In Praise of Boris – a Foreign Secretary With the Courage to Do His Job

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By Harry Phibbs | 7:07 am, December 16, 2016

The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary was one of Theresa May’s first decisions as Prime Minister. It was also her boldest.

Given May’s reputation for caution some were surprised – including Boris himself. The author of The Churchill Factor had been ready to contemplate his own gloomy share of the Wilderness Years.

It is not as if May would have been unaware of what she was letting herself in for.

The chances of Boris meekly sticking to the script his officials gave him was always going to be approximately zero. Sitting down at desk at King Charles Street, his colourful reputation preceded him.

Yet, apparently, May genuinely felt sympathetic to Boris over his abortive leadership bid – which was, of course, scuppered by the last minute withdrawal of support by Michael Gove. Loyalty is a quality that May prizes very highly.

Thus it came to pass that Boris got the gig. Picture the despair among Foreign Office mandarins. Even Margaret Thatcher never played such a mean trick on them. On the contrary, she gave them rather soothing people such as Lord Carrington, Francis Pym and Douglas Hurd.

For those who supported Remain in the EU referendum, just starting to come to terms with their grief, the appointment plunged them into new depths of despair. The reaction of the Labour MP Angela Eagle at hearing the news was genuine dismay.

Well, Boris hasn’t let us down. In his first few months in the job he shows no signs of having been tamed. His character still shines through – that independent streak, the lack of deference, the willingness to tell truth to power, the patriotism, even the capacity to tell the occasional joke.

In his Party Conference speech he recounted having been at the UN General Assembly in New York and “talking to the foreign minister of another country – I won’t say which one, since I must preserve my reputation for diplomacy, but let’s just say they have an economy about the size of Australia (though getting smaller, alas) plenty of snow, nuclear missiles, balalaikas, oligarchs, leader who strips to the waist you get the picture.”

The Russian Foreign Minister complained that the West had “imposed” democracy on them in the 1990s. Boris responded: “Hang on, Sergei, aren’t you in favour of democracy?” He then asked for a show of hands in the room: “All those in favour of democracy please show.” The Russians sat motionless.

In his dealing with the European Union we had the claim that it was “insulting” of Boris to make the pretty obvious point to them that free trade was in their interests too – because of the amount of their produce that they sell to us. He told the Italians that he was “pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto”. Were they really terribly offended? I doubt it.

Then there was the “gaffe” when Boris spoke of the Saudis “puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” But what he said was true. They know it. We know it. Why pretend?

In political life we have seen a reaction against group think. The blandness and jargon that politicians drift into is being rejected – the preference is for outspokenness and honesty.

Along with the “new politics” we need a new diplomacy. For decades the Foreign Office has been a force for appeasement. Rather than championing British interests and western values they have been embarrassed by them.

During the Cold War they favoured “detente” – advising that the Iron Curtain was a permanent arrangement that could not be challenged. They would fret that raising human rights concerns would harm Anglo-Soviet relations.

The disastrous settlement in Zimbabwe was claimed as a diplomatic triumph. Rather than supporting Israel as an ally and a democracy, that country has been undermined for decades.

The Foreign Office might regard it as sophisticated to fawn at dictatorships. They might be too craven to utter even the most obvious truths. But whether they like it or not their boss takes a more robust approach. Thank goodness for that.