It’s official. Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London who until recently was the favourite to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister, is Britain’s new Foreign Secretary.
It is his voice, not that of the more sedate Philip Hammond, which will now shape British foreign policy, and it is his visage which will be increasingly associated with the British nation, by allies and friends as well as enemies the world over.
This is a remarkable decision by Theresa May, as she reshuffles the cabinet in the aftermath of her ascent to the premiership. Many had thought that, in the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Johnson had not acquitted himself all that well; after the victory of his side – something which appeared to come as a surprise for many – he at first adopted a mournful, almost funereal-like tone, and then left to play cricket with the Earl Spencer.
Very soon afterwards, the moment which had been anticipated for months, if not years – the moment at which Johnson was expected to declare his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative party and thus the country – simply did not materialise. Pre-empted by Michael Gove, Johnson ruled himself out of the running. And with that whimper, it was thought, his surprisingly precarious career in the front rank of national politics came to an end.
How wrong we all were.
Now he is back, and in a more essential position than he has ever occupied. Rather than being cast out into the wilderness of the backbenches, Johnson now holds one of the four great offices of state.
Some believe that the new Prime Minister is being very clever. In placing those who supported Britain’s leaving the European Union (primarily Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) in roles largely confined to foreign policy, she is challenging them to make the best of it; she, meanwhile, is insulated both from vituperative criticism by other Eurosceptics and the actual responsibilities of managing foreign affairs. But though Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary may be good politics, it is not good policy.
The Prime Minister’s cleverness may well prove a disaster. It risks promoting people, like Johnson, whose histories and temperaments do not auger well for the actual future course of British foreign policy.
Boris Johnson has written columns in the Daily Telegraph supporting Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria – on the rather tendentious grounds of his apparent liberation of the ancient ruins at Palmyra – and has publicly endorsed ‘working with the devil’ in the cases both of Assad and Vladimir Putin in that country.
This either suggests a kind of genuine ignorance on the behalf of Britain’s new Foreign Secretary (that he does not appreciate the true extent of Assad’s callous indifference both to human life and the glories of Syria’s rich history) or a kind of sociopathic attraction to the dictator in spite of comprehending the brutality of his rule. ‘Hooray, I say’, wrote Johnson. ‘Bravo – and keep going’.
Johnson did include a standard enunciation of the Syrian regime’s brutality in the same article. (‘Yes, I know. Assad is a monster, a dictator. He barrel-bombs his own people. His jails are full of tortured opponents.’) But it seemed hasty; an afterthought. The deaths of half a million people were briefly acknowledged and quickly forgotten. What mattered to the author was the fate of Palmyra’s ancient structures.
Even if one loves Roman ruins as much as Johnson claims to do so, one must admit that rhetoric of that order (even when it is predicated with the sort of concessions to reality which are aimed at appearing superficially objective) is frankly unhelpful. So too is some of what Johnson has written about the Syria opposition, whose numbers he cast doubt on in 2015.
‘We have the estimated 70,000 of the Free Syrian Army (and many other groups and grouplets)’, he wrote; ‘but those numbers may be exaggerated, and they may include some jihadists who are not ideologically very different from al-Qaeda’.
This indiscriminate linking of the Syria opposition with international terrorists and jihadists is something the Russian government and Assad have sought to do for years; now someone who apparently believes it, is Britain’s foreign minister.
This sort of language is neither true nor diplomatic; and Johnson has a long history of writing less than tactful things in his newspaper columns.
In addition, he recently won (though in a tangential way) a poetry competition from The Spectator with a limerick in which he insulted President Erdogan, a NATO ally, which made headlines all over the world.
He has also attracted harsh criticism for using the phrase ‘cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’ when describing the appeal of touring Commonwealth. (I do not think this was intended as a racist remark; rather, Johnson was articulating what he considered to be the patronising attitudes adopted by others. But perceptions matter, and the column was decidedly ill-judged.)
And who could omit Johnson’s writing about America, the UK’s most important ally? One must not forget his insulting of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (as a ‘sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’ and a ‘part-Kenyan’ who harbours an ‘ancestral dislike of the British empire’, respectively). It is likely that he will have to work with both of them in the near future.
Johnson is well liked in some circles, but his career ought to have ended after the referendum campaign, which did not show him at his most noble or capable. He failed to inspire in moribund television debates, openly appeared to make up European rules and regulations (particularly relating to bananas) which apparently damaged British business, and generally seemed a little lacklustre.
That is hardly a surprise; in characteristic fashion, Johnson only made up his mind to support leaving the EU the day before his Telegraph column was due.
In short, Johnson is utterly unsuitable for a position of such magnitude, and his appointment could have wholly negative effects on Britain’s foreign policy. This could well prove a disastrous promotion – regardless of whether it is good politics from the perspective of our new Prime Minister.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.