James Cleverly: Army reservist leading foreign diplomat corps on new mission

After defeats in local government, he became an MP and soon moved up the ladder

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. EPA
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Foreign Secretary James Cleverly survived throwing his weight behind the soon-to-be-doomed Prime Minister Liz Truss.

He has previously been the government’s Middle East and North Africa man and is now charged with fulfilling Rishi Sunak’s foreign policy goals.

Mr Cleverly, an army reservist, was a junior Foreign Office minister moved to education temporarily in the final days of Boris Johnson’s time at Number 10.

Mr Cleverly, 54, grew up in South London but had a frustrating time trying to make it as a Conservative in the Labour-supporting borough of Lewisham.

He was defeated in bids to be mayor of Lewisham, MP for Lewisham East and a member of Lewisham Council.

Eventually he did make it into the London Assembly but ultimately he decided to pursue his political fortunes at Westminster.

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 Mr Johnson won the leadership contest.

He was moved to a junior Foreign Office post with the 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.

UK announces new sanctions that take aim at Iranian threats

UK announces new sanctions that take aim at Iranian threats

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?”

His brief was widened to include 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.

His early support of Ms Truss helped temporarily answer some of the questions over her ability – but when her budget plans sent the economy into a tailspin she was out and he was able to stay in the job she had promoted him to.

Mr Sunak promised when he became prime minster that foreign policy would be pursue “respectful, mature relationships” with Europe after years of tensions. He also promised to strengthen ties in the Indo-Pacific.

In the last year, Mr Cleverly has adopted softer language on Europe and is just back from a trip to China.

Updated: September 27, 2023, 12:32 PM