Hague surprised by Foreign Office ‘timidity’

By Alex Stevenson and Peter Wozniak

William Hague has told MPs he is seeking to counteract anxiety among Foreign Office staff about spending cuts by combating the department’s “institutional timidity”.

The foreign secretary, giving evidence for the first time to the Commons’ foreign affairs committee, said he had been surprised by the difficulties he has encountered in instigating a “cultural change” within his department.

“The Foreign Office is full of brilliant people on the whole. But the habits of years or even decades… had induced something of a sense of institutional timidity,” he said.

“The Foreign Office has not been as used as I would like it to be to be prepared to lead on all occasions in government – to say here is the knowledge, here is the expertise… One of my objectives has been to instil that confidence without arrogance. That has been a bit of a surprise.”

Mr Hague acknowledged that the Foreign Office, which only accounts for 0.3% of government spending, is vulnerable to spending cuts as the comprehensive spending review continues.

He signalled a determination to fight further cutbacks, however, saying the department had already suffered a “large unplanned reduction in spending” because of the weakened pound.

“I am not planning the substantial reduction of this country’s presence around the globe. The FCO network is an essential part of the infrastructure of this country for economy recovery,” he added.

Mr Hague said previous reductions in Britain’s diplomatic presence had been a “mistake” and insisted it would be a “major national error” to continue the trend.

He suggested the solution to addressing concern about cuts was to encourage worried diplomats about his renewed emphasis on the Foreign Office’s role across government.

“I think it would be fair to say in the Foreign Office now as across the whole of the public sector until spending decisions are made there must be an anxiety about what they will entail,” he said.

“But I hope we’re succeeding in communicating this sense of purpose. We’ve got things humming again. That is good for morale.”

The foreign secretary has endured a torrid week, with unsubstantiated suggestions concerning his relationship with a special advisor becoming grist to the media rumour mill in the political dead season before parliament returned.

Mr Hague responded to the speculation, which was started by the conservative blogger Guido Fawkes, with a surprisingly candid statement, detailing the difficulties he and his wife have had in starting a family, in a bid to shame the media into dismissing the story.

He will no doubt be relieved to be focusing on his job as foreign secretary in the wake of the media storm that has surrounded him.