Michael Fallon calls for end to 'moralising' on Saudi Arabia as Boris Johnson Cabinet row deepens

Downing Street has already fallen out with Mr Johnson after he accused Saudi Arabia of 'playing proxy wars'

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Sunday 11 December 2016 12:34
Michael Fallon flounders in defending No10 on Boris slapdown

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has waded into the Cabinet row over Middle East policy saying “we can't keep moralising in public about Saudi Arabia”.

His words appeared to be aimed at Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who earlier this week accused the country of “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the region, in the wake of the Kingdom’s involvement in a brutal bombing campaign in Yemen.

The comments from Mr Johnson have already earned him a stern rebuke from Downing Street aides, which in turn saw allies of the Foreign Secretary demanding Theresa May “call off the dogs”.

With the Foreign Secretary due to visit Saudi today, Sir Michael sought to play down the furore in a difficult interview by claiming Mr Johnson’s comments had been “taken out of context”.

But he then told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Saudi Arabia is a friend of this country and is fully entitled to defend itself, and is also entitled to help bring about a settlement in Yemen that restores the legitimate government. That has the support of the United Nations.”

He added: “We can't keep moralising in public about Saudi Arabia. If you want to bring about change in Saudi Arabia then you have got to work with Saudi Arabia and we are doing that.”

Boris Johnson caught on video accusing ally Saudi Arabia of ‘playing proxy wars’

After Mr Johnson said at a conference in Italy that both the Saudis and Iran are “puppeteering and playing proxy wars”, Downing Street slapped down the Foreign Secretary with Theresa May's official spokesperson telling reporters his words were his own personal view and did not reflect official policy.

But Sir Michael attempted to play down No 10's rebuke, giving an account of what happened at the briefing between journalists and Downing Street officials despite not having been there.

He said: “I think you really are making a meal of this. Boris's comment, as we have already established, was taken out of context in the reporting that implied we didn't support Saudi Arabia.

“Downing Street was asked the question and Downing Street answered it.”

Asked if Mr Johnson would raise concerns about Riyadh running proxy wars during his meetings in the Kingdom, Sir Michael replied: “He will be reminding Saudi Arabia that we support Saudi Arabia.”

Sir Michael said Mr Johnson was a “huge personality” around the world.

“The media, with great respect, are now starting to over-textualise every remark he makes in answer to every question,” he said.

“Downing Street was asked whether this misreporting of what Boris had said, whether that was government policy. Downing Street simply answered the question.”

Allies of Mr Johnson have privately claimed Ms May’s aides are pursuing a vendetta against the Foreign Secretary and have demanded they back down.

His comments have divided the Tories with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson claiming he is “absolutely right” on Saudi Arabia, while former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the “jury's out” over his future in the role.

Despite the reported incidents of civilian deaths and the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen, the UK has signed off £3.3bn in arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the start of its offensive.

Tory former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke said Mr Johnson's personality was “always going to emerge” but the criticism had been “pretty silly”.

He told Murnaghan on Sky News: “I thought what Boris said about Saudi Arabia and Iran I rather agree with and I hope the Government are consulting their lawyers closely about how much longer we can carry on without querying some of the things the Saudis are doing in the Middle East whilst we are supplying them with weapons.”

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