Foreign secretary-in-waiting takes inspiration from Macron as he woos world leaders on WhatsApp

Donald Trump and David Lammy illustration
David Lammy has launched a charm offensive on Donald Trump

It was with a stony face and one eye on the opinion polls that Rishi Sunak declared on Monday that Britain’s next few years could be its hardest.

An “axis of authoritarian states” led by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea would threaten national security under Labour, he said, warning that only the Conservatives could keep Britain safe.

David Lammy, Labour’s party’s shadow foreign secretary, is the man hoping to convince the public otherwise.

Since 2021 Mr Lammy has overseen the abandonment of a Corbyn-era foreign policy that was widely seen as soft on Russia, ambivalent about the nuclear deterrent and opposed to Nato, and his party’s move to a doctrine that he hopes will win over the British public this autumn.

As Sir Keir Starmer’s envoy, he has also spent the last two years softening up foreign governments to the prospect of a Labour victory.

Those close to Mr Lammy say he has taken inspiration from Emmanuel Macron’s “WhatsApp diplomacy” and – without invitations to leaders’ summits and the largesse of the Foreign Office to assist him – texts world leaders directly to convey the party’s message.

“The younger leaders are all in constant contact by messaging,” said a party source, noting that Mr Lammy has “thrown himself into his phone” in recent months, using Signal, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp to keep in contact with the foreign ministers he hopes will soon be his counterparts.

Mr Macron, who is sceptical of career diplomats, takes the same approach. Others known to eschew the official channels and “go direct” are Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser.

Charm offensive on Trump

The centrepiece of Labour’s foreign policy offering in this year’s manifesto will be a new security pact with the EU, designed to appeal to Europhilic voters and defence hawks alike.

But it is Washington where Mr Lammy has spent the most time laying the groundwork for Labour in government.

Sir Keir, who lacks the Alanticist instincts of his predecessor Sir Tony Blair, has yet to make the traditional homage to Washington that usually precedes a British election and left the sweet-talking of the White House to his shadow cabinet.

Last week Mr Lammy visited the US capital for a meeting with Mr Sullivan, and to continue a project that has caused some unease back in Labour HQ: a charm offensive on Donald Trump.

A meeting with Chris LaCivita, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, marked the first official contact between Labour and Trump World, and the culmination of months of work by Mr Lammy to woo the former president’s inner circle.

Speaking at a Right-leaning think tank last Wednesday, Mr Lammy praised Mr Trump for encouraging Nato countries to spend more on defence, said he had been “misunderstood” by some in Europe and pitched for “common ground” between them.

The feeling is somewhat mutual. Elbridge Colby, a former Trump foreign policy official thought to be in line for a campaign job, said this month that Mr Lammy is “far preferable” to Lord Cameron and that the two men shared a “compatible vision”.

Break with Corbynism

The welcome from Mr Trump’s team is a far cry from the experience of Emily Thornberry, Mr Lammy’s predecessor in Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, who was forced to cancel a trip to Washington because officials in the Trump White House refused to meet her.

Mr Corbyn himself had an even worse experience with Barack Obama, who might have been expected to be more sympathetic. Months after meeting the former party leader in 2016, Mr Obama said Labour was not “grounded in fact and reality”.

The break with Corbynism has seen Mr Lammy take on a new doctrine he calls “progressive realism” – which makes clear Labour will work with traditional political enemies to pursue British interests abroad.

Its title is a nod to another unlikely inspiration – the late US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who ruthlessly pursued a policy of maximising US power by “balancing” states against each other and shuttling between foreign capitals to broker deals favourable to Washington.

Mr Lammy has given the approach a Labour twist, and says he will use the “realist means” associated with Mr Kissinger to pursue “progressive ends”, including “countering climate change, defending democracy, and advancing the world’s economic development”.

The “realist” part of the doctrine involves being up front with allies about the need to defend the West from threats including China – with which Mr Lammy says Britain must “compete, collaborate and cooperate” – and Russia, which he has described as having an “imperial vision”.

The shadow foreign secretary has told advisers they must take inspiration from Radek Sikorski, the centre-right Polish foreign affairs minister, in “telling the truth” to allies about the threadbare state of world security.

‘Damascene conversion’

Mr Lammy says that some describe him as a “small-c conservative”. In seeking unusually diverse inputs on his foreign policy plans, he now has a fair claim to be the least Left-wing member of the party’s top team.

That stance is seen by some as a Damascene conversion, after his nomination of Mr Corbyn for the Labour leadership in 2015 and description of Mr Trump as a “racist” and “neo-Nazi sympathiser”.

On Friday, six months after his boss made headlines for praising Margaret Thatcher, Mr Lammy will go further still and applaud the work of Lord Hague – a former Tory leader and Coalition-era foreign secretary.

A speech on Labour’s plans for the Foreign Office back in London will see him call for a return to the Hague-era approach of giving civil servants more licence to operate without fear of backlash from their ministers.

Those close to Mr Lammy say he has been inspired by Lord Hague’s refrain that officials should be prepared to “scratch the Rolls-Royce a bit more often” and take diplomatic risks to achieve their aims.

On Friday he will argue that Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, two of the more recent Tory office-holders, should have defended their officials when times were tough – such as during the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and the merger with the Department for International Development the previous year.

“Lammy knows you need to trust your officials and above all have their backs if you want them to take risks,” said a Labour source. “The last foreign secretary who acted like this was Hague.”

‘Turbulent few years’

If Labour is successful in the autumn, Mr Lammy will become the first foreign secretary to be able to trace his lineage back, through Africa, to the transatlantic slave trade.

He will also face major challenges in a government department at the centre of a global security crisis, where morale is at an all-time low.

Olivia O’Sullivan, a former official and analyst at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank, said the Foreign Office has suffered from a “turbulent few years” and faces a “surprisingly foreign policy-focused [next] parliamentary term”.

“In between the merger, the Afghanistan evacuation and lots of changing foreign secretaries, I think it’s fair to say there have been quite a lot of internal and external questions about how to make the FCDO work well, and how to help it recover a sense of purpose,” she said.

A Trump-friendly Labour government would also face opposition from many of the party’s MPs, who bemoan the loss of Mr Corbyn’s socialist approach and feel Sir Keir should have been tougher on Israel over the war in Gaza.

Already, the shadow cabinet faces pro-Palestine protests wherever they go, and calls from the party’s own benches to abandon all support for Benjamin Netanyahu.

With an election thought to be six months away, the party’s planning for government is still a work in progress.

But if the campaign is to be dominated by global issues, some feel Labour is now ready.

“An election on foreign policy?” scoffed one party source. “Bring it on.”