Working to make government more effective


David Lammy has high ambitions for the Foreign Office

The shadow foreign secretary has set out his stall for how he will run the FCDO if Labour get elected.

David Lammy on stage at the Institute for Government
David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a speech at the IfG on Friday.

David Lammy has set out his vision for the Foreign Office. It is nothing if not ambitious, and leaves many of the difficult choices still to come, says Tim Durrant

In the latest in a week of political speeches, David Lammy used a keynote speech at the IfG on Friday to set out his vision for how he will run the Foreign Office should he become foreign secretary. It was an ambitious speech. Noting that he has had over two years to prepare, and referring to his own background as part of the reason why he will take the job seriously, Lammy outlined various changes he wants to see. It is clear that the department will be kept busy. 

Lammy sought to build a constructive relationship with FCDO staff

The shadow foreign secretary was full of praise for FCDO officials, noting the “sacrifices” they make in their work, particularly those overseas, and praising their “knowledge, professionalism and bravery”. He also noted the challenges of the merger of the FCO and DfID in 2020, and the difficulties created by recent frequent changes of foreign secretary, more than once referring to the effect on morale in the department (all points the Institute made at the time). He implied that a Labour government would seek to bring more stability to officials’ working environment. 

While seeking to reassure FCDO staff, Lammy also made clear that he will hold them to high standards. The department would need to, he argued, “rediscover the art of grand strategy”. He wants an expanded College of Diplomacy, funded through charging other countries’ diplomats, to upskill officials – ministers, even – and expects all diplomats to get better at dealing with modern technology including AI. He also wants the department to shed its “elite” image and be more attractive to potential employees – though wouldn’t be drawn on whether Labour would open up all ambassador posts to external applicants. 

Labour has a long list of things it wants to do on the world stage…

As well as setting stretching goals for its own staff, Lammy clearly wants the FCDO to aim high internationally. He reiterated Labour’s commitment to signing a security pact with the EU. Other international organisations are in the party’s plans, too: he referred to “reform of the United Nations, World Bank and IMF” as well as to building a “clean power alliance” to bring more countries onto a net-zero trajectory. All of this will take hard work and will require commitment and clear vision from the next foreign secretary.

…while wanting the FCDO to be more active domestically too 

Lammy also called for the Foreign Office to be more plugged into Whitehall and the country at large. He committed to working closely with other departments – the Home Office on border security, the Treasury on economic growth – and to embedding Labour’s five missions in all of the work of the department. This doesn’t mean, though, that the FCDO will be subservient to other departments – Lammy wants it to “corral foreign policy”. 

He also wants it to be more open to input from across the UK, from business, academia and think-tanks. Given the blurring of lines between domestic and foreign policy in the 2020s, this makes a lot of sense, but will require the department to build better links both across government and with the outside world. 

Waiting to see what is possible is sensible – for now 

Lammy has high ambitions, though there is a lot that still needs to be thought through. He intimated he thought diplomacy and development were more successful when they worked closely together, but still could not give a definitive answer as to whether Labour would split out the aid department again. The party wants to increase both defence and development spending, but will not commit to firm timeframes, saying it must wait until it can assess the books properly

Much of the detail will have to wait until a future Labour government has conducted various reviews, it seems: Lammy committed to a full “audit” of the UK’s relationship with China, looking across all of government; he also mentioned the review of the UK’s economic deal with the EU, due next year, as a chance to make changes.

At this stage in the electoral cycle, not being too committed to specific details makes sense – but if Labour do win, it is clear that the new foreign secretary and his department will have their work cut out.

Related content

12 APR 2024 Podcast

Foreign Office politics

Former ambassador and No.10 adviser Tom Fletcher joins us to explore the UK’s global status and what David Cameron's return has meant for the FCDO.