JOHN KAMPFNER on the reputation of the new prime minister abroad, and how the EU might respond to him.
Everyone involved in politics remembers the moment when they heard that Boris Johnson had been made foreign secretary. It was July 2016. I was standing next to a senior Conservative at a summer event I was hosting when I was running the UK’s creative industries umbrella body.
That MP was looking feverishly at his phone to check that he was still in his job. He was a Leaver, but he feared he wasn’t going to survive into Theresa May’s first cabinet. He was right. He was out.
When he heard that Johnson had been appointed to the UK’s senior diplomatic post, the now-ex minister had to clutch a wall. This must, he said, be some practical joke.
It was. On us. The high-wire buffoon who embraced Leave on a whim, for personal advancement, was the last person anyone sensible would envisage as representing Britain abroad.
Fast forward a couple of years: one then Foreign Office minister recalls being asked this by a counterpart from a smaller European country: “What’s it like to be Boris Johnson’s pooper scooper?” Not much fun, he replied. Most people in the Foreign Office had by then given up pretending that he was a serious figure.
Chancelleries and foreign ministries, not just in the EU but around the world, were initially amused, then bewildered by Johnson. They ended up disdainful and resentful.
Huge amounts of time were invested by Foreign Office officials and British diplomats abroad in managing him. At the Munich Secretary Conference 2016, he described leaving the EU as a “liberation”, pronouncing the word in French. He managed to annoy the entire room. Other moments of idiocy included a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. A microphone picked up his muttered recital of a colonial-era poem by Kipling before the British ambassador stopped him.
His behaviour reflected a broader problem – an overall loss of Britain’s global reputation after the referendum. Much of that is inevitable, indeed probably desirable. We have for decades been encumbered by an inflated sense of our own importance.
Crass stupidity could be glossed over. Mistakes of substance could not. The worst of many was Johnson’s gaffe over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran since 2016 on spying charges. He blurted out that she had been teaching journalism in the country, even though her family insisted she had been on holiday. Johnson’s mistake was seized on by Iranian officials; Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still in prison, in an increasingly parlous situation, as relations between the two country are more tense than they have been for years.
Johnson quit in 2018 in fitting style. He was supposed to be hosting a meeting in London of EU and Balkan leaders. It was important for Britain to show that it could still be a respected convenor. He just didn’t show up.
As he succeeds Theresa May at Number 10 expect more of the same, but at a higher, and more dangerous, level. He will be less beholden to officials – Downing Street is tiny compared to other head of government offices around the world. Johnson will gather around him those who think like him, those who will encourage him in the view that his behaviour is not just excusable, it is desirable. Throw up the sand and see what happens. That is the Trump way. That will be the Johnson way.
How will our erstwhile friends in Europe respond? The media will continue in their mix of bewilderment, annoyance and mockery. A French journalist still cites Johnson’s decision to go off and play cricket in Oxfordshire in his whites the weekend after the referendum as a sign not of an eccentric country but one that has lost its bearings.
A recent German television report on the merits or otherwise of a no-deal went to Henley. There, in the midst of the royal regatta, it interviewed venerable members of the Bufton Tufton set in their boaters. I originally thought it was a spoof; but it was presented as a straightforward item on the main news. Welcome to Britain, German viewers.
Every profile or biography of Johnson in the international media harks back to his reputation as a journalist. He is credited as the architect of the ‘euro myth’: inflated or invented stories about the EU that dominated the British media from the 1990s onwards and helped embed europhobia into the mainstream.
The one he is most famous for is the straight banana. Another is the single, standard sized condom. Then came the end to pink sausages (as if the Germans would have agreed to that). These stories were so colourful they might as well have been true. The trouble is they weren’t. But they turned him into a celebrity.
I still never cease to be infuriated by the number of people who should know better who continue to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt. That also applies internationally.
One German government official recently posited to me the prospect that Johnson would call a second referendum and head the Remain camp. The man, normally extremely well informed, hadn’t had a drink. It was 10am.
I asked why on earth he would contemplate such a scenario. He fell back on the “unpredictability” of Johnson. I told him, ever so politely, that his view was a combination of credulousness and wishful thinking.
The prevailing hope in Europe is to wish Johnson away. One of the many diseases of British political culture is to imagine that we are at the centre of the action. We are not. The EU has already zoned out of us. We are the troublesome teenager. It has more urgent problems to deal with.
Perversely that could lead them to be a little too pliant to the new prime minister. They are desperate to be shot of us, and if that means giving him a piece of paper to take home with him from Brussels, proclaiming that Britannia rules the waves and the dreaded Huns and Frogs have caved in, then that might be a price worth paying just to not have to negotiate with us anymore.
The contempt the likes of Angela Merkel and now Emmanuel Macron (after his brief and unsuccessful flirtation) feel towards Trump will be similarly expressed towards Johnson. Just as with the US president, the tactic is to keep him at bay. Engage with him as little as possible (such as at G7 or NATO summits). Get angry when you have to, but most of the time try to ignore him and get on with dealings with the decreasing contingent of grown-ups around the world.
Johnson will embrace Trump and Trump will embrace Johnson, two ridiculous figures united in self-delusion. The diplomats will continue to do what they have always done, to try to conduct global affairs in a responsible fashion, while their bosses will play their games. Eventually Trump and Trump-Baby will be gone, but it may take some time.
I am reminded of something Johnson told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs a decade and a half ago. “Everything I wrote from Brussels I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England.”
Jolly journalist capers are about to conducted in the corridors of power. Europe is holding its breath – more in disdain than in fear.