Sunday 9 April 2017

Boris Johnson, Pretend Foreign Secretary

While the words are getting tougher over Trump's bombardment of an air strip that, um, didn't actually take said strip out of action, the usual jockeying among senior government figures here is taking place in the background.

Take the news this morning that Boris Johnson, our most over-hyped but under-powered of politicians has cancelled long scheduled talks with his counterpart, Russian foreign secretary Sergey Lavrov. Apparently Johnson instead prefers to potter around the G7 to come up with a united response, though none of that is stopping Rex Tillerson of Trump Tower from flying to Moscow later this week. Unsurprisingly, Labour, the SNP and LibDems attacked him for his reticence on this Sunday morning's reduced schedule of political programming. On Sophy Ridge, John McDonnell slated him for passing up an opportunity of holding Putin's government to account. Tim Farron accused Johnson of having his diary managed by Washington, and Alex Salmond on Andrew Marr mocked him for not having the full confidence of his boss. No disagreements with those assessments here.

From day one of the Trump era, Theresa May has clung to the feet of the new administration, partly to mitigate the train wreck of Brexit. And so if the Americans want the limelight, May is happy to give it to them. Less an order cabled to Downing Street, and more a 'working towards the Fuhrer'-style approach. When that figure the Prime Minister is working towards is the man destined to be the worst president in American history, it's a concern.

You might also recall how, in an act of pettiness that is quintessentially Tory, how May appointed the "Three Brexiteers" - the hapless Johnson, David Davis, and disgraced former (now serving) minister Liam Fox - to the key Brexit portfolios. There was a great deal of comment about making them "own" the miserable situation they created while the man ultimately responsible enjoys retirement. Yet there were a paucity of views on whether any of them can do actually their jobs. That Johnson has been removed from the equation of a potentially serious crisis in relations with Russia. After all, it's not supposed to be the job of "Handbags" Fallon to issue sternly-worded rebukes to the Kremlin. His lot is to oversee the bean counting at the MoD and attend military parades. Foreign affairs, funnily enough, belong at the Foreign Office. Salmond is right to call Theresa May's faith in Johnson's competence into question.

It wasn't long ago that May was beholden to two deeply average but posh hoorays who treated government like cramming for an exam. She, like pretty much anyone else not dazzled by the buffoon celebrity knows Johnson is cut exactly from the same cloth. Lazy, opportunist, cynical, he is definitely not a man to turn to in a crisis. Yet what is worse is he is a perfect fit for a section of the foreign policy establishment who, for the last 25 years, have grown indolent thanks to not having to face up to a geopolitical challenge to the global supremacy of the United States. Egged on by blowhards nostalgic for the them and us certainties of a cold war, Johnson, like them, has absolutely no interest in understanding the Russian government's point of view. Indeed, while Johnson might not be guilty of this, there are plenty who write on foreign affairs always surprised to learn other states have interests too, and are quite prepared to pursue them as they see fit. Walking in your opponents' shoes, which should be an ABC of of domestic and international politics, is entirely absent not only from the Conservatives, but across the parties here and is the default setting for other western foreign policy establishments. It happens that Johnson offers a distillation of it.

And so May will carry on letting him play foreign secretary as long as no harm is done, which will mean removing him time and again from crisis and near-crisis situations. The question is how long can Johnson survive without the spotlight on him?

1 comment:

Robert said...

I would pay good money to see Bo Jo confront Putin. No doubt confronting the Yanks over Ukraine and Syria would be just a warm up act compared to eyeballing our Boris.