Boris Johnson talks a lot about being London mayor, but won't discuss his time as foreign secretary – this is why

Johnson told officials his speeches needed more jokes, even when they warned him they did not translate. Inside the Foreign Office, ‘Being Boris’ simply did not work

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 26 June 2019 14:33
Theresa May pays tribute to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson following resignation

Boris Johnson talks a lot about his record as London mayor, arguing that it shows he would be a One Nation prime minister. He talks a lot less about his two years as foreign secretary. It’s the most senior position he has held, and yet he didn’t even mention it in the speech launching his Tory leadership campaign.

His record at the Foreign Office deserves more scrutiny. In an address to staff when he got the job in 2016, Boris defined their role as “solving problems, doing good,” adding: “Let’s all have some fun while we’re doing it.”

Yet he didn’t have much fun in the post. Officials tell me he rarely looked happy, and often seemed unfocused, bored and distracted. “He asked us for ideas, but we never quite knew what he would actually say,” one recalled. Clips for his official Twitter feed were repeatedly reshot when Johnson fluffed his lines or could not remember his brief. “He liked to busk it,” one diplomat said.

Johnson sometimes told officials that a speech they had drafted needed more jokes. They would reply that his gags did not always translate. “Being Boris” did not work at the Foreign Office.

The gaffometer was always ticking over. Sir Alan Duncan, his minister of state, was branded Johnson’s “pooper scooper” by the foreign minister of another country. “Cleaning up after him was quite a full-time activity,” Duncan recalled recently.

Officials also remember how often they saved Boris from himself. Only a last-minute intervention by the UK ambassador prevented a diplomatic row in Myanmar, when Johnson was about to quote from Kipling’s pro-colonial poem “Mandalay”. “Not appropriate,” he barked.

Some mistakes could not be avoided: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s chances of being released early during her five-year jail sentence in Iran for alleged spying were reduced by Johnson’s erroneous remark that she was teaching journalists. Today, Boris insists his comment “did not make any difference” – though that is not how Nazanin’s husband Richard sees it, and he apologised for it at the time.

When questioned about his time as foreign secretary, Johnson takes refuge in the expulsion of 153 Russians by 28 countries after the Salisbury attack. He told Radio 4 this was the “single biggest diplomatic coup this country has pulled off that I can remember”.

Allies claim Boris played the central role, but Whitehall sources say the “hero of the hour” in assembling the international response was Mark Sedwill, Theresa May’s national security adviser. Johnson was sidelined by Downing Street, which judged that he prematurely blamed Moscow before the evidence was conclusive. He failed to win action from his EU counterparts, though May later did.

His relations with the EU were frosty too, perhaps not surprisingly, as his opposite numbers well remembered his promises during the 2016 referendum campaign. On a visit to Delhi, Boris likened the French president Francois Hollande to a Second World War prison guard. Officials remember Johnson being reluctant to look “too needy” in one-to-one meetings with European ministers when they urged him to talk up a close relationship after Brexit.

He tried to make his mark on the Middle East but failed to win G7 sanctions against Russia after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people in Syria. Critics claim he did not do the groundwork required to see it through.

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Boris also struggled to put flesh on the bones of his post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy. He was frustrated that Theresa May diluted the Foreign Office’s traditional role on Europe by setting up the Department for Exiting the EU. May wanted him inside her tent, and flying round the world so he couldn’t make much trouble at home. She also wanted him to sell her deal to his fellow Eurosceptics. Boris had other ideas.

Amid tense relations, No 10 banned him from making a major speech on Europe – so he published it as a 4,000-word article in The Daily Telegraph instead. Friends say Boris was frustrated to be largely cut out of EU debate. It was hardly a surprise when he resigned after May won cabinet approval for her strategy at a Chequers summit, though David Davis got there first (just as Michael Gove had come out for Leave ahead of Boris before the referendum).

Does Johnson’s record as foreign secretary matter?

Allies point out that he had a strong team of grade-A advisers around him at City Hall and was a good delegator. They say he would do the same in Downing Street. Yet it is revealing that only one minister who served under him at the Foreign Office, Alok Sharma, is backing him for the top job.

The new prime minister will want – and need – to enjoy good relations with his counterparts on the EU and world stage. He will have to juggle several balls a day, often without warning. There will be many difficult decisions that he cannot delegate. A prime minister cannot “busk it”.

Jeremy Hunt’s allies claim he has a better record at the Foreign Office since succeeding Boris almost a year ago, and has a better chance of winning an improved deal from the EU. Their contrasting performances do not seem to matter much to a Tory membership obsessed by Brexit. They should.

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