In the early hours of Friday morning New Zealand time, James Cleverly was holed up in the British high commission in Wellington calling international partners about the mounting crisis in Sudan.
It didn’t take long for him to realise that he would have to cut short his visit and make the long journey back to London. Emergency meetings were already under way in Whitehall preparing for the evacuation of British diplomats from Khartoum.
The clashes, which began last weekend as a power struggle between rival military factions, have derailed a shift to civilian rule and raised fears of a long, brutal civil war, with hundreds already killed and thousands more injured or displaced.
The foreign secretary had been on the road since the previous weekend, starting his tour of the Indo-Pacific region with the G7 foreign ministers’ summit in Japan, where Ukraine and China were high on the agenda.
In an interview with the Guardian, he said that Britain should not “pull the shutters down” on Beijing, as it would be counterproductive to the national interest, warning there was not a binary choice to be made between treating China as either a threat or an opportunity.
He will say more in a major speech on China this week, as the government attempts to navigate Beijing’s growing economic and political reach, and placate hawkish Tory MPs pressing the prime minister to take a harder line.
The west is also trying to challenge China’s infrastructure investment in developing nations, warning that Chinese aid comes with “strings attached” for recipient countries and poses a wider problem for international security.
Cleverly wants development funding – cut to 0.5% of gross national income in 2020 in breach of the Tory manifesto – to go back to 0.7% “as soon as possible”. But he cannot say when, adding that “we can’t wish away the largest economic shock” of the pandemic.
A big chunk of the development budget is currently going on housing refugees in hotels, rather than being spent overseas. Cleverly admits he would rather have “more discretion” on how he spends the money.
“But the bottom line is you’ve got to deal with the world as it is,” he adds. “At the moment Afghanistan, Syria and sadly even Ukraine are difficult, brutal places and people fleeing deserve our support.”
He has already defied the Tory right by arguing that the UK should remain a signatory of the European convention on human rights (ECHR), while Rishi Sunak caves to demands from hard-right MPs to ignore European court rulings on small boats.
However, Cleverly admits he would “prefer not” to have an asylum processing centre in a former RAF airbase in his own constituency – arguing any MP would feel the same. But he adds: “If I said to them, do we need to get this sorted, every one of them would say ‘yes we do’.”
He stopped short of criticising Suella Braverman for some of her inflammatory rhetoric on small boats, but admits he would not have used the words himself. “Well, no … But the point is that we’re seeing unprecedented levels of illegal migration. Any two different people are going to use different ways of expressing themselves”.
However, he hints at a difference of opinion with Braverman over India, with the home secretary’s reluctance to grant more visas to Indians believed to be a factor in stalled trade talks.
“It is her job to protect the country and bring policy on our border … it’s my job to build mutually beneficial relationships, and where there are potential pressures in those two functions, we negotiate internally.”
He has already privately raised concerns with his Indian counterpart over raids on the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai by tax authorities after a documentary critical of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
He wants the issues resolved “quickly and appropriately” and stresses the UK values press freedom “very highly”, adding: “That is one of those key indicators of a high functioning democracy.”
Cleverly, a long-term Brexiter, says he has no regrets about his early support for leaving the EU. “I remember somebody telling me that my political career was over and now I’m foreign secretary, so I like to think that prediction was not right.”
He suggests that relations with European neighbours have “turned a page” since the days of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss at the Foreign Office, in part because of the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“When we said we are not leaving Europe, a lot of people in the EU capital cities were saying ‘yes you are. You are rejecting everything we believe in, and you are going to be turning into some nasty snarling little place somewhere in the Atlantic’.
“What has happened now rolling for five, six years they realise we are still very engaged, and we are working with them, and we are still a good defence and trade partner and much more. They are still not happy about it, but they have realised the thing they feared has not actually come to pass.”
He admits that despite Brexit promises there was “never going to be a quick fix” on a trade deal with the US – but denies that was a reason for resolving the Northern Ireland protocol problems.
“The reason we wanted the situation in Northern Ireland resolved is because we wanted it resolved. It’s not because we wanted a trade deal with the US, we wanted to make sure a bit of the UK felt it was part of the UK,” he said.
Cleverly rejects suggestions that Brexit has damaged Britain’s international standing – even though some government officials claim that it did for a period.
“There are always going to be voices in the UK that love talking down the UK, saying we are not relevant, saying nobody loves us, saying we are a laughing stock,” he says. “But I get to come to places like this, the other side of the world. I am constantly reminded how much the world thinks of us.”
Cleverly’s foreign policy focus differs from his predecessors in three key ways: on “patient diplomacy” – regular contact with foreign counterparts to build up relationships over time; on “middle powers” like Indonesia or Saudi, which are not superpowers but important nevertheless; and on the power of personality.
Cleverly, a naturally amiable character, has built up a warm rapport with international counterparts. It was on display on the final night of the G7 when, at a karaoke session with the other ministers, he belted out Beatles numbers with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, while their Japanese host played along on his electric guitar.