Boris will meet his match in mission to Moscow
PUBLISHED: 06:40 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:51 13 March 2017
As he prepares to head off for talks with Moscow, the Russians easily have the measure of Boris Johnson
Russia right now is on a roll.
Just imagine the scope of Russian reach in the world: the sheer number of things and people that have the stamp “Made In Moscow” on them.
Right now life is like something out of From Russia With Love, featuring some Mr Evil Out There. We’re in a ‘60s pop art painting: glaring colours, and the spectre of Spectre.
We have the former Good Guys – Wikileaks – who now seem to have the heavy hand of their clearly fresh-air deprived honcho, Julian Assange, guiding things. And there’s the ‘60s Big One: a Manchurian Candidate kind of thing: the real possibility that the President of the United States is an unwitting “agent of influence” for Russia.
Indeed in many ways, life right now is a dream come true for Russia. “They’re all spies!” an American intelligence expert yelled when asked about the Russian Ambassador to Washington, a man who seems to have dined with anybody-who-is-anybody around the Beltway.
That Russia interfered with the presidential election is a fact that even the Russians have stopped denying. The real question is to what extent. With candidate Hillary Clinton pledging a “Continuity Obama” administration, Putin and his people must have worried about sanctions being extended and maybe even a no-fly zone. Or worse: a female President keeping him in check.
And what of Europe? What better one for Putin than one facing the exit of its biggest member; a country once perceived as a haven of stability.
For Putin, in the morass that is Brexit, there is what City folks would call “an opportunity”.
Theresa May has demonstrated that her commitment to Big Tent Tory politics is more important than almost anything else (well maybe not the Almighty, who she says she consults). She has demonstrated this by appointing Britain’s very own matryoshka doll: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and head of MI6.
It’s easy to forget that Boris entered mainstream national life from off the telly: just like Trump. Just like Trump, too, he became an engaging, amusing, abrasive, “bright shiny object” kind of public figure.
In spite of his comparatively posh upbringing (Eton, Bullingdon, Oxford, etc.) he seemed to be a man of the people. It’s an improvisation, a sleight-of-hand that he has pulled off magnificently.
You could say that Boris was a forerunner of the populist wave. He first ran for office, first as an MP, then as London mayor, on what the late, great American playwright Arthur Miller described Death Of A Salesman as “on a shoeshine and a smile”.
But Boris didn’t bother to shine his shoes much. That wasn’t part of the brand. No matter that he was said to have delegated a lot of the real work to others once he was elected mayor, the capital’s City Hall became known to many as “Clown Hall”.
“Boris is Boris”. The man is Teflon. But never make the mistake of thinking that he is what he sometimes plays: “Billy Bunter Of The FCO”. He is far, far from it.
I once stumbled on an address Boris was giving to a room full of enthralled people, clearly delighting in his ability to make jokes both in Latin and ancient Greek. He was funny and charming and a 100% machiavell.
This term is based on the name of Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote that manual of medieval ruthlessness: The Prince. In it, he advises the prince that: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”
But has Bojo met his match – even his better – in Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has invited our Boris to Russia for talks. To get the measure of this man, go on YouTube and watch his mano-a-mano with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
She brings up early on some careless comments that Boris is recorded to have made at the Conservative Party conference last year about Russia and Aleppo. Lavrov replies: “Boris Johnson is ‘politicking’. As Mayor (of London) he was a good friend of Russia and was a favourite at all the Russia festivals in London. He’s a jack-of-all trades.”
Boom! As they say in the movie business, when everything is done and there’s nothing else to do: “And that’s a wrap.”
In other words, Lavrov knows Boris’s game. He has his measure. The visit has been described in the press as “a highly charged showdown in Moscow”. Indeed.
Boris has implied that Russia’s involvement in Aleppo is akin to Guernica, the Spanish Civil War atrocity in which a small town was the stage for a proxy war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. He also wants to challenge Russia over the Ukraine.
It is said that he won’t be “cosying up” and will bring a “robust” defence of the UK. He will “engage but beware”. The question is: what could Russia want to talk about?
Maybe it’s the following: The cold, cruel fact is that there is nothing to stop the EU from demanding billions of euros in exchange for the UK’s exit. The Chancellor is said to be setting money aside – but what about the NHS? And what about the economy? Where will it go if the EU sets up a trade barrier?
Yes, of course, the EU might be spiting itself, but suppose it makes a “strong man play” whose purpose is to warn off other members who might want to do their own Brexit? What if the EU has to look tough at the expense of the UK in order to defend the euro?
Who will be the UK’s Big Brother/Special Relationship if Trump decides to shut down the US vis-a-vis “overseas”? So many questions.
Our stock market, meanwhile – traditionally seen as stable and “defensive”, a place to go for safety – is starting to be seen as less than that. The all-important consumer is said to be “cautious”. The London housing market, a canary in the coal mine of the economy, has slowed down. Imports are starting to cost more because the pound has gone down. This will affect food, clothing, petrol – in other words, everyday life.
No one has to point out that we’re now in a very unstable world. Lavrov could be offering the UK a post-Brexit safe haven. And then what world will we be entering? Boris Of Clown Hall might be taking this nation to a place it has never been before. Russia could turn out to be a new kind of circus for him. The joke, this time, could be on him. And on us.
Bonnie Greer is an author, playwright and critic