MUNICH — Two weeks into post-Brexit reality and “Global Britain” risks cutting a sad figure on the international stage.
The domestic obsessions of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his top adviser Dominic Cummings, such as pharaonic infrastructure projects and settling scores with a Cabinet reshuffle, mean Britain has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to diplomacy.
When dozens of presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defense ministers and military chiefs gathered in Bavaria this weekend for the annual Munich Security Conference, the U.K. was notable for only one thing — its absence.
Johnson declined an offer of the most coveted spot on the podium, ceding the spotlight to French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, among others. U.K. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab didn’t turn up, nor did Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, even though neither of them was affected by the much-heralded reshuffle.
“Needless to say, as a former ambassador to the Court of St James, I am saddened by the absence of senior ministers of Her Majesty‘s government at @MunSecConf this year,” tweeted Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German diplomat who chairs and organizes the Munich conference, a major foreign and security policy fixture since the Cold War.
“Has ‘Global Britain’ gone fully introvert?”— Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister
A newly-minted junior Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, was subbed in at the last minute but didn’t get prime time and his presence at the conference venue, the luxury Hotel Bayerischer Hof, was largely unnoticed, though he eagerly posted pictures of bilateral meetings with Norwegians and Kuwaitis.
That left top civil servant Mark Sedwill, who also serves as national security adviser, as the only senior British official with a spot on the podium. Career diplomats such as the U.K.’s ambassador to NATO, Sarah MacIntosh, were also on hand.
Flying the flag for the House of Commons was Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier and minister who chairs the Defense Committee, and he was clearly dissatisfied with the U.K. turnout.
“Having a presence at events like this is critical especially in the post-Brexit world,” he told POLITICO. “I absolutely recognize there has been a lot on the prime minister’s plate, but there is a desire to hear what Britain’s plans are — and this is a great platform for that.”
Politicians and foreign and security policy experts from across Europe at the conference described the absence of top-level Brits as a missed opportunity for the U.K. to demonstrate that it is still a player.
They were particularly baffled as Britain has stressed it will remain committed to Europe’s security despite leaving the EU. The Munich gathering would have been the ideal opportunity to demonstrate that commitment just weeks after Brexit.
“The one nation that is nearly completely absent from #MSC2020 is the UK. Very strange. Ministers were supposed to come, but then everyone withdrew. Has ‘Global Britain’ gone fully introvert?” Carl Bildt, the Swedish former prime minister and foreign minister, asked on Twitter.
“It’s a shame,” former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told POLITICO. “The security of Europe and the transatlantic relationship are presumably still important to Britain whether it is in the European Union or not,” said Gabriel, a Social Democrat. “We would all have been glad to hear from Boris Johnson or his foreign minister.”
The official reason given by Downing Street for not sending a senior minister was the reshuffle and a subsequent Cabinet meeting, meaning only a junior minister and civil servant were available. “It’s just a case of pragmatics,” one U.K. official said, adding: “We usually send the defense secretary.”
One former U.K. minister with no reason to defend Johnson said the reshuffle was “a genuine reason, not an excuse. If there is a reshuffle and you’re a minister, you have to stay. That is a genuine reason, not an excuse.”
However, the reshuffle was carried out on Thursday and the Munich powwow runs from Friday to Sunday, making it hard for delegates to understand why no big-name Brits are in their midst.
Munich is not the first lost opportunity this year for Boris Johnson to show the world that Brexit Britain means business on the international stage
David Miliband, who was foreign secretary in a Labour government and now heads the International Rescue Committee, disagreed, describing the absence of high-ranking U.K. ministers as “genuinely mystifying. It is so clearly in their interests to show that post-Brexit Britain is not alone. This has sent a very clear message that they are not focused on international cooperation.”
As for the excuse, he said: “Once the Cabinet has been reshuffled you can come here. Nancy Pelosi came all the way across the Atlantic – it’s not that far for the Brits.”
Also unimpressed was General Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the U.K.’s Joint Forces Command, who told POLITICO in Munich: “It is striking that there isn’t a U.K. minister here. If this is a sign of strategic distancing, I think that’s deeply regrettable because British security is totally bound up with European security and we need to be partners.”
Munich is not the first lost opportunity this year for Boris Johnson to show the world that Brexit Britain means business on the international stage. His top adviser Cummings banned ministers (except Chancellor Sajid Javid, who has since lost his job) from attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, saying it was a waste of time sipping “champagne with billionaires” when the self-styled “government of the people” should be focusing on domestic priorities.
Danish politician Margrethe Vestager, who is in her second term as a European commissioner, dismissed such talk, telling POLITICO that she was impressed by the level of speakers and discussion on what was her first visit to the Munich Security Conference, and adding: “The people here seem very much to be people.”
Ellwood, the Defence Committee chair, said there was a vast difference between Davos and Munich, with major security policy issues such as Washington’s fury at the U.K. stance on allowing Huawei into 5G infrastructure coming up in his conversations with his American peers.
Ellwood said he would bring over his entire committee next year to try to match the U.S. boots on the ground, declaring: “We need to show that after three years of Brexit distraction there is an intent to upgrade our international presence” at such a challenging moment for Western alliances.
“I make an absolute distinction between this and Davos — being here is absolutely critical as we redefine what the West stands for,” he said.
Another senior Conservative MP dismissed Downing Street’s apparent belief that you can’t handle domestic and foreign policy contemporaneously, “especially in the post-Brexit world.”
“If you can’t walk and chew gum, you shouldn’t be in government,” he said.
Matthew Karnitschnig and Charlie Cooper contributed to this article.