying you can have all the welfare state we’ve ever had and pay no more tax, which isn’t true. And on the other side, you’ve got them saying we can levy more tax and it’ll be somebody else who pays because it’ll come off companies and the rich, which also isn’t true. Labour’s election manifesto had an awful lot of overestimates about what you can get from companies and the very rich, and didn’t fully balance out. You can’t have European standards of welfare with American-style tax levels. You have to make a choice.”

Making choices and being honest with the public is not, as Brexit shows, something politicians are good at. Analysing the shibboleths surrounding the NHS and the lack of progress on developing a system of social care, Johnson has written about the “infantilisation of public debate”, which he says emerged starkly in both the recent referendums. “In the Brexit referendum there were strong arguments on both sides, but you didn’t have any sense of the trade-offs. Referendums are a one-shot game and a pure yes/no, so everyone has to make out that everything is good about what they’re suggesting – the economy is better and immigration is better and sovereignty is better and and, and … It was exactly the same in the Scottish referendum. There were some entirely sensible and plausible arguments for Scottish independence, but it was absurd to pretend it wouldn’t involve spending cuts or tax rises in Scotland.”

I ask him if he ever considered a political career himself – many of the young alumni of the IFS, which he once was, go into politics. He pauses before giving the definitive reason why he could never have done it: “If you are working in the party political system, you have to subjugate yourself to such an extent to the party line. Some politicians manage to be independent, but not many successful ones.”

That is not, however, to say that he despises politicians for the compromises they have to make and the false claims that are part and parcel of political life. He recognises the nightmarish task they have. “Making policy is hard. You’re trading off these huge political and ethical issues. You’ve got your own ideology; you’ve got lots of conflicting evidence; whatever you do is going to make some people better off, some people worse off, and you don’t quite know who they’re going to be.”

There is no economic case for Brexit, says Johnson … lorries at Dover port.

There is no economic case for Brexit, says Johnson … lorries at Dover port. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Does he ever doubt the merits of democracy, with its requirement to make a “retail offer” to the public that is inevitably overblown, perhaps even mendacious, to win votes? Might China be on to something with its authoritarian centralism that at least ensures stability and long-term planning? “I don’t doubt that democracy is the right way to do things,” he says, “but I do doubt some of our institutions. We are in an unusual position at the moment where you’ve got politics pulling to the left and to the right, and you’ve got nothing really filling the middle. That’s partly happening across the world, but it is a reflection of the way first-past-the-post works here.”

So does he speak for the technocratic middle? “I don’t know about the middle,” he says. “I’m always aware that there is a technocratic bit, which is what I and my colleagues do, but there is also an ideological bit and a democratic bit, and that’s really important. The best we can do – and the best that civil servants can do – is to put the evidence before the people who have been elected and then it’s their choice. That creates desirable constraints. It would be a disaster if the country was run by pure technocrats.” But why? That sounds ideal. “They wouldn’t be listening to the people,” he counters. “Arguably, that’s the lesson of Brussels.”

Johnson loves the IFS, and under him it has a pleasing energy and informality – a 50-strong group of mainly young researchers and economic and social policy experts who can run a slide rule over the more outlandish claims of politicians and point out the pitfalls of their policies. He spent his 20s there after getting a first in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, then worked at the Cabinet Office, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury before returning to the IFS as a research fellow in 2007, just in time for the nation-redefining financial crash. He became its director in 2011.

His two immediate predecessors, Andrew Dilnot and Robert Chote, did 11 and eight years respectively before going on to grand posts elsewhere (and in Dilnot’s case bagging a knighthood), but Johnson looks nonplussed when I ask him if 10 years will be enough for him. He clearly hasn’t thought about stepping down, or started eyeing up other plum jobs. “I love the IFS,” he once declared. “I love what it does and I love the way it does it.” That love affair shows no sign of abating.

One economist told me that if you read Johnson’s weekly articles in the Times carefully, you are filled with despair, because as a nation we refuse to confront the hard questions he is raising. Politicians like to gambol in the long grass. I ask Johnson, who in person is anything but downbeat, whether despair is a legitimate response to his truth-telling. “I’m not filled with despair about what’s possible because we are a relatively low-taxed country by European standards,” he says. “You could perfectly easily, in an economic sense, raise more tax and still have an equitable, well-functioning economy. The thing that worries me is the difficulty of having a sensible conversation about it and the belief that, if you are going to raise more money from tax, there’s some free money floating around.”

There is no free money. If we want better health care, social care, education, transport, we are all going to have to stump up. He estimates that in the next 20 years, we will have to pay an extra 3% of national income in tax – equivalent to about £60bn a year – just to meet the rising pension and social care bill. He floats some bracing ideas: VAT on food; paying social insurance to help fund the NHS; road pricing to replace the £30bn a year in fuel duty that will be lost as cars move away from petrol and diesel; wealth taxes levied on expensive properties, second homes (which he sees as a key factor in the housing crisis) and even personal pensions, which have been sacred until now. These are the sorts of big ideas he wants Philip Hammond to start to embrace next week. Whether the chancellor will rise to the challenge is another matter. That long grass looks very inviting.

Even without Brexit, the challenges facing the UK would be formidable. With Brexit, they look cataclysmic. “The economics are obvious,” he says. “If you make trade with your biggest, nearest and richest trading partner more expensive, you will make yourself worse off. The truth is there is no dispute about that. Of course there is a case for Brexit. It’s just not an economic case. It’s a controlling-immigration case. With everything – and this is what’s frustrating about a lot of political debate – there are trade-offs. Do you want control of your borders or do you want to avoid taking a hit of a couple of per cent of GDP? You can’t have both.

Politicians tell you that you can have your cake and eat it, but you can’t. It’s true of pretty well all politicians about everything.”

EU set to expose differences with Theresa May in draft Brexit guidelines

Proposals, due for publication on Tuesday, will be as vague as possible in order to force UK to explain what it wants

The EU will keep its draft guidelines for a post-Brexit trade deal as short and general as possible, the Guardian understands, in order to force Theresa May to explain what the UK wants and leaving the door open for a British shift on the customs union and single market.

The publication of the EU’s draft guidelines on Tuesday will be a stark moment for the prime minister, as it is made clear that a whole range of proposals made by May in her Mansion House speech on Friday are to be rejected.

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Six former foreign secretaries on Brexit, Britain… and Boris

Amid the prosaic setting of British politics, with its fusty civil servants and turgid party meetings, the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs stands out as the most glamorous of cabinet appointments. There’s the exotic travel, the hobnobbing with dignitaries, the adrenalin rush of serious global events – who cares about the campaign to stop the local post office closing down when you’ve got a vote at the UN security council to deal with. And there’s the sense, bolstered by your Foreign Office staff and the never less than precarious condition of international relations, that what you say and do actually matters.

Still, behind all the photocalls, the joint accords and bland diplomatic statements, what does a foreign secretary really do? After all, when it comes to the most critical foreign policy – military intervention – it’s the prime minister who’s in the hot seat. Although foreign secretary is one of the three great offices of state beneath that of the PM, it doesn’t enjoy the autonomy of chancellor or the isolation of home secretary – a ministry from which prime ministers are often all too keen to distance themselves. At the key moments, foreign policy is the preserve of No 10.

Furthermore, at this present juncture, the job description of foreign secretary seems more amorphous than ever. Britain stands at an uncertain crossroads. The world order is shifting, and our traditional ally, the United States, is run by a maverick reality TV star who wants to pull back from international commitments while conducting global policy via his Twitter account.

Then, of course, there is Brexit. The nation seems stuck at the door, neither ready to face the harsh world outside nor prepared to return to the embittered marital home. For all the talk of getting our country back, there is a growing fear that we will return to being what John Updike once called “a soggy little island huffing and puffing to keep up with western Europe”.

And where in all this trepidation is the current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson? He appears to have been more vocal about the plight of the National Health Service – not traditionally seen as part of the Foreign Office’s remit – than he has been involved in the most momentous change in foreign policy since the second world war. And when he does intervene, as shown by his recent comparison of the Irish border to the line between the London boroughs of Camden and Islington, he tends to make more headlines than headway.

In an age of American unpredictability, Russian subversion, Chinese expansionism and European divorce, what should British foreign policy be, and what does or should a British foreign secretary do?

To get an answer to these questions, I set out to speak to as many former foreign secretaries as possible. There are 10 of them still living. Philip Hammond, who was in the role from 2014-2016, is still in the cabinet, and therefore not forthcoming enough for our purposes. John Major only did the job for three months, barely enough time to unpack the family photos. Douglas Hurd, who retired from politics two years ago, is 87 and has recently been unwell, and Peter Carrington, the last hereditary peer to hold the post, is 98, and a little out of circulation.

That left six who were keen to talk, some of them very keen, so much so that it required all my powers of diplomacy to extract myself from their loquacious company.

There aren’t many places to go when you’ve been foreign secretary. Either you become prime minister or it’s down or out. In theory, you could get shifted sideways to chancellor, as happened with Hammond, but in the case of the six I spoke to, foreign secretary was the highest political office they were to hold.

So I couldn’t help but detect a melancholy hankering for grander times enshrouding some of the reminiscences. Even David Owen – who at 79 still displays the intellectual confidence that intimidated many political opponents, not to mention allies – betrayed a certain nostalgia for his globetrotting days in office. He speaks in forensic detail of meetings and conversations that took place over 40 years ago, suggesting they still occupied a treasured place in his thoughts.

I spoke to Owen at his home, the location in 1981 for the “Limehouse Declaration” that launched the Social Democratic party, with its commanding view of the Thames.

Owen became foreign secretary at the age of 38, one of the youngest in history. He served James Callaghan’s government between 1977 and 1979. Was he daunted by the size of the job at such a young age?

“I was always accused of either being abrasive or arrogant. Which in part was true,” he says in a tone that does not convey regret. “But, you know, you have the confidence of youth. One of the things about being appointed young is that you can absorb a huge amount of information quickly. And it isn’t long before you have to keep up to date with the constant flow of telegrams.”

Owen believes that he was the last but one of what he calls “the historic foreign secretaries”, those who ran foreign policy themselves rather than meekly deferring to the prime minister of the day. “I think the job changed hugely after [his successor] Carrington’s resignation [at the start of the Falklands war],” he says.

Thereafter, he believes an emboldened Margaret Thatcher took ever more control of foreign policy. This trend, according to Owen, slackened a little under John Major but was redoubled by the time of Tony Blair. “I mean, [Blair] didn’t really like Robin Cook. He didn’t like any of his foreign secretaries.” He says Labour’s most successful prime minister subsumed much of the foreign secretary’s remit “into the No 10 machinery” in what he describes as “an unbelievable constitutional power grab”.

Quick guide

Boris Johnson’s errors of judgment

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Boris Johnson said that the British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, convicted of spying in Iran, was “simply teaching people journalism” – a statement her family and her employer both said was untrue. His comments were subsequently cited as proof that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.

‘Dead bodies’

After Johnson suggested that the Libyan city of Sirte might become a new Dubai once “the dead bodies” were removed, Downing Street said it was not “an appropriate choice of words”.

Whisky sour

Johnson apologised after causing a “livid” reaction in a worshipper in a Sikh temple in Bristol by discussing his enthusiasm for ending tariffs on whisky traded between the UK and India. Alcohol is forbidden under some Sikh teachings.

Continental drift

Boris Johnson referred to Africa as “that country” in his Conservative party conference speech.

Tweet like Trump

The foreign secretary suggested he wished he could tweet like Donald Trump, despite intense criticism of the US president’s use of Twitter, on which he has launched personal attacks against his foes.

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Unsurprisingly, the other five foreign secretaries I spoke to didn’t agree that they were their PMs’ ventriloquist dummies. All acknowledged Owen’s general point but in one way or another saw themselves as exceptions to that rule. Perhaps the most confusing case is the current foreign secretary. He appears to have more political liberty than any cabinet member in a generation… except, it seems, in matters of foreign policy.

What is Owen’s opinion of the man? “I’m not going to answer this question,” he replies, uncharacteristically coy. “I joke and say that it’s a trade union of foreign secretaries. It’s a hard enough bloody task without being sniped at by your fellow foreign secretaries.”

Later on he says he thinks Johnson is a “big figure” and “perfectly competent”. So I ask about the gaffe involving Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Anglo-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran on charges of “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”. In evidence to the foreign affairs committee, Johnson controversially described Zaghari-Ratcliffe as someone who was “teaching people journalism”, a phrase that was jumped on by the Iranians as confirmation of her supposed treason.

“I don’t believe he made a mistake on this because he’d forgotten,” says Owen. “Now, either he is not devoting enough time to reading and keeping up to date in this huge field, or the selection of telegrams for him is not good enough from his own private office.”

I ask a few more Johnson-related questions, and the fiercely pro-Brexit Owen concludes with a firm warning: “All I’m telling you is that there are ominous signs that the real lessons of the failures of British foreign policy over the last 20 years or so have not been learnt: the prime minister has got to appoint somebody as foreign secretary they trust. The foreign secretary has to have a dominant relationship over the secretary of state for defence, but a close one. But ultimately those two need to work together, and there must be a readiness of the prime minister to support them in battles with the chancellor wherever humanly possible.”

Malcolm Rifkind

Malcolm Rifkind, foreign secretary 1995-1997, in his Westminster flat. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Malcolm Rifkind, who served under John Major’s premiership, largely endorses Owen’s stark appraisal. I meet him in his London flat a few hundred yards from Westminster. The place is thick with photos of Rifkind with major figures like Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the wistful air of bygone glories. Rifkind’s career came to an ignominious end after a “cash for access” sting operation by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4 led him to step down as chairman of the intelligence and security committee and give up his safe Kensington seat. A parliamentary investigation later exonerated him.

He became foreign secretary in July 1995, almost exactly in the middle of that misleading lull between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Twin Towers, when history was alleged to have ended. But history was stubbornly continuing in the Balkans. A week after Rifkind got the job, the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians took place at Srebrenica.

Rifkind’s predecessor, Hurd, pursued a policy of neutrality, supported by Rifkind, that was criticised for leaving the Bosnian Muslims at the mercy of well-armed Serb nationalism. Srebrenica stung Nato into action, and the air strikes that followed brought the Bosnian war to a swift end. After the failure of the non-interventionist line to impede the war, the belated bombing seemed to herald the new paradigm of progressive military engagement that Tony Blair would later adopt.

Rifkind demurs. “I think that the road to Baghdad began in Kosovo,” he says sternly.

Back in the 90s, such was the sense of optimism that even the Israel/Palestine conflict seemed soluble. Rifkind believed that peace was within reach until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli rightwing extremist in November 1995. The day after Rabin’s funeral, Rifkind visited the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in Gaza. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, this is going to be a shorter meeting than I would’ve liked because I’m being driven up to see Leah Rabin (Rabin’s widow), to pay my condolences privately.’ The chemistry was of a totally different order to what we have now, and Mahmoud Abbas [the current Palestinian leader] is a much more moderate guy than Arafat ever was.”

Rifkind tells the story to demonstrate how critical personal relations are to international relations. “Where people are looking for solutions, they find solutions. When they’re looking for problems, they find problems. You can make a difference by your own personal involvement, the relationship you have with the foreign ministers of other countries, even if they don’t always agree with you.”

In Boris Johnson’s case this task has been made more challenging by his track record of insulting foreign leaders. Just two months before he became foreign secretary, he wrote a poem about President Erdoğan of Turkey having sex with a goat. Four months later he was in Ankara meeting Turkey’s EU minister, Ömer Çelik, and promising, now that Britain was leaving, to support Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Notwithstanding these lyrical contributions, Rifkind believes Johnson is able to build good personal relationships but suggests he’s undermined because he lacks the backing of Theresa May. “I’d have made David Davis [secretary of state for exiting the European Union] part of the foreign office structure – but then I would have been more confident in the choice of foreign secretary that I had.”

Before I leave him, I ask Rifkind what he thinks of his successors. He runs through them in chronological order. Robin Cook, he says, was intensely disliked within the foreign office because of his chaotic style of working, but was held in high regard by foreign ministers.

Cook notably declared his aim to have an “ethical dimension” to policy, a statement on which Rifkind took issue. “Not because there shouldn’t be an ethical dimension, but to imply somehow you can only have as your diplomatic allies people who share your political values just doesn’t make sense in this sad, imperfect world, and ultimately he agreed with that.”

Jack Straw, who followed Cook, he describes as a “highly able guy” who “was perhaps unfortunate having Blair as his boss”. Straw lives in a quiet square a few minutes walk from the Oval cricket ground in Kennington. He fell foul of the same sting operation as Rifkind and stood down from parliament before the last election. He too was exonerated by parliament’s commissioner for standards. He’s a genial character who, despite having been home secretary and foreign secretary for a combined total of nine years, displays none of the sense of entitlement that politicians of a similar standing tend to exude.

Straw believes foreign secretary is a job apart because, unusually in British politics, foreign policy is “broadly bipartisan”. He was by his own account quite surprised to be given the job by Tony Blair, with whom, he says, contrary to Owen’s claim, he had a good relationship. “The first thing you’ve got to accept if you become foreign secretary is that the lead on foreign policy is going to be taken by the head of government. It was ever thus.”

Jack Straw

Jack Straw, foreign secretary 2001-2006, in his home office, London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

I mention that Owen said it was different in his day. “Oh, I enjoyed significant autonomy as well on some stuff, most notably about Iran. I’m not trying to diminish David’s role, but I think it’s more true with Peter Carrington over Zimbabwe, where he just ploughed on when Margaret Thatcher was in a relatively weak position in the early stages of her premiership.”

He says the point is that while diplomacy is about resolving international disputes without resorting to war, the “moment that the issue of military action appears on the horizon, the centre of gravity is bound to move to No 10. That’s been true at all times.”

He started at the Foreign Office in June 2001. The Balkans had settled down, and the first three months were almost becalmed. His priority was to curb the excesses taking place in Zimbabwe by helping financially with the land transfers from white farmers to black “war veterans”. Straw says he barely consulted Blair over this.

“And then,” he says drily, “9/11 happened and everything changed.”

During the course of the following 18 months, the UK, in support of the US, would enter two far-reaching wars, first in Afghanistan and next in Iraq. There would be mass anti-war protests, disputes about legality, allegations of British involvement in torture and renditions, British citizens held in Guantanamo, the spread of radicalisation across the Muslim world, the war on terror and instability throughout the Middle East. Short of a world war, no British foreign secretary is likely to experience that kind of succession of events for the foreseeable future. The policy of intervention that had secured peace and stability in Kosovo and Sierra Leone had, by the end of Straw’s stint in office, begun to look deeply suspect.

It was Blair who made the decisions to go to war, but Straw was in agreement. “In practice, we had no option with Afghanistan, unless you wanted to leave it to the venal forces of the Taliban and their readiness to allow al-Qaida to carry on with its training camps and to commit atrocities around the world.”

About Iraq he was much more sceptical. His wife and children were against the war and would have joined the protest march had he not been foreign secretary. He knew that soldiers and civilians would be killed in significant numbers, although he never expected the scale of bloodshed that was to follow.

“That’s a responsibility you’ve got to bear,” he says, “and if you don’t, you shouldn’t take on these jobs.”

Right up until the last moment, he was considering telling Blair that they should offer “moral support to the Americans, help with reconstruction”, but not put troops on the ground. In the end, he was persuaded by Saddam’s intransigence with weapons inspectors. “I thought they must have [WMD], otherwise why are they dicking about refusing to let the inspectors in.” The Iraq war remains his biggest regret in office. With hindsight, he says, “it would have been better that we’d not started”.

In reality, Straw’s influence was limited. He had good relations with his American counterpart, secretary of state Colin Powell, but Powell was himself sidelined by others in the Bush administration. The only effective power Straw had was to resign, and by the time he realised that a civil war was brewing, his resignation would have had no impact on policy.

Which brings us to the much vaunted, “special relationship” with America. Owen had told me that in his opinion it operated only in military and intelligence terms. But if the British military was subordinate to woeful American planning – the disbanding of the Iraqi army and dismissal of all Ba’ath party members was, says Straw, a disaster – then how special was that arrangement? “The special relationship was a phrase I sought to avoid,” he says, “because I thought it was patronising of the Americans and a piece of conceit by us.”

Even after two wars and an unrelenting workload, Straw was disappointed to be removed from the job by Blair. “It was very odd the day after,” he says. “Enoch Powell famously said that all political lives end in failure. He was wrong. The thing is, all political lives end – and they end rather abruptly.”

But what of that political life that, like a cat, appears to have multiple extensions? What does he think of Johnson?

“He’s got a good grasp of history,” he says evenly. “He understands about political diplomatic forces, which is one of the most important qualifications for being foreign secretary. But sometimes he lets his persona as a showman get the better of him. I personally don’t think that works very well.”

Margaret Beckett

Margaret Beckett, foreign secretary 2006-2007, in her office at parliament, where she has been Derby South MP for 35 years. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Straw was replaced by Margaret Beckett, the first ever female foreign secretary. I visit her at her capacious office in the bowels of parliament, where she still sits as MP for Derby South, 35 years after first being elected. Rifkind described Beckett as “a bright, intelligent lady” who didn’t have “much impact during the short period that she was there”. “It wasn’t,” he felt, “her scene.”

It seems that Beckett wasn’t welcomed by some in the rather clubby atmosphere of the Foreign Office. She was told by a female Foreign Office veteran soon after she arrived: “I hope you realise there are people here who don’t think a woman should be foreign secretary.” She was taken aback by this news, coming as it did six years into the 21st century. Her approach to the job was to establish what the priorities were for foreign policy, but in this task she found the Foreign Office reluctant to help. “In the end,” she says, “basically I and my special adviser did it together.”

She believes her task wasn’t helped by her refusal to cultivate the media, and therefore, she believes, she was saddled with a difficult image. “Going around the gossip circuit, telling spiteful stories against my colleagues has never been something I thought was part of the job,” she says with a knowing smile. Instead she focused on developing good working relationships with her foreign counterparts. And in this, she did believe in the “special relationship”. “It was real, it was important, and it wasn’t particularly a problem for me. I mean, I had a good relationship with Condi [secretary of state Condoleezza Rice), and it wasn’t one where I just did what she thought I ought to do. We had a genuine dialogue.”

She never had to contend with the protests her predecessor witnessed but did receive flak for not calling for an immediate ceasefire when Israel went into Lebanon. She was even collared in a supermarket over Israel’s response to Hamas rocket attacks. “I remember someone shouted out, ‘Shopping while Gaza burns!’. And I thought, well, you know, we do have to eat.”

A cool head and resilience, she says, are the main qualities required for the job, and the “recognition that you will be blamed”. How would she have dealt with building a relationship with Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s secretary of state? “It must be very difficult because you sometimes get the impression the president doesn’t know where he stands from one day to the next.”

Like most of the former foreign secretaries I speak to, she believes that the current one should be playing a “much more major role” in the Brexit negotiations, and would be if it was anyone else but Johnson. It sounds, I say, like she’s not a fan. “When I was told that some of them in the Foreign Office didn’t think there ought to be a woman in the job, I thought to myself, I know exactly what sort of person they think should be foreign secretary. It should be somebody who went to the right school, who went to the right university, who is regarded as an intellectual and has wide knowledge of the world. And that’s what they’ve got.”

She deliberates before putting these thoughts on record because she thinks it’s a bit “bitchy”, but then goes on to call Johnson a “walking embarrassment” for his pronouncements on Brexit.

David Miliband

David Miliband, foreign secretary 2007-2010, at the International Rescue Committee HQ in New York. Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer

Beckett was in the job for only a year before she was replaced by the man everyone was expecting to take over, the man Rifkind described to me as “very, very good” with a “natural empathy” for the job: David Miliband. Now based in New York, where he runs the International Rescue Committee, Miliband spoke to me by phone. Foreign secretary in Gordon Brown’s government for three years from 2007, he says he had a clear vision of Britain’s role in the world when he got the job. “I talked about Britain as a global hub, connected to all the alliances that matter,” he says, and – once again contrary to Owen’s assertion – he insists he was his own man.

“Gordon Brown was avowedly a prime minister who wanted to spend less time on foreign affairs than his predecessor. And that was symbolised in the toe-curling day when he didn’t come to sign the Lisbon treaty – I beg your pardon, he arrived much later in the day than everyone else. When all the prime ministers and presidents were called upon to sign the treaty in a very large cathedral in Lisbon, I trotted up there on my own.”

He retains an engaged interest in global diplomacy, and it’s his assessment that there is now profound uncertainty afoot about Britain’s international role. “The abdication of American leadership on one hand, Brexit on the other, and all the causes and consequences of both those phenomena mean that it is legitimate to say there is an unprecedented questioning of Britain’s foreign policy.”

People look to Britain to be “pragmatic, sensible, stable”, he says, but that’s not the impression the world currently has. “It’s hard to know what British foreign policy doctrine is at the moment. The government is consumed by dealing with Brexit, even if the Foreign Office has been banned from negotiating it – and that’s a remarkable situation. There’s also the reality that Boris Johnson has done a better job of undermining himself than any attack from me or anyone else could do.”

But isn’t the post-Brexit vision supposed to be all about forming relationships with countries beyond Europe, reaching out to parts of the world to whom we’d previously undersold ourselves? “Obviously you can say there’s a global Britain under Brexit, which is the government’s argument, but there’s no question among the people I talk to in foreign policy circles and more widely that Britain has taken a turn towards isolation.”

So what should a foreign secretary be seeking to achieve in a post-Brexit world? “The job of the foreign secretary will be to try to recreate some of the structures and relationships that existed within the EU,” he gloomily concludes, “except with the very difficult fact that he or she is excluded from all the key meetings.”

William Hague

William Hague, foreign secretary 2010-2014, at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Whitehall, London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Now in the Lords, William Hague, foreign secretary between David Miliband and Philip Hammond, paints a different picture of Johnson and Brexit. His pristine office is in Millbank, just along from parliament. He wants the UK to retain close links with the EU but argues that Johnson’s main job lies elsewhere. “I think he’s a brilliant guy,” he says, measuring his words. “He sees his job is to make sure Britain is engaged with the rest of the world while Brexit is going on. That’s critically important, not only in being innovative in finding new ways to cooperate with the EU when we’ve left, but also to show we’re not becoming less active in the world.”

By Rifkind’s estimation, Hague will not be remembered “in terms of policy”, but rather as someone who attempted to revive the Foreign Office, reverse the closure of embassies and restore foreign language training.

But Hague will also be remembered for the Libyan intervention – David Cameron’s call – and the failed House of Commons vote for intervention in Syria, following its use of chemical weapons. He describes this defeat as his “worst point” as foreign secretary, an “abrogation of this country’s responsibilities that made things in Syria worse and emboldened Russia to inflict more horrors on Syria than would otherwise have been the case”.

He doesn’t regret the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, even though that country is now divided among warlords. But he says, a little ruefully: “One of the things we’ve learned in the last 10 years is how difficult it is to create democracy in other cultures, and that doing that quickly can actually set things back.”

To return to Cook’s “ethical dimension”, I ask about the responsibilities of dealing with countries with bad human rights records. Do we not overlook such problems with, for example, Saudi Arabia, simply because we have lucrative trade deals?

“We do have commercial and myriad of other links with countries whose system of government we don’t agree with, but that does not mean we cut them all off, and, indeed, we would be in a terrible situation if we did.”

His policy, he says, was always to raise human rights at senior level meetings. “I think part of the necessary skills of foreign secretaries is to be frank and civil at the same time.”

Yes, but should we be arming Saudi Arabia? He gives the kind of answer that can only be described as diplomatically evasive. “It’s clearly in the interest of our national security for Saudi Arabia to be a strong and successful nation and for its leadership to be successful, and it’s definitely in the interest of British industry for it to be able to buy from British industry. But it is also engaging in conflicts that raise questions about the use of what we sell to them.”

It was John Kenneth Galbraith who said that the one reliable rule of diplomacy is that when an official says that talks were useful, you can safely conclude that nothing was accomplished. And in the end, the job of foreign secretary, for all its superficial glamour, is something of a thankless task.

You spend most of your time and effort working behind the scenes for trade, peace, better relations, ideally making the right noises on human rights, and no one takes much notice until you make a mistake or your prime minister decides to send the air force in.

And yet, although Boris Johnson once called being mayor of London “the best job in British politics”, most of his predecessors as foreign secretary would say that title belongs to the one he has now.

The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Munich speech: partnership should be indivisible | Editorial

Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018. ‘Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist.’ Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.

Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.

Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.

Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.

There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.

Brexit bill may have broken international environment law, says UN

The British government may have breached a major “environmental democracy” law by failing to consult the public when drawing up Brexit legislation.

A UN-backed committee has confirmed it is considering a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government’s EU withdrawal bill breached the Aarhus convention, which requires public consultation on any new environmental law.

Most of the UK’s environmental laws derive from or interact with EU law, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) has raised concerns that the bill gives ministers “unique and wide-ranging powers” to amend or delete EU-derived environmental law without public consultation, if ministers consider it appropriate.

According to Defra, “over 1,100 core pieces of directly applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation” fall within the department’s remit.

The “polluter pays” principle and the precautionary principle could both be affected, as could the public’s ability to challenge changes to environmental laws.

William Rundle, lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said: “The government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the withdrawal bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.

“The Aarhus convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU withdrawal bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.

“The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this; they didn’t even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people.”

According to the Aarhus convention’s three pillars, information relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities “in a timely and transparent manner”, and the public must be allowed to participate in the development of new laws at an early stage of their preparation. The third pillar is public access to justice, should a party violate or fail to adhere to environmental law or the convention’s principles.

The government may have breached the convention in two ways, FoE says: by failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation (article 3), and by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the bill before it was presented to parliament to be made into law (article 8). FoE says the government failed to consult with the public, and by calling a snap election, any possible engagement with the bill’s white paper was prevented.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the Aarhus convention compliance committee says: “the committee has, on a preliminary basis, determined the communicant’s allegation concerning the preparation of the draft ‘great repeal bill’ and the alleged lack of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 … to be admissible”.

Michael Mason, associate professor at the London School of Economics, says the government remains legally bound by the Aarhus convention after withdrawal from the EU, and by abolishing laws relating to Aarhus provisions the UK would be in breach of the treaty.

He says: “The UK would not be able to cherry-pick provisions in the convention: the UK is either fully in or would have to pull out from the treaty. To stay in, the UK government will have to retain all EU-derived law implementing Aarhus obligations.

“A withdrawal from the Aarhus convention would be disastrous for UK environmental policy.”

A House of Lords report calls the EU withdrawal bill a “bill of the first order in terms of law-making powers being granted to ministers”. It says “this bill is expected to generate another 800 to 1,000 statutory instruments in the near future.”

The bill does not require that current environmental standards are maintained after Brexit, nor does it contain a general requirement that the public should be consulted on potentially significant changes to environmental legislation. It does not require ministers to replace the existing European commission complaints procedure on breaches of EU-derived environmental law, which is currently available to UK citizens free of charge. The UK government could still include a requirement for public consultation, however.

In February 2017, campaigners won a case against the Ministry of Justice over proposed changes to cost protection orders that could have made legal challenges to government over environmental issues too financially risky to pursue. A UN committee at the time criticised the government for failing to meet its legal obligations on access to justice under the Aarhus convention.

A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU – it is an essential bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course.”

The government now has until 5 June to provide its written response to the complaint. The committee will then decide whether the UK government is in breach of its obligations.

London house prices: south and west see some of biggest drops

House prices in “prime” central London appear to be stabilising, while areas in the south and west of the capital such as Wandsworth and Richmond are now under increasing pressure, according to estate agent Savills.

The company is predicting that average property values in central London’s top-end enclaves such as Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Holland Park will record no growth for the next two years following three years of decline.

However, Savills said there were signs parts of the market “may be bottoming out” and the prime markets of south and west London could bear the brunt of Brexit uncertainty and concerns regarding future interest rate rises. This market is defined as running from Battersea through Clapham and Wandsworth to the south, and Fulham, Barnes and Richmond to the west.

Typical prices in prime central London ended 2017 down 4% for the year as a whole, but prime south and west London experienced a bigger annual fall of 4.2%. Within this segment of the market, Fulham was named by Savills as the area that recorded the steepest falls.

Prices in Fulham fell by 4.6% in 2017 and were down more than 14% on their 2014 peak, said the company.

It means average values in Fulham, which passed the £1,000 per square foot mark in 2013, have fallen back to £890, well below Chelsea’s £1,600 average.

While studio flats in Fulham start at around £285,000 and large family houses can easily command a price of £5m-plus, according to property website Rightmove, Savills claimed the price falls “effectively reposition Fulham as a value location for those looking to make their equity stretch further than in prime central London”.

The top-end areas of south and west London were “coming under increasing pressure from fragile buyer sentiment” with purchasers feeling the constraints of tighter mortgage affordability rules, as well as unease around the Brexit process and its potential impact on employment, particularly in the financial and business services sector, said the company.

Savills has already predicted average UK prices – both prime and non-prime – would rise by 1% in 2018, which would mean property values falling in real terms.

Many commentators have pencilled in UK price growth at around that level this year. Another estate agent, Knight Frank, has also predicted price growth across the UK of 1%.

Of the two big lenders that operate price indices, Nationwide has said it expected property values to be “broadly flat in 2018, with perhaps a marginal gain of around 1%”, while Halifax has predicted UK growth in the range of 0% to 3%.

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