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Boris Johnson's Stained Record as Foreign Secretary

11 Jul 2018
By Dr Victoria Honeyman

Boris Johnson’s resignation as foreign secretary this week was unsurprising for many. His position as keeper of the Brexit legacy had made Johnson bulletproof, but how will history judge him?

Boris Johnson’s resignation as foreign secretary was unsurprising for many. As the leading Brexiteer, his resignation had been anticipated numerous times during his two years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It’s actually more surprising that he lasted so long in his position given the twists and turns in the Brexit tale. But how will history judge Johnson, not as a Brexit supporter but as holder of one of the highest and most sought after jobs in British government?

Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary in July 2016 was a bold move by Theresa May, but not one which was universally welcomed. May’s deliberate policy of placing the leading supporters of Brexit in the offices most relevant to the Brexit negotiations meant that Johnson could expect either the FCO or the Department for Exiting the EU, which went to David Davis, who resigned a few hours before Johnson.

As the more senior politician, Johnson was appointed to the FCO, but his general attitude, lack of attention to detail, and troubled past as a journalist made his appointment controversial. Johnson was bound, as are all cabinet ministers, to collective responsibility, meaning that the foreign secretary would need to ensure that he did not step on the toes of the prime minister, and controversy would need to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately for all, that was not the case.

Johnson’s victories at the FCO were very few and far between. A high point was an increase in funding for the department made necessary by Brexit and the need to build new alliances and reinvigorate old friendships. But his mistakes, errors and misjudgements and a loose tongue made him something of a liability for the May government.

His previous career as a journalist haunted the Conservative government and stories surfaced of him writing offensive poems about the Turkish president. While campaigning for Leave in the 2016 referendum, he had also referred to the EU as a continuation of the campaigns of Napoleon and the horrors of Hitler.

Constant gaffes

In office, his record didn’t improve. He compared the former French president, François Hollande, to an officer in a World War II prisoner of war camp.

He joked that business was prevented from investing in Libya by the dead bodies, and recounted a colonial-era poem while visiting a Burmese temple.

His constant criticism of the Brexit negotiations, and the government stance caused conflict, and there were repeated rumours that he would resign or challenge May for power. His aborted leadership bid following the resignation of his former friend, David Cameron, in June 2016, suggested that he was biding his time as foreign secretary until May was weakened and he could again aim for Downing Street.

However, his most indefensible actions centred on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen of Iran and the UK, who was arrested while visiting family in Iran in April 2016. The Iranian state accused Zaghari-Ratcliffe of plotting to bring down the Iranian regime, which she vigorously denied, and jailed her for five years, leaving her young daughter in the care of her parents.

When speaking on her case to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in November 2017, Johnson stated that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalism to students, which was not correct. This statement was immediately used by the Iranian regime to justify their claims that she had been spying in the region. Johnson did correct his remarks later, but the damage was done and Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in jail and separated from her family.

A liability

In other times, without Brexit to consider, Johnson would have been relieved of his position many months ago. His position as the arch-Brexiteer, the keeper of the Brexit legacy, made Johnson bulletproof, and his mistakes and errors were ignored by Downing Street. His comments on the Brexit deal, key areas of negotiations and red lines created an alternative voice from that of May or the cabinet office.

There were even stories that Johnson and his supporters had begun gathering supporters for a Johnson leadership bid or at least an alternative Brexit vision to May’s. Creating a party within a party is a dangerous activity, and eventually May forced Johnson to be loyal or leave.

On July 6, it appeared that he would be loyal, leaving the cabinet’s Chequers negotiations as a supporter of the prime minister’s deal. But over the weekend that followed, Johnson discovered that the words “stick in his throat” and he resigned with a characteristic flourish.

His leadership plans may, once again, be in tatters, but that does not mean Johnson will not return to prominence on the front benches. If he does, his time as foreign secretary will not be considered a career highlight. His tenure at the FCO was unremarkable except for the errors he made, and his ability to remain in office. He now returns to the backbenches and can be expected to openly criticise the government and the forthcoming Brexit deal, whatever it looks like.

Dr Victoria Honeyman is a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published under the title “Boris Johnson’s record as foreign secretary is stained by litany of blunders and poor diplomacy” in The Conversation on 10 July 2018 and is republished with permission.