IT NEEDED something spectacular to burst the bubble of the Olympic Games, where the UK had generally shown its best face to the rest of the world and done wonders for its relations with other countries.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague has managed to change the mood with one spectacularly poor piece of diplomacy that has reminded the world that the UK is a former colonial power which sometimes likes to pretend it still is.
The Julian Assange affair has been an embarrassment. The flight of the WikiLeaks founder to the Ecuadorian embassy in London and appeal for asylum to avoid being deported to Sweden – where he faces rape charges – was bad enough, but the negotiations afterwards have damaged Hague’s political credentials and might have far-reaching diplomatic consequences.
It is ironic that Assange should have picked Ecuador to protect his freedom to get information into the public arena. The country has, via a referendum, just allowed its president, Rafael Correa, to clamp down on the media and limit the power of the judiciary. It is also deporting a journalist to Belarus. But somehow it is the UK that has come out as the villain in this case and the small Latin American country the bastion of freedom.
This is because Mr Hague sanctioned a letter threatening to storm the embassy and have Assange deported to Sweden. By doing so, he managed to unite Latin America in condemnation against Britain with Argentina leading the charge to defend its neighbour. This has implications for the Falklands, where Argentina has been accusing the UK of colonialism and the UK has been trying to present itself as the bulwark of self-determination and defender of the islanders’ freedoms.
The episode has underlined the ignorance the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appears to have of Latin America, which is home to an emerging economic superpower, Brazil.
Perhaps most tellingly, however, the affair has again put in the spotlight Hague’s own judgment. Just over a week ago he was being talked of as a replacement chancellor for George Osborne. He was also a contender to take over from David Cameron as Conservative Party leader. But that talk has now gone quiet. Now people are asking if he can get it right when it comes to the big decisions.
During the Libyan conflict, there were concerns that he had lost his political mojo and appeared to be disinterested in his job, although some said that was his laid-back style.
People are also starting to remember his disastrous term as leader, which came to a crashing halt in the 2001 election when the party suffered heavily at the polls. Then he seemed unable to present a coherent political argument or strategy, summed up by the Last Chance to Save the Pound campaign. So, while Hague still looks good on television and is undoubtedly a confident performer, the Assange affair has raised fresh doubts about his political antennae.