The James Cleverly interview: "Trump's particular style can be surprisingly effective"
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Having entered government under Theresa May, James Cleverly is one of the Conservative Party’s great survivors. In an increasingly fraught world, he is having to call on all his political experience as Foreign Secretary. He talks Ukraine, the Global South and China with Tali Fraser. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Just over a year on from taking the post of Foreign Secretary during a “baptism of fire” when Liz Truss became prime minister, James Cleverly is in the middle of “multilateral season” and has recently returned from attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the state visit to France, accompanying King Charles and Queen Camilla to a dinner at the Palace of Versailles.
These most recent visits have looked at building on pre-existing relationships, like that with France, where Cleverly says he speaks to his French counterpart every ten days or so, but other visits, like with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have seen the Foreign Secretary in apparent high demand.
“One of the things that really struck me was how keen foreign ministers were to have even a very, very brief chat with me,” he says.
“I’d love to think it was down to my unique charm,” Cleverly, MP for Braintree since 2015, jokes, “but it’s because I’m the British Foreign Secretary”.
“Literally, foreign ministers are queuing up to have even a very, very short meeting with me because they recognise it’s, for some of them, one of their rare chances of having a face-to-face meeting with the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary.”
Cleverly is one of the survivors of the Conservative Party’s recent tensions. First entering government under Theresa May, he served as joint chairman of the party under Boris Johnson before rising to the great office of state under Liz Truss. When Sunak stepped in, he kept Cleverly on as Foreign Secretary.
Cleverly has made 58 international visits since taking the role – evidence, he says, that the UK is still a central figure on the world stage post-Brexit, with many friends.
Those who deny this are either “people who just don’t understand how international relations works” or “people who are trying to spin a yarn for party political reasons”, the Foreign Secretary says – “or both”.
He finds this characterisation “amusing” because “I’m looking at those comments and thinking, what you don’t realise is how foolish that makes you sound”.
Ukraine is one of the clearest examples, Cleverly adds, of where the UK is both “proactive” and a “major player”.
We have got to recognise that sometimes Trump’s particular style can be surprisingly effective
What does he make of growing anti-Ukrainian sentiment being used in election campaigning like that in Poland, which has seen the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party ban Ukrainian grain imports (with similar bans in place in Slovakia and Hungary), announce the end of benefits for refugees fleeing the war, and even stop their weapons supply to Ukraine? Cleverly concedes the war is “putting pressure on countries all over the world” but says turning away now is not the answer.
“If we don’t stick with our support to Ukraine, if we send the signal that aggressors can prosper, then all the problems that we are currently facing: those inflationary pressures on food and on fuel, the political pressure that comes from having a conflict like this, they will just get worse,” he says.
“Which is why the UK’s government position is resolute. We make that point to all our international partners. This is tough and this is painful. But it will only be more tough and more painful if we falter.”
Fatigue, he adds, “is something we have got to deal with,” and admits it is a “big thing”. But the Foreign Secretary will not say that he is concerned; in fact, he has banned the word from being used in the Foreign Office.
Chuckling, Cleverly says that it has become “a kind of shorthand in international relations” to claim that you are deeply concerned: “I’ve banned it from the Foreign Office. I really have. I take it very, very seriously. It’s not our job to be concerned, it’s our job to do stuff, so let’s not tell the world how we feel, let’s tell the world what we are doing. I take that mantra personally.”
Rather than being concerned, does the Foreign Secretary – who has never met former United States president Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – think a victory for Trump would be good for international efforts in Ukraine? “The US is a mature democracy. It wouldn’t be right for me to pass comment on who they choose to be their national leader,” he says.
If he won’t pass comment on the man himself, what does Cleverly make of Trump’s claims that he could broker a deal between Zelensky and Putin within 24 hours?
The Foreign Secretary can’t help but let out a little chortle at this: “I’m very conscious that Donald Trump has got a particular rhetorical style and when he was president, he did some very surprising and positive things with regard to international relations.”
Flagging the Abraham Accords as one of the things Trump did well on the international stage to improve Arab-Israeli relations, Cleverly adds: “We have got to recognise that sometimes his particular style can be surprisingly effective.”
Were Trump to secure a result which respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; reinforces the Charter of the United Nations; sees Russia making good on the damage it has inflicted on Ukrainians – “if all those things can be done in a deal over 24 hours,” the Foreign Secretary says, “how would anyone not want that to happen?”
“However,” he adds, “from the UK’s point of view, we’re going to stick with what we’ve seen to be effective, which is not a quick or easy result.”
But Cleverly’s outlook is not just “Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine”; developing the UK’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific is one of his top priorities.
It’s not our job to be concerned, it’s our job to do stuff
In 2010, he says, the proportion of UK trade to non-European Union nations was 52 per cent. Now, it is just shy of 60 per cent. “The buying power of non-EU countries is growing,” he says. “They are becoming wealthier, they’re becoming more influential, they are becoming more powerful.”
In Cleverly’s view, it would be a “catastrophic error” and “a source of great regret” if we did not develop and utilise those developing relationships in the Global South.
“We are focusing on those countries, on India, on Indonesia – I probably shouldn’t list them because I will miss some out – on that growing pool of countries that economically [and] diplomatically are going to be influential. If people are critical of that, as a strategy, and are suggesting that we should just rely on the comfort blanket of our nearest neighbours, the whole world would see that as being a failure to understand the world as it is and how it will be.”
But there is a safety aspect to a comfort blanket.
Just a week before we meet in the Foreign Office, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, warned that there were credible reasons to believe Indian agents were behind the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an Indian-Canadian who had vocally campaigned for Sikh separatism, claims which Delhi denies.
Has the Foreign Secretary warned Delhi not to target anyone in the UK? “We can have and we do have sensitive, difficult conversations,” he says.
“We have a duty to protect the citizens of this country and people living here and we take that incredibly seriously. That is an absolute.”
Cleverly will not go into details but insists “we will always take action, whether that be diplomatic or with the security services to keep people safe”.
The Foreign Secretary is still hopeful for a trade deal with India, although negotiations have stalled over a row on Sikh separatists before, and says “we have been making fantastic ground” and “very good progress”: “The EU, for example, have been trying to negotiate a trade deal with India since 2007. I believe we’ve made more progress since our departure from the European Union than I think a lot of our critics would have expected.”
With a country “as big, diverse and complicated as India”, negotiations are going to “take a while”, he says, as disagreements on policy issues arise. “In various ways we have disagreements on policy issues with all our international partners. When I go over to Washington, part of the conversations I have with the US is where we have disagreements on their policy positions.”
He agrees with secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen’s comments that the world is “big enough” for both China and the US “to thrive”, although Cleverly would add the UK into that equation.
The Foreign Secretary claims he foreshadowed this approach during his Mansion House speech earlier in the year: “There are a number of things that I said at the time, which I think have been proven right.”
One of them is that “there is nothing inevitable about China’s economic dominance” and, he says, that recent economic figures have shown that “their growth has slowed”. The other is that “we don’t have to fall into the trap of believing that we will inevitably have to come into conflict with China”, whether that is physical or economic.
AI let loose into China’s system is something that I know they are worried about
That is not to say that China doesn’t need to “radically rethink” some of its behaviours. Cleverly, who recently became the first Foreign Secretary to visit China in five years, says there are a number of issues he continues to raise with the country: “Like the brutality towards the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the failure to abide by commitments to Hong Kong, their use of financing as a tool of political leverage on the international stage and, of course, what I think would be an incredibly foolish move, which would be any kind of aggression over the Taiwan Strait.”
The Foreign Secretary claims that the UK’s eyes are “wide open” going into conversations with China, with Britain being “cautious but thoughtful” in extending the invitation for them to join the artificial intelligence (AI) summit in November. It is a move that risks frustrating Japan, which has voiced opposition to Chinese involvement, and has been criticised by some of Cleverly’s Conservative colleagues, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, as being “naive”.
But not inviting “one of the world’s largest AI players” and “pretending that China is not one of them”, the Foreign Secretary says, would have been “setting ourselves up for a severely suboptimal outcome”.
“It would immediately mean there’s a gap in our thinking, there’s a gap in our defences.”
He adds: “The conversation we’re having with China is, if you don’t get this right, this is bad news for you. And if you are closed, and if you are not willing to be open about your intention and that kind of stuff, you are importing risk.
“China is a tech-enabled nation, with a huge surveillance culture and AI let loose into their system is something that I know they are worried about so they have a motivation to get this right.”
Not having direct conversation with China, Cleverly says, “would be an admission of weakness”.
Weakness is something that the Foreign Secretary is not comfortable with displaying. He favours a “methodical” decision-making process, which he thinks goes back to his days at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst that were cut short by a leg injury in 1989.
“I try as far as possible to make decisions ahead of time, to buy myself thinking space in the moment.”
He believes “rest is discipline” although admits “I haven’t always been as good at it as I should be.”
When he gets a chance, he likes painting and playing with Warhammer (a miniature wargame) characters – something he picked up with his two sons that they grew out of but he never did – listening to political podcasts, walking his border terriers, or spending time with his wife Susie.
The pair have been together for 29 years since meeting at university. As he became Foreign Secretary, Susie was going through chemotherapy for an aggressive form of breast cancer. There were a few times he thought he might be losing his wife. Thankfully, as treatment continues to be successful, she has been able to travel with her husband, recently accompanying him to the state dinner in France. “Famously, I’ve got the best wife in the world. She genuinely, really, really helps.”
With that, he is off to a meeting with the caretaker prime minister of Pakistan, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, where he received another invitation to make a foreign visit. Maybe that will take him to country 59.
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