LONDON // Prime Minister David Cameron returned to Britain this weekend after an overseas trip that has forcefully emphasised the new government's determination to follow a very different foreign policy to its predecessors. In Turkey, he ruffled Israeli feathers by bluntly stating that "Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp".
Then, in India, he enraged neighbouring Pakistan by saying that more needed to be done in a nation that "promoted the export of terror". David Miliband, foreign secretary in the Labour government until its defeat in the May elections, criticised Mr Cameron for not thinking through what he was saying. "There is a fine line between a straight talker and a loudmouth," Mr Miliband told the BBC. But politicians and diplomats in London this week suggested that Mr Cameron had not only chosen his words very deliberately but knew full well what the likely reaction would be in Tel Aviv and Islamabad.
"There is a marked change of direction in this government's foreign strategy," a senior diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. "William Hague [the foreign secretary] outlined it in a speech in June. "India, China, Turkey, the Arabian Gulf states and Brazil are the priorities now. Even in his dealings with the White House, Mr Cameron has made it plain that his government will pursue a much more independent line, while remaining a staunch ally of the US."
The diplomat pointed out that, although Mr Cameron's first "official" overseas visit as prime minister was the obligatory one to Washington last month, he made a very deliberate point of stopping off in the UAE for talks after flying out to a UK base in Afghanistan only two weeks after taking office. Mr Cameron is making no apologies for his remarks this week. "I don't think the British taxpayer wants me to go around the world saying what people want to hear," he said.
"I think it's important to speak frankly and clearly about these issues. I have always done that in the past and will do so in the future." Last month, on the eve of a visit to the White House, Mr Cameron raised eyebrows when he said that Britain would remain "a very effective partner of the US, but we are the junior partner". Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a London-based foreign affairs think tank, said: "This all fits in with what Cameron has been saying since 2006 - that he wants to have a more measured, balanced and less emotional approach.
"We as Brits need to understand that we're no longer just sitting in the same sandpit looking out on the world from a Cold War perspective." Mr Niblett said that "you never have a second chance to make a first impression" and that he believed the comments on Gaza and Pakistan were very much part of a deliberate strategy agreed with Mr Hague. Although Mr Cameron later clarified that he was not suggesting that the Pakistan government itself was promoting terror - despite similar suggestions in the documents posted on the WikiLeaks watchdog website a few days earlier - there is real concern in the UK over the number of young Britons of Pakistani origin involved in terror plots.
Police and security agencies in Britain say that about three-quarters of all extremist groups in the UK have roots in Pakistan, with many young men travelling there for training and radicalisation. On the isolation of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank, too, Mr Cameron seems determined to follow a harder line with the Israelis amid growing concern in both London and Washington that world stability is being increasingly threatened by the impasse in the Middle East.
"He doesn't shrink from giving sometimes tough messages, and he doesn't shrink from doing that to their faces, as well as wherever he is around the world," Mr Hague said. "The prime minister speaks the truth, and we are all united and clear and happy about what he said. The prime minister is a great diplomat and I see that in action every day when he's dealing with foreign leaders. He is a natural at it."
There are, of course, very practical reasons of trade and commerce why Mr Cameron is keen to endear himself to the likes of the GCC states, Turkey and, particularly, India, where UK companies have lost market share significantly in recent years. It was why Mr Cameron travelled there with six cabinet ministers and more than 30 senior executives from leading British firms. His reception, of course, was noticeably warmer after his criticism of Pakistan. Things might not be so cosy on Thursday when he entertains Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at his Chequers country residence in Britain.