James Cleverly: former UK minister for Middle East becomes Liz Truss's foreign secretary

Truss loyalist was an early backer of the new prime minister's leadership campaign

James Cleverly arrives for the announcement of Liz Truss as the Conservative Party's new leader. AFP
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James Cleverly, a former Middle East minister and one of Liz Truss's earliest backers in the race to lead Britain, has been rewarded with a promotion to foreign secretary in the new prime minister's Cabinet.

The prime minister's office tweeted: “The Rt Hon James Cleverly MP @JamesCleverly has been appointed Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs @FCDOGovUK.”

Mr Cleverly, an army reservist unafraid of sparring with opponents on social media, said supporting Ms Truss was an easy decision because of her small-state rhetoric and her willingness to stand up to Iran and Russia.

A junior minister during Ms Truss’s time at the Foreign Office, he was moved to education in the makeshift government that saw out Mr Johnson’s term, but when asked if he would return as foreign secretary, he said: “Who wouldn’t?”

Mr Cleverly, who turned 53 on Sunday, grew up in South London but had a frustrating time trying to make it as a Conservative in the Labour-supporting borough of Lewisham.

Defeated in his bids to be mayor of Lewisham, MP for Lewisham East and a member of Lewisham Council, he eventually made it into the London Assembly but ultimately decided to pursue his political fortunes elsewhere.

He entered Parliament in 2015 as the member for Braintree, east of London, where his pro-Brexit views went down well with constituents.

At the height of the Brexit deadlock in 2019, he briefly threw his hat in the ring for the Tory leadership but withdrew from the race within days, acknowledging MPs were not ready to make a “leap of faith” on a relatively junior MP.

Mr Cleverly joined the Cabinet as party chairman after Boris Johnson won the leadership contest, but was moved to a junior Foreign Office post in 2020 in what was regarded as a demotion.

He took on a Middle East and North Africa brief that included responsibility for dealing with Iran over the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and responding to the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan.

In this role, Mr Cleverly travelled to the Middle East several times, including to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, and in 2020 he described Britain’s ties with the Gulf as their strongest ever.

He was in Bahrain when the country appointed its first ambassador to Israel under the Abraham Accords, later describing it as “genuinely a joyous occasion”.

Mr Cleverly celebrated Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release after long negotiations in March and defended the government’s payment of a £400 million ($462m) debt to Iran, insisting it would not be used to fund terrorism.

His defence of Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan led to a stormy encounter with voters on the BBC's Question Time, in which he was criticised for advising people to turn to charity for help, with one viewer saying: “How dare you?”

One sympathetic opposition peer said Mr Cleverly was “conscientious and determined to do his best” in his role, but overloaded by a brief that was widened to include Russia, North America, international security and development.

During his time overseeing development, Britain hosted an education conference at which $4 billion was raised from donors to prevent what Mr Cleverly called a “lost generation of girls” being left without schooling by the pandemic.

As patience wore thin with Mr Johnson's string of scandals, the loyal Mr Cleverly said in June that he was “not going to go flaky” on a leader who had led the Conservatives to a landslide election victory.

But once Mr Johnson succumbed to the pressure and resigned, Mr Cleverly was quickly out of the blocks to throw his weight behind Ms Truss before she had formally launched her campaign.

At the first of 12 party hustings in Leeds, Mr Cleverly was the warm-up act invited by Ms Truss to introduce her to party members and persuade them to choose her over rival candidate Rishi Sunak.

Mr Cleverly used his speech to plug some of the perceived weaknesses in Ms Truss’s campaign, describing her as an enthusiast for delivering Brexit benefits despite her earlier support for remaining in the European Union.

“I know that she knows what it takes to fight for every vote,” Mr Cleverly said. “I know that she knows that you don’t get anything for free and that you have to work hard for everything.”

He now faces the challenge of stepping into Ms Truss’s shoes at the Foreign Office as the war in Ukraine drags on, bringing the economic crises in its wake that are set to dominate the new government’s tenure.

Updated: September 07, 2022, 4:12 AM