James Cleverly turns attention from UK foreign policy to domestic fallout

Ex-foreign secretary and Middle East minister moves to domestic brief to succeed Suella Braverman

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James Cleverly, Britain's new Home Secretary, is leaving his role as Britain's top diplomat in the Gaza crisis to deal with the highly sensitive fallout back home.

Mr Cleverly was announced on Monday as the successor to Suella Braverman, who was asked to step down after inflaming tension in the Israel-Gaza protest scene in London. Former prime minister David Cameron is replacing him as Foreign Secretary in a shock appointment.

"It is an honour to be appointed as Home Secretary," said Mr Cleverly. "The goal is clear. My job is to keep people in this country safe."

A former Middle East minister, Mr Cleverly was viewed as a sufficiently safe pair of hands to be appointed foreign secretary last year and survive the implosion of Liz Truss's premiership.

In recent weeks he has visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia in a flurry of Middle East diplomacy to manage the consequences of the Israel-Gaza war.

His tenure at the Foreign Office has also been shaped by the war in Ukraine and by deteriorating relations with Iran over its repression of protesters and activities in the Middle East.

Last year he opened up about a family trauma playing out in the background of his Foreign Office duties as his wife Susie received successful treatment for breast cancer.

Foreign Office meetings were cancelled as the couple, who have two children, dealt with a diagnosis that left former army reservist Mr Cleverly speechless, as he later recalled.

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.

Defeated in his bids to be mayor of Lewisham, MP for Lewisham East and a member of Lewisham Council, he 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 sought the Tory leadership but soon withdrew from the race, acknowledging the party was not ready for a “leap of faith” on a relatively junior MP.

Appointed to a Middle East and North Africa brief under then-prime minister Boris Johnson, Mr Cleverly took on responsibility for the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, being held in Iran at the time, and responding to the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan.

He travelled to the Middle East several times, including to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, and was in Bahrain on what he called a "joyous occasion" when it appointed its first ambassador to Israel.

Last year he celebrated Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release after long negotiations and defended the government’s payment of a £400 million ($489.8 million) debt to Iran, insisting it would not fund terrorism.

When the Johnson premiership collapsed, Mr Cleverly became a prominent backer of previous foreign secretary Liz Truss.

After a brief stint at education, Mr Cleverly was rewarded when Ms Truss won the Tory leadership and was asked if he would return to his old department as foreign secretary. "Who wouldn't?" he said.

Although Ms Truss was gone in 49 days, Mr Cleverly held his place under Rishi Sunak as the beleaguered Conservatives looked for stability.

As protests erupted in Iran last autumn, Mr Cleverly imposed sanctions on its morality police and senior security officials but stopped short of listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists.

This year he used International Women's Day to visit the town in Sierra Leone in which his mother grew up before she moved to Britain in the 1960s.

He brushed aside scepticism from the Tory back benches to make overtures to China, making the first visit to Beijing by a UK foreign secretary for five years.

In speeches he spoke of defending the international order as it moved "south and east" and was tested by the war in Ukraine.

But Mr Cleverly's job was shaken up again when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, an act he immediately described as horrific and said he "unequivocally condemned".

Trips to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar put Mr Cleverly at the heart of Britain's response as he sought to contain the conflict and secure humanitarian relief.

He also began to lay out a vision for the medium term, speaking of a "renewed desire to have a meaningful resolution" to the conflict.

When there were rumours of a move to defence, he made an unusual appeal to stay put, saying the foreign secretary's office was "a job that I love".

But the latest turmoil to engulf the Tories has handed him a new role with a difficult inheritance after Ms Braverman was accused of stoking unrest on the streets of London.

As well as overseeing policing, Mr Cleverly will have the politically sensitive task of managing the migrant crossings over the English Channel on small boats.

The Conservatives were quick to promise that Mr Cleverly "will stop the boats". Whether he succeeds or not will help determine the outcome of next year's election.

Updated: November 14, 2023, 9:13 AM