Boris Johnson is used to making headlines, but usually under rather different circumstances than the last few days. In place of another outlandish media stunt, the Foreign Secretary is facing widespread criticism by diplomats who reportedly labelled him ‘a joke’, ‘a liar’, ‘ramshackle’ and ‘dangerous’. Some will view his appointment as a failure of Theresa May – however, closer analysis shows the decision may in fact have been crucial to surviving the cutthroat environment of a divided Conservative Party.
May’s appointment of Johnson as Foreign Secretary in July last year was notably met with widespread disbelief. Having written for various newspapers since 1987 and served as London Mayor since 2008, Johnson was certainly well-known abroad – however, this recognition was almost entirely negative, with good reason.
In various newspaper columns, Johnson has “made up stories” about the European Commission, called black Commonwealth citizens “flag-waving piccaninnies…with watermelon smiles”, falsely blamed former US President Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British Empire” for the removal of a statue, compared the EU to Hitler and generally sought publicity through controversy. His well-measured façade of pompous blustering has enabled him to breeze over incidents that would sink many politicians, and more Londoners will remember him for getting stuck on a zipwire than for wasting nearly £1billion on “vanity projects” or corruption scandals.
Beyond these countless diplomatic nightmares, the Foreign Secretary also has a history of embarrassing Theresa May with public rebuttals of her policies. Most recently, he refused to back May’s insistence that foreign students be included in migration figures, a particularly contentious issue given that just last week it was revealed she had exaggerated student visa overstay numbers by over 2000% as Home Secretary. With this and similar announcements, Johnson regularly reminds May that he enjoys a certain charismatic advantage over her. In turn, May has repeatedly countered by alternately praising him and threatening his position in order to keep him under her control since his short-lived bid to take over as Prime Minister after David Cameron’s departure.
Clearly, Johnson was not appointed for his delicate diplomatic touch, his relations with foreign dignitaries or as a reward for loyalty. It is the context surrounding the July 2016 announcement that is central to unravelling the reasons for May’s choice of Foreign Secretary.
On 23 June 2016, the British public voted narrowly to leave the European Union, after a bitterly divisive campaign. Despite it being then Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, the Conservative Party were also torn on supporting Leave or Remain. Although she has since dodged questions on the issue, Theresa May was a quiet but firm supporter of remaining – conversely, Boris Johnson came out as a vocal Leave campaigner, despite opportunistically drafting a strong unpublished pro-Remain article just days before. He eventually became a campaign figurehead, controversially spreading unfounded claims such as the infamous ‘give the NHS £350million per week we send to Brussels’ promise, assuring voters that Britain wouldn’t leave the Single Market and pledging continued freedom of movement.
It quickly became clear that whatever the eventual result of Brexit, dealing with the decision would be a political and logistical nightmare for the Conservative Party and potentially fatal for the new Prime Minister. Appointing Johnson as Foreign Secretary enables May to more easily transfer the blame of any Brexit failure onto his shoulders, backed up by her choices for Secretary for International Trade, Liam Fox, and Brexit Secretary, David Davis – both of whom were staunch Leave campaigners. All three will be easy scapegoats in the event of Brexit difficulties, leaving the Remain-backing Prime Minister relatively clean by comparison.
Regardless of Boris Johnson’s many inadequacies when it comes to diplomacy, his brand of brash buffoonery is effective at opening doors and influencing public opinion. His comments on the Single Market and freedom of movement demonstrate understanding of the many benefits of EU membership, and the Prime Minister will hope he tempers the more aggressive ‘hard Brexit’ advocates within the Conservative Party. His potential for gaffes is also neutralised somewhat by his new role, with its reliance on countless advisers managing each policy and appearance. If Johnson is still in his position when – and if – Britain officially leaves the EU, his uninhibited approach to foreign relations may be necessary for the country to bluster its way into international agreements and curry favour outside the EU.
Friends close, enemies closer
However, perhaps the most likely reason for Johnson’s appointment is the adage often attributed either to Sun Tzu or Niccolò Machiavelli – ‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer’. The Foreign Secretary still craves the party leadership, and draws reasonable public support and visibility even over current meme Jacob Rees-Mogg. Until torpedoed by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Johnson was favourite to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2016. Relegating Johnson to obscurity, as the Prime Minister did with Gove, could far more easily have backfired and strengthened potential challenges for the party leadership. As Foreign Secretary during Brexit negotiations, Johnson’s political career is now tied to May’s, and he has undoubtedly found the internationally-focused role allows little time to plot attempts to usurp control of the Conservatives. Friction at the intersection of Brexit responsibility between Foreign Secretary and Brexit Secretary is further damaging the reputations of both Johnson and Fox, allowing Theresa May to assume the moral and political high ground.
Following the recent attacks on the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister stepped in to assure the world that Boris Johnson has her full support – defending her own decision, but also deepening the sense of treachery that any coup attempt would engender. Johnson was unleashed to attack Jeremy Corbyn at the 2017 general election to mixed results, but May is working hard to muzzle his power within the Conservative party. Coupled with his relative castration in a role that lacks the governmental clout it once did, it seems likely that May was playing the tactician, rather than the comedian, with his appointment as Foreign Secretary.