The recent cabinet reshuffle in the British government might mean a foreign policy that shifts even further to the right, with Palestinians and Yemenis bearing the brunt of those decisions. That is, if Theresa May's government survives.

(AP)

The future of Britain’s foreign policy came under speculation after a recent cabinet reshuffle, which included the resignation of flamboyant Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. This raises questions about how it might impact the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East - where Britain presently and historically has a prominent role.

In response to Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit negotiation plan, resignations came from ministers including Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and his Deputy Steve Baker, and two Conservative Party Vice-Chairs. The walkouts came in protest of a softened Brexit plan, seen as conceding too much to the European Union.

Former UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt however quickly stepped up to replace Johnson, prompting consideration of how his tenure could affect Britain’s foreign policy stance in years to come.

A shift to the right

Some argue Hunt’s inexperience in foreign policy will make him ineffective in this role. However, Hunt has paid close attention to issues in the Middle East and elsewhere abroad and, while being a staunch advocate of current British foreign policy, perhaps holds stronger views than others in the cabinet. They will undoubtedly be transferred to his policies as Britain’s new Foreign Secretary.

Hunt takes a strong position towards the Israel-Palestine conflict and calls to actively “combat” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which demands Israel complies with international law and respects the human rights of Palestinian civilians. 

A touch stronger than Johnson, who has simply called the movement’s aims “foolish”. Britain may push harder than before to oppose attempts to end Israel's occupation it seems.

As in other Western countries, the Conservative Party has attempted to crush and outlaw the BDS movement after it has had some success in pressuring companies to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories. Further attempts to ban the organisation will likely occur under Hunt’s oversight.

Unlike his predecessor Johnson, who even went as far as suggesting Israel may become an “apartheid state” if it rejects the two-state solution, Hunt has yet to make any such criticism.

Hunt has expressed “concern” over Israel's current plans to demolish Palestinian villages in the West Bank and has mentioned that it would cause “unnecessary suffering” to Palestinian residents. Yet his other stances suggest that he, along with others in power, will continue to provide support for Israel without going further than offering half-hearted criticisms.

He has also been a staunch supporter of continued weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. This is a controversial issue as Saudi Arabia has led a bombing campaign against Yemen since March 2015, which has largely contributed to what the UN has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Several Western politicians and activist groups criticise Britain for its continued support to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies, as Britain’s arms sales (at least $6.4 billion worth of weapons since the war began) and training for the Saudi air force make it compliant in Saudi Arabia’s campaign.

As with his stance towards Israel and Palestine, Hunt seemingly will continue to unquestionably support Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia – and take the traditional line, perhaps making a few comments showing concern for Yemeni civilians but not addressing a key reason for their suffering: the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention. Arms sales will continue, which is likely to prolong the Yemen conflict.

While Hunt is at the helm of Britain’s Foreign Office, it seems Britain’s existing policies will at least continue, or if not, they will intensify.

Survival

While the government has replaced the rebel ministers, the current administration still looks increasingly fragmented especially towards the issue of Brexit – where a deal needs to be finalised in the coming months, and it still does not have a majority in parliament. This has increased the calls for a snap election.

If a snap elections are called, this would give the Labour Party (the current largest opposition party), the chance to secure a majority in power. Polls show that Labour is currently slightly more popular than the Conservatives, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is the third favourite candidate to be the next prime minister, after Conservative ministers Said Javid and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Jeremy Corbyn, unlike other ministers in his party, has taken a more radical stance in calling for reforming Britain’s foreign policy. He has traditionally rebelled against many British foreign policy actions, including its support for Apartheid South Africa, its role in the Iraq war of 2003 and Libya in 2011, arms sales and impunity to Saudi Arabia and Israel, among other areas.

In the event that Corbyn comes to power, there could be an overhaul of Britain’s current policies abroad, which might mean that humanitarian needs would take greater consideration in any of the country’s actions abroad.

Corbyn’s foreign policy views however have attracted much criticism in the past, especially from certain British media outlets and politicians in the Conservative party and even within his own party.

This includes a comparatively softened stance on the Russian and Syrian regimes, for opposing military intervention in the latter, for instance. Corbyn’s passive foreign policy had even led to him being called a “terrorist sympathizer” by former Prime Minister David Cameron, after rejecting military intervention against so-called Islamic State in Syria in 2015, due to potential costs on civilians.

However, he largely opposes what he calls Britain’s “talk first, bomb later” stance on foreign policy issues, which has led to costly operations in Iraq and Libya for instance, which many observers say has created destabilisation without considering a reasonable political solution afterwards.

At this point, it is conceivable that the Conservative Party, as pressured as it is, will rush to patch over its differences, and oppose a snap election. Yet as the path towards Brexit continues, it may be a challenge for them to keep a “strong and stable” government – as it has previously fashioned itself, and this may open a path towards change.

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