Boris Johnson is an embarrassment of a Foreign Secretary. His appointment to the position in July 2016 was seen as a clever tactic by Theresa May to ‘keep him close’: in theory, Johnson would be forced to adhere to collective cabinet responsibility. His brief was to keep him busy so that he wouldn’t obfuscate Brexit or launch a leadership challenge. But since then it has become clear that Britain’s most senior diplomat is hopeless at diplomacy.
Boris Johnson’s handling of the diplomatic row over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia has humiliated Theresa May, the country and has once again highlighted his utter incompetence. If it were any other job — with any other boss — he would have been swiftly sacked. Unfortunately, Theresa May is his boss: and she completely lacks the authority to swing the axe. Indeed, this is the same Prime Minister who is so weak, so powerless, that when she tried to reshuffle Jeremy Hunt from Health to Business, he simply refused.
Britain’s most senior diplomat is hopeless at diplomacy.
The Skripal affair isn’t Johnson’s first slip. In January 2017 Johnson was caught on camera reciting a colonialist Rudyard Kipling poem which arguably degraded Buddhism while touring Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temple. A visibly alarmed Andrew Patrick — the UK’s ambassador to Myanmar — was forced to intervene and shut Boris up, reminding him he’s wearing a microphone. Disinterested and clearly unable to grasp the offence of the verses he was recounting, Johnson muttered “good stuff” and busied himself with his phone.
Insulting Buddhism while in a hallowed Buddhist temple is only the latest in a long line of hideously groan-inducing gaffes by Johnson. In 2016, the then-Mayor of London wrote that US President Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain, due to his “Kenyan heritage”. Labour condemned his remarks as “dog whistle racism”. Back in a 2002 Telegraph article, Johnson used the racial slur “piccaninnies“, and said the “tribal warriors” of “the Congo” (which is in fact two different countries) had “watermelon smiles”. Boris Johnson has apologised for these remarks since, but his blatant racism is a stark reminder of his incompetence.
It is not enough to dismiss Johnson as merely a loveable, Partridge-esque “gaffe-prone” politician. Ambassadors should not have to babysit him on diplomatic visits for fear of it playing out like an episode of The Thick of It. His latest blunder of announcing that it was “absolutely categorical” that the Novichok nerve agent used to poison the Skripals was Russian in origin, despite Porton Down scientists stating it had not been possible to verify its origin, is classic Johnson. Like a schoolchild, Boris needs to be told how his actions have consequences: Russia have exploited Boris’s stupidity and are now able to discredit the UK’s investigation and claim that the British Government is lying to its people. Diplomacy is an emporium of delicate china, Boris is a bull.
Diplomacy is an emporium of delicate china. Boris is a bull.
His problematic truth-stretching is reminiscent of an overexcited puppy, bounding around and knocking things over while his handlers pick up the pieces. Theresa May is under no illusion. She surely, like the rest of us, realises how incompetent and embarrassing he is. Every blunder he makes — from racial slurs to truth-bending — is humiliating for her. But she possesses no authority to depose him, because her own cabinet has no respect for her. Clearly Boris has no intention to resign, which means we have reach an impasse – he’s staying put for the foreseeable future. It is a testament to May’s laughably weak grip on her own government that she is unable to control him.
The whole idea behind appointing Boris Johnson to one of the great offices of state was to keep him in check, and she has failed to do that. Now, like a stuffy Etonian smell, he won’t leave.
Featured image by Dianna Bonner