Humza slapped down by furious Foreign Office over private Gaza talks at Cop28

  • Anger over First Minister’s meeting with Turkish leader
  • Cameron threatens to withdraw support over ‘breach of protocol’ 

Humza Yousaf has sparked a furious row with Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron after holding private talks about Gaza with Turkey’s president.

The First Minister has been accused of breaching strict protocols which require Foreign Office officials to attend any overseas meetings with representatives of foreign governments.

Lord Cameron has threatened to throw Scottish Government officials out of overseas Foreign Office premises if there are any more breaches of the agreed protocol.

Mr Yousaf met Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has branded the West’s approach to events in Gaza ‘barbarism’ and accused Israel of behaving like a ‘war criminal’ – during the Cop28 summit in the United Arab Emirates.

The First Minister said they discussed the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire – in direct contrast to the UK’s position on the issue.

In a letter to SNP External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson, Lord Cameron said: ‘It is critical that the UK presents a consistent message to our international partners and that the devolution settlements are respected. We must ensure that UK foreign policy, a reserved matter, is coherent and that we speak with one voice to the international community.’

First Minister Humza Yousaf and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at COP28

Cameron’s warning letter: Stick to protocols… or else

Lord Cameron sent a letter of warning to Angus Robertson

Lord Cameron sent a letter of warning to Angus Robertson

Dear Angus,

My officials have informed me that First Minister Yousaf met President Erdogan of Türkiye at COP28 last week, discussing among other things the situation in Gaza.

Despite an assurance being given by Scottish Government officials that they would provide sufficient advance notice to allow an FCDO official to attend that meeting, this was not done. A UK official was available, whose contact details were known to your officials on the ground, but the location of the meeting was not shared with them.

The absence of an FCDO official at this meeting contravenes the protocols in our guidance on FCDO support to devolved Government Ministers’ overseas visits. It also fails to meet the expectations re-affirmed by my predecessor when he wrote to you on 16 October. That letter was, I note, prompted by a similar incident where FCDO officials were not present at a meeting between the First Minister and the Icelandic Prime Minister, despite verbal and written requests from my officials that they attend.

It is critical that the UK presents a consistent message to our international partners and that the devolution settlements are respected. We must ensure that UK foreign policy, a reserved matter, is coherent and that we speak with one voice to the international community.

I remain open to discussing a constructive way forward. However, any further breaches of the protocol of Ministerial meetings having a FCDO official present will result in no further FCDO facilitation of meetings or logistical support. We will also need to consider the presence of Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts.

I would be grateful for swift action to resolve this issue and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours, David 

The letter added that ‘any further breaches of the protocol of ministerial meetings having an FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) official present will result in no further FCDO facilitation of meetings or logistical support. We will also need to consider the presence of Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts.’

It indicates that the former Prime Minister wants to take a much tougher approach to overseas activity by SNP ministers.

The meeting between Mr Yousaf and President Erdogan happened during the First Minister’s visit to the Cop28 climate conference in Dubai this month. Mr Yousaf highlighted talks with the Turkish leader and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati in a social media message.

The First Minister said that, as well as talking about the urgency of global action on climate change, they discussed ‘the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza’, and added: ‘An immediate and permanent ceasefire is needed now. Too many innocent children have died, it must stop.’

The UK Government has resisted calls to back a ceasefire because it believes Israel has a right to defend itself following the attacks by terror group Hamas.

In April, the Mail revealed that then-foreign secretary James Cleverly had launched a crackdown following concerns that SNP ministers on foreign visits were trying to promote independence and undermine UK Government policy positions.

He told UK ambassadors and other diplomats to take a ‘strengthened approach’ by urging foreign governments not to arrange meetings with Scottish Government ministers without the involvement of the FCDO. The ‘heads of missions’ overseas were also told to gather information about any potential visits and report back to the FCDO – and to ensure UK Government officials always attended any meetings between SNP ministers and foreign governments.

In his letter, Lord Cameron also raised concerns about the absence of UK representatives at a meeting between Mr Yousaf and the Prime Minister of Iceland earlier this year.

The First Minister’s talks with Mr Erdogan are understood to have caused significant disquiet because they represented a completely different message from the UK on the most sensitive issue of foreign policy.

Kurdish-born SNP councillor Roza Salih said at the time that she was ‘disgusted’ by the meeting, as Turkey had stepped up attacks on Kurdish groups in Syria.

A UK Government spokesman said: ‘Foreign affairs is reserved under the Scotland Act and in such turbulent times, the need for the UK to speak on the world stage with one consistent voice is more important than ever.

‘Our embassies and high commissions overseas have a strong track record of working collaboratively with the Scottish Government to promote the interests of the whole UK.

‘We hope we can resolve this without the need for further action, including the possibility that we no longer host Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts.’

In its budget for this year, the Scottish Government set aside £35million for ‘international and European relations’, which includes a network of nine overseas offices. Some of these, including in Washington DC, are within British embassy buildings.

A spokesman for the First Minister said that a ‘relevant UK official’ was made aware of the meeting with Mr Erdogan and had been ‘invited to attend’.

They added: ‘However… the FCDO representative was elsewhere at the time it was convenient for the Turkish president to meet.

‘Any threat by the UK Government to curtail the Scottish Government’s international engagement is misguided and would work against Scotland’s interests.’