David Lammy: Britain's next foreign secretary?

Is Lammy's support for the ICC arrest warrant for Netanyahu and a Palestinian state making Starmer—a staunch backer of Israel—uncomfortable?

Britain's main opposition Labour Party Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy addresses delegates on the second day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 9, 2023.
Britain's main opposition Labour Party Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy addresses delegates on the second day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 9, 2023.

David Lammy: Britain's next foreign secretary?

The outcome of this week’s general election in the UK could well result in the new government in London adopting a radically different approach to its Middle East policy if, as the polls predict, Labour achieves victory and Left-wing firebrand David Lammy becomes Britain’s next foreign secretary.

During the 14 years the Conservatives have been in power, they have worked hard to sustain constructive relations with key allies in the region, such as maintaining close ties with Israel as well as nurturing Britain’s bond with long-standing Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia.

In addition, successive Conservative governments have, since David Cameron returned the party to government following the 2010 election, taken a hard line on Islamist militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic State (IS). British forces were heavily involved in the military campaign to destroy IS's self-styled Caliphate in Syria, while the government has designated both Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organisations.

The Conservatives have constantly also taken a hard line on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, regularly criticising the ayatollahs over their uranium enrichment programme, while more recently, British warplanes were involved in military action to thwart Iran’s combined missile and drone strike against Israel in April.

These key pillars of recent British foreign policy towards the Middle East could be about to undergo radical change, though, if Lammy, the current Labour Party spokesman on foreign affairs, succeeds in fulfilling his long-term ambition of becoming Britain’s next foreign secretary as part of a newly-installed Labour government.

Moving into the foreign secretary's iconic oak-panelled office on the third floor of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office overlooking Whitehall and being appointed to one of the four great offices of state in the British government would be a remarkable achievement for a man of Lammy’s humble background.

Humble beginnings

Born in 1972 to Guyanese parents in one of the more deprived districts of London, Lammy was educated in the state school system before winning a place at the University of London, where he read law. Opting for a career as a barrister, Lammy went on to study at Harvard University, where he was the first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School.

During a speech at London's Chatham House think tank, Lammy declared that Labour would recognise Palestine as a state if it formed the next government.

He went on to become one of the youngest Labour MPs when he was elected in 2000 to represent Tottenham for Labour. Since entering parliament, he has held various ministerial positions in health, education, justice, and business. He was appointed to his current position as shadow secretary of state for foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs following a shadow cabinet reshuffle undertaken by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in 2021.

Married with three children, Lammy first came to prominence within the Labour movement for his campaigning on racial equality issues, and in the past, has been closely associated with hard-left members of the Labour Party, such as former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

If appointed foreign secretary, he would be the second black MP to hold the office after former Conservative Foreign Secretary James Cleverly—in the event of Labour winning Thursday's general election.

His appointment would certainly place him under intense scrutiny at a time when the world is experiencing the greatest amount of turmoil since the end of the Cold War as a result of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Lammy gained notoriety after he called former US President Donald Trump a "woman-hating, neo-Nazi-sympathising sociopath" who constituted a "profound threat to the international order" in an article for TIME magazine in 2018. Lammy has also said he would reverse Brexit and campaign for the UK to rejoin the European Union if Labour wins office. And while Starmer has shied away from tackling the highly sensitive issue of Brexit during his election campaign, Lammy has consistently criticised it.

Lammy also expressed support for the recent request by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring that "international law must be upheld" and declared during a speech at London's Chatham House think tank that Labour will recognise Palestine as a state if they form the next government.

An uncomfortable Starmer

These stances make Starmer—a staunch supporter of Israel— increasingly uncomfortable, and he may decide against appointing him as foreign secretary in the event of a Labour victory.

But is it Lammy's outspoken comments on Trump that are causing senior Labour figures the most concern, especially as the prospect of the former US president returning to the White House has increased considerably after US President Joe Biden's less-than-impressive performance in the recent CNN poll between the two presidential candidates.

Speaking ahead of the UK general election, Starmer refused to confirm whether he intends to appoint Lammy as foreign secretary if Labour emerges victorious, a notable omission as the Labour leader has already confirmed the appointments of his chancellor and deputy if he forms the next government. Commenting on Lammy's controversial remarks about Trump, Starmer said, "Those aren't words that I've ever used."

The possibility that Lammy could become foreign secretary prompted Lord David Cameron, the current Conservative foreign secretary, to denounce both Starmer and Lammy as being unqualified to lead the UK, claiming they were "hopelessly naive" on important global security issues.

One alternative option would be for Starmer to appoint former Labour minister Douglas Alexander, a close ally of former prime minister Tony Blair if he succeeds in winning his seat back as an MP.

Blair, who is playing a background role in Labour's general election campaign, enjoyed good relations with the UK's key allies in the Middle East, and appointing someone like Alexander, who has the same Blairite outlook, would help to reassure important allies that relations with the UK will continue as normal under a new Labour government.

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