Foreign Secretary James Cleverly says Britain and France will have blazing rows but also work together

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Sophie Wingate, PA Political Correspondent

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has predicted that Britain and France will both have “blazing rows” and “work very collaboratively” as he vowed the Government will approach the European Political Community with an open mind.

Liz Truss is set to attend a meeting of the group – French President Emmanuel Macron’s scheme to bring together EU nations and countries outside the bloc.

The British prime minister caused controversy during her Tory leadership campaign by failing to say whether the ally was “friend or foe”.

Mr Cleverly declined to call Mr Macron a “friend” when asked to choose but said he had a “lovely chat” with the French President on the eve of the Queen’s funeral.

The Foreign Secretary told a Tory conference fringe event hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank: “We had a very friendly chat, I said to him that the comments that he made about Her late Majesty were pitch perfect.”

Elaborating on the cross-Channel relationship, he said there is a “degree of sibling rivalry”.

“I think our proximity sometimes generates friction but ultimately what we’ve seen on plenty of occasions, not just because of Ukraine, that despite perhaps our unique ability to rub each other up the wrong way at times, that actually we do have a real ability to pull together and work very collaboratively when needs be.

“I have no doubt that we will find ways of working brilliantly closely with France, and I have no doubt we’ll find ways of having blazing rows with France, because that’s what the Brits and the French do, it’s our thing.”

Asked about Mr Macron’s European club, Mr Cleverly said he agreed with “recognising there is more to Europe than the EU”.

“I think having European countries finding ways to work together, whether on mutual security, economic security etc, etc, that’s certainly something we’ll go into with open eyes.

“We want to find ways of working well with our neighbours and partners and friends in Europe, and we’re willing to explore what this can do and how it can add value to our relationships.”

Ms Truss’s move to attend the meeting in Prague, which comes after days of weighing up whether to go, will raise eyebrows given her explicit scepticism about the project only a few months ago as Mr Cleverly’s predecessor at the Foreign Office.

Mr Cleverly said it had struck him how much the international community has pulled together since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the Russian president has failed in his aim to fracture the allies’ relations.

He said Russia’s veto on the United Nations Security Council is “problematic”, but that it still serves an “important function” as it “allows the world to see that they are isolated”.

Asked about negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Cleverly said: “We’ve been very clear about the things we think are key to the integrity of the UK: Northern Ireland must always be treated as an integral part of our country.”

He praised government colleague Steve Baker for apologising to the EU and Ireland for his former “ferocious” stance on Brexit negotiations.

“I think it was very honourable to try and take some of the heat out of the conversation,” he said.

“What Steve is implicitly saying is ‘let’s look forward and not backwards’, and I think that is a very, very sensible thing to say.”