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What will the next UK PM do in the Middle East?

July 8, 2016 at 10:04 am

There has already been much ink spilled over the potential impact of “Brexit” on the UK’s relationship with the Middle East (including several excellent articles published here on MEMO) even though – at present – there is apparently little clarity with which to work.

However, there is at least one set of variables that can be paired down in order to give at least something like a rational outline of future British policy in the region. This is, simply, who it is that will be the next prime minister of the UK and what their record suggests about the potential future actions. As of Thursday this week, the two remaining candidates are Theresa May, the home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, a minister at the department of energy and climate change.

Down and out

Before the elimination of Michael Gove – the high profile Lord Chancellor and key figure in the Brexit campaign – on Thursday, two other candidates had already been knocked out. These are, former Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox and current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb.

Having finished second to last on the first ballet, Crabb – who has some interest in foreign affairs but a sparse record on the Middle East – dropped out voluntarily, throwing his support behind the frontrunner, May.

The elimination of Liam Fox in the first round will come as a relief to many observers concerned with Britain’s relations in the Middle East. Fox, who also lost out in the 2005 Tory leadership election, was forced out of government in 2011 over suspicions of an inappropriate relationship with his friend, Adam Werritty.

According to media sources at the time, Werritty had accompanied the then defence minister on several official trips, enjoyed access to classified information and received funding from a private security company and an Israeli investor.

Gove, of course, was best known in recent times for this prominent position on Europe and for his – Game of Thrones stylepolitical assassination of Boris Johnson. However, in terms of his focus on foreign affairs in general and on the Middle East in particular, Gove is a neo-conservative of the Bush-Blair variety. He strongly supported the Iraq war in 2003 and has authored a range of interventions touting his hawkish p

In particular, he used one of his columns in The Times in the run up to the war to declare “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony” with reference to the then prime minister and Britain’s chief advocate of the disastrous campaign in Iraq. Moreover he strongly advocates for an apocalyptic worldview that ‘the West’ is locked in a deadly and inevitable struggle for survival with Islamism. It is perhaps for the best, then, that Gove will not be entrusted with the authority to deploy Britain’s armed forces.

The contenders

Thus, by the will of the Conservative MPs, the next prime minister will be either May or Leadsom. While neither candidate is likely to be judged by Tory party members on the basis of their views on the Middle East primarily, it is possible that any statement that is perceived to be a “gaff” or at least outside the mainstream could be damaging. (For an example of this, we can see how Jeremy Corbyn’s statements on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context and used as a means to bash the current labour leader.) In other words, when it comes to a record on the UK’s relationship with the Middle East, in terms of the favour of the electorate, there is more for candidates to lose from forthrightness than there is to win.

Andrea Leadsom

With this in mind then, a more limited record of voting, statements and actions can be seen as a positive – as it would give opponents less to work with – and in this respect it is Leadsom who would appear to have the advantage. Having been in parliament only since 2010 and has held only relatively junior positions in government. Prior to that, she was a councillor and senior official at Barclays bank (though quite how senior is apparently a matter for some dispute).

However Leadsom has been by no means shy about articulating her point of view as she has kept a blog since 2006, in which she has discussed all sorts of topics including her Christian faith, her views on domestic politics and – here and there – a few thoughts on the Middle East.

While we can only glean so much from these interventions it is possible to come to some preliminary conclusions as to Leadsom’s stance on matters Middle Eastern. Judging from her earlier posts (2006-7) she did not, it appears, have much in common with the neo-conservative viewpoints espoused by Gove and others. Rather her statements, albeit vague, are surprisingly reserved.

In one post from 2006 she expresses sadness and remorse at the loss of life in Iraq as well as calling for a widening of the debate about “Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict to include many of the regional powers.” In 2007 she worries about the potential for Israeli use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran and relates her self to the Iranian perspective, “If I were living in Iran, I would be both afraid and furious of the casual way that this proposal has emerged” and further, she has also called for cross-cultural “mutual respect, a willingness to learn and the courage to live together” in another post (though this post also contained a pretty awkward homily based on essentialising the characteristics of various cultures and identities).

More recently however, Leadsom’s pontificating has taken on a more obviously hawkish line. She advocated for British airstrikes in Syria, she has also spoken in hyperbolic terms about the potential threat posed to Britain by refugees fleeing devastating war and unspeakable misery:

“If you come here and you don’t speak English, and you don’t know the customs and you don’t know where to live and you don’t have a job – It’s really difficult for everybody. It’s really difficult to make you welcome.”

Clearly then there are limits to her interpretation of “mutual respect”. Or perhaps she has simply lost the “courage to live together”.

Theresa May

May, on the other hand, is one of the most experienced members of the government. She was first elected to parliament in 1997 and has occupied numerous ministerial roles. Moreover, having served as home secretary since 2010 she has lasted longer in that – famously difficult – great office of state than any of her predecessors since 1945.

On the Middle East, May has been evidently hawkish, having “almost always voted for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas” including for the Iraq war.

She is also a strong advocate for Israel. As a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, she has regularly articulated her support for Israel’s right to defend itself, but has also expressed doubt as to the potential for progress on the so-called “two state solution”.

Similarly her position on the UK’s main gulf allies is one of strong support. For example, it emerged last year that May had signed a secret memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, that would – apparently – see the two governments collaborate more closely on “security” matters, in spite of the fact that it coincided both with growing Saudi involvement in a brutal military campaign in Yemen, the scaling up of the Kingdom’s already draconian internal security apparatus and the suspension of other UK involvement in the Saudi prison system.

Additionally, May has also pursued policies designed to enhance the UK’s own internal security forces. Even before the Brexit vote she suggested withdrawing from the European convention on Human Rights (despite the fact that it is document mostly written by British lawyers) and she has also been particularly hostile to refugees having advocated for a “compassion quota” and defended the UK’s involvement in the military response to the crisis.

The waiting game

The election of the next British prime minister will not take place until 9 September and there is, therefore, plenty of time for more information to come forth that will help assess the attitudes and approaches of each candidate. For now, May enjoys a substantial lead. However, the Conservative party members – who will make this choice – are likely to hold opinions and perspectives that are quite different from the electorate at large.

While it is likely that Brexit will remain at the top of the agenda it would be foolish to overlook what each candidate will bring to the UK’s approach to the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.