DENIS MACSHANE: Brexit is rotting the brains of our foreign secretaries

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

After Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt's arrival at the Foreign Office suggested Britain's diplomatic standing might improve a little. But his comments to the Conservative Party conference have put paid to that, says DENIS MACSHANE, a former minister for Europe.

What are they putting in the Earl Grey tea served in the Foreign Office? The red leather sofas in the grandiose offices of Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State, a post that goes back to Charles James Fox in the 1780s, have had some of the biggest names in British history sitting on them.

But Brexit is turning to mush both British geo-political influence and, more worryingly, the brains of the men who have held the title of foreign secretary since the referendum.

The two years of Boris Johnson in the post did major damage to the FCO. At an early press conference the New York Times correspondent called him a 'liar' and that charge has been laid against him in many other newspapers since then. The buffoonish jokes made senior diplomats and ambassadors cringe.

MORE: 'Shocking failure of judgement' - Hunt criticised for 'Soviet Union' jibeThey were pleased when Jeremy Hunt, an unflamboyant, middle-of-the-road businessman became foreign secretary. But now we have him telling the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that member states of the EU are living in a latter-day Soviet Union, as if in a 'prison' and, like Britain, other countries will 'want to escape'.

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The age-old europhobe cliché of the 'EUSSR' with its 'commissars' dictating to Britain was boring when first coined. But Hunt's crack is deeply insulting to the eastern Europeans who fought for freedom against Soviet tyranny and turned to the EU as the association of democracies that could best guarantee their new status and allow them to become prosperous and bestow rights on their citizens.

In 1982, in Poland, I was detained, imprisoned and appeared in front of a so-called 'workers court' after I was caught running money to the underground operations of the Solidarity trade union. As I stood in the front of the judge I never dreamt that very soon – in just eight years – Poland would be free.

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In 2004, I sat in Tony Blair's seat at the European Council when Poland was admitted as a member of the EU. Back then, the Conservative Party supported to the hilt the efforts by the Foreign Office to get the ex-communist states into the EU. Now Hunt says they are in a Soviet-style prison camp.

Lord Peter Ricketts, the former permanent under secretary (PUS) at the FCO, reacted: 'This rubbish is unworthy of a British foreign secretary. The EU isn't a Soviet-style prison. Its legal order has brought peace and prosperity after a century of war.'

He was backed publicly by another former PUS, Sir Simon Fraser. Never before have two former holders of the PUS post spoken out publicly about a serving foreign secretary.

Ricketts and Fraser will have spoken for just about every serving British diplomat. Latvia's Ambassador in London has joined in the criticism. The dismay in ex-communist Europe as they woke up to the sheer stupidity of the British Foreign Secretary's remarks is palpable. Brexit is doing serious damage to the British economy. But it is also rotting the brains of our foreign secretaries.

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