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18 December 2006

Interview: Margaret Beckett

In her first six months as Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett has had to cope with the débâcle of I

By Mary Riddell

There are two document trays on Margaret Beckett’s desk. One is labelled “Info”, the other “Action”. The info pile is rather higher than the action one. So much to absorb, so little executive power. This filing system might be considered a metaphor for her tenure as Foreign Secretary.

Beckett has been in her grand office for six months and has not yet changed the pictures or bought the cushions she wants. “I have more important things to worry about,” she says. While the furnishings bear the stamp of Robin Cook, the last-but-one incumbent, her political vision does not. She seems, for example, unlikely to concur with Cook’s view that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is “worse than irrelevant”.

“No, I’m afraid not. I understand the context in which Robin said that, but, with considerable reluctance, I’ve come to the view that the world is a less safe place than when we had those power blocs.” With considerable reluctance. These seem odd words from a Foreign Secretary who has just endorsed the Prime Minister’s wish for a new Trident missile fleet. Why so uneasy?

“Because I am a long-standing supporter of . . . a move towards disarmament. I certainly didn’t discuss it with the world at large, but I came privately to the view that there are all sorts of different threats and risks that maybe made it less sensible [to disarm].” Her demeanour during Tony Blair’s announcement to parliament seemed to reflect this soul-searching. Beckett looked as if she was being nipped by giant ants. She does not seem much more comfortable now.

We meet early in the evening, in a pre-Christmas period that is eventful even by Foreign Office standards. The Iraq Study Group’s report hit her “Info” tray not long ago, and anger over Trident rumbles on. On neither topic does she appear to be “Safe Hands” Beckett, the unflappable stalwart of the Today programme.

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A metallurgist by training, Beckett is a political alchemist skilled at turning base metal to gold. The only woman to have been both deputy and acting leader of the Labour Party, she has been written off many times, only to rise again. No great favourite of Blair during his early years as premier, she now occupies, at 63, one of the great offices of state; an elevation she greeted with one word: “Fuck.” Maybe she is still finding her feet, or perhaps unquestioning loyalism comes hard to such a tough-minded operator. Though often frank and always charming, she also seems as uneasy as we have seen her.

We start with nuclear weapons. Was she a member of CND? “Oh yes, for years. I’m not absolutely certain when I left. It might have been after Saddam invaded Kuwait; or [during] Sierra Leone.” But the two events were over nine years apart. Britain intervened in Sierra Leone in 2000. “I honestly don’t remember. I’m pretty sure we were in government.” That means she was still a member after Blair had marched into Downing Street. “I don’t join or leave things lightly. I was reluctant to sever my links with CND.”

Her reason was the organisation’s tilt to “pacifism”. But surely unilateralism was always a form of pacifism? “Well, I only subscribed to unilateralism because it seemed [then] that disarmament was the key thing.” Given that view, does she think George W Bush should be welcoming India into the nuclear arms club open only to five nations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? “Well, it may or may not be fair, but India is paradoxically not in breach of its obligations because it is not a signatory and never has been to the NPT.” So, is India being treated differently from Iran and North Korea because it defied the NPT, or because it is a democracy? The more we question her, the more confused Beckett becomes.

On revamping Trident, she is “not ill at ease with the package we have announced”, because she believes it to be in line with the manifesto statement. “Any qualms would have been about whether we signed up to maintain the deterrent.” This sounds a faint-hearted endorsement.

Would she ever use nuclear weapons? “You never answer that question,” she says. Geoff Hoon, now her (allegedly unloved) deputy, did when he warned that the UK, in some circumstances, would not hesitate to use the bomb. “Did he? I certainly would not answer that question. Nor would I ever rule out [using it].”

We move on to Iraq, but here too she offers little clarity. Are we winning the war? “We’re not losing it. It’s an unbalanced picture, really.” She remains upbeat, reciting the Whitehall brief that the violence is confined to certain areas. “Whenever I meet Iraqi ministers, they seem to have visibly grown in stature.” Is she prepared to acknowledge the failures, which even Donald Rumsfeld admits? “I think this is a dilemma for people like me,” she says. Most critics, she says, had been staunchly against the war from the beginning and therefore were never prepared to give Iraq a chance. “Of course, there were mistakes, and some could have been predicted; but that’s human behaviour.”

Is she minded to say sorry? “Are we supposed to say sorry there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction? Would it have been better if there had been?” More scepticism, we suggest, might have been preferable. “We believed what everyone in the world believed,” she says, apparently forgetting the many doubters, ranging from Hans Blix and his UN inspectors to the French. “We took the decision [to go to war] with some trepidation, in the belief it was the right thing to do.” She adds, with a hint of resignation: “You have to make your choice and live with your choice. I’m entitled to say we did what we thought was the right thing, and I don’t resile from it.”

Unforeseen choice

Few incoming foreign secretaries have been given a tougher time than Beckett. So we ask her: is she any good? “That’s a very difficult question to answer without sounding conceited,” she says, and tells a story about a plaudit from the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy. So why the hard time? “Because there is nothing your journalistic colleagues hate more than an appointment they have not foreseen, suspected or trailed. There’s always outrage.”

We refer her back to an exclusive story in the New Statesman earlier this year when our political editor reported how the US had kept Britain in the dark about its use of UK airports for so-called rendition flights of terrorism suspects. We ask her whether she is confident that the Americans are now keeping her fully informed. She pauses, looks in vain to her aides for assistance, and then haltingly offers the following: “We are being told the things we need to know, which are the things that affect us. I’m confident of that. I would never venture to say that any of our allies has no secrets from us. Why should they not have secrets? We have secrets from them.” Her advisers shuffle uneasily in their seats.

Away from Foreign Office turf, the old Beckett, tough and contrarian, kicks in. What does she think of the view of some colleagues that the veil is problematic? “I’ve never found a problem with it [the niqab]. As far as I’m concerned, people have a right to wear what they choose.”

We ask her to summarise the foreign policy of the Blair years. “Anti-poverty, pro-development. I could say anti-conflict. We must never have another Rwanda.” So what should happen in Darfur, where women are being raped and slaughtered as the world watches? “We are trying to force them [the Khartoum government] into compliance. If they won’t, we will have to look at . . . whatever package the international community will agree to.” This is “most likely to be sanctions”. But a UN force to keep the peace is already mandated. Will those soldiers intervene to stop the killing? “No, I can’t see that,” she says. “There is no mandate for a force to fight its way in. It’s a horrendous situation; there is no doubt of that. [Darfur] is where the biggest loss of life is occurring, or likely to occur.” After the Iraq débâcle, the appetite for military intervention has all but disappeared.

She has no illusion as to how Blair will be remembered. “When he goes, people will say that Iraq’s his only legacy, and that it’s a terrible one. I don’t think it’s true at all.” She has settled on a different epitaph. “I don’t believe Iraq is his legacy. I think climate change will be his legacy.” Environmentalists: take note.

Everyone needs a Leo

Beckett visibly relaxes when we ask after her husband Leo, her loyal gatekeeper and member of her staff. Aides know not to ring her after midnight. “They ring Leo and say: ‘Is it safe to ask her this now?’ Leo will say ‘yes’ if it’s really important, or tell them to ring back in half an hour, or say: ‘Leave it with me. I’ll put it to her at a better moment.'” We ask if she worries about the pressure on Leo, who is 80. “Probably not as much as I should, actually, because he is quite robust.” She adds: “Most of my female colleagues, and some male ones, say they wished they had a Leo.”

Talking of gender issues, does she think the next deputy leader should be a woman? “No. I think it should go to the best person.” As for the leadership itself, she is equally unequivocal. Nobody in their right mind, at least no heavyweight, will dare stand against Gordon Brown. “I would be very surprised. Though there may be somebody round the cabinet table who has completely taken leave of their senses.” John Reid, we remind her, has not ruled himself out. “Hasn’t he?” she says, and it seems clear that she does not regard a Reid challenge as likely to worry the favourite. “Gordon is such a towering figure. I certainly don’t think we ought to have a contest just for the sake of it.”

Foreign policy under Brown would, she surmises, be “somewhat different. I don’t know whether Gordon will do as much of the personal diplomacy as Tony does. But I can’t judge, because, as Chancellor, you can’t do that. I’m sure it will be very pro-[ending]-poverty and pro- development.” A more immediate question is whether Brown would be sufficiently pro-Beckett to keep her in post. “I’d be very happy to carry on, but every prime minister must make their own choices,” she says.

Being John Smith’s deputy, she says, was her toughest challenge: “I cannot imagine I would ever live through a worse period in my political life than I did then.” Perhaps. Both her Foreign Office predecessors, Jack Straw and Cook, struggled in their first months. What seems different this time is that Blair and his entourage appear finally to have succeeded in putting the department in a position of subservience. Some Blairites now wonder whether they have gone too far.

If Iraq and the other failures of the past few years offer any lesson, it is that the complexities of foreign affairs require a greater level of expertise than has been shown.