THE APPOINTMENT of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary is either a very smart move by Theresa May or an incredibly stupid one. I can’t make up my mind which.
It’s certainly a gamble of some sort. Until now, even May’s own supporters weren’t claiming that she was much more than “a safe pair of hands” – Westminster-speak for “boring and cautious”. Boris’s surprise elevation, the sacking of Osborne, Gove, Whittingdale, Crabb and Morgan, and the hospital pass of DEFRA to her vanquished rival Andrea Leadsom, were bolder moves than anyone expected. This could be the brisk radicalism of someone who has acquired power quickly and confidently. Or it could be a streak of Cameroonian carelessness.
It’s tempting to think she’s simply set Boris up to fail by finally giving him enough rope to hang himself with: either he crashes and burns within a few months, as many expect, or he ends up as the chief fall guy when the Brexit golden elephants turn out to be flying porkers after all. Who better to carry the can than the Brexit cheerleader-in-chief, a man who will probably give her an excuse to sack him every time he opens his mouth?
Not only does Boris rub foreigners up the wrong way, but he tends to self-destruct in the presence of real work. This will be real work. We know Boris has an almost desperate need to be liked. We know Boris wants to have his cake and eat it too. And we know, in this job, he’s going to spend most of his time locked in meeting rooms with people who don’t like him very much and won’t give him what he wants just because he stamps his feet and shouts louder than anybody else. If he flounders, will anyone blame Theresa May? She gave him a chance, but Boris was just Boris after all.
Or maybe, just maybe, he can pull it off. Maybe, as foreign secretary, he will emerge as a diamond in the rough in the Ernie Bevin mould. Maybe he can turn the bumbling charm that works so well at home to our advantage abroad. Maybe Boris can find some workable compromise he can sell to the Brexit majority in the country. If he does, Theresa May will look like a political genius.
And let’s not forget, Boris isn’t a real Brexiteer anyway. He never really wanted to leave the EU and even after 23 June he was still talking about “intensifying European cooperation” and making concessions on freedom of movement. And I doubt he’s entirely given up on the idea of a second referendum on a renegotiated EU deal. In Boris, May has got someone as foreign secretary who, while wearing Brexit colours, actually thinks along similar lines to her.
The awkward fact remains that Boris has failed at every real political job he’s been given (as well as failing at two proper jobs before becoming a politician). As a Tory frontbencher in the early noughties, he shambled around for a few months earning the eternal loathing of the city of Liverpool, before being sacked for lying to Tory leader Michael Howard about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. Even Tory MPs can’t find much good to say about his parliamentary performance, either as MP for Henley-on-Thames from 1999 to 2008, or for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015. As London mayor for eight years, he will be mainly remembered for waving union flags while dangling from a zip wire and for rugby tackling a very small Japanese boy. People will, I suppose, continue to talk about “Boris Bikes”, although they were actually a Ken Livingstone initiative which Boris just stuck his name on. Ironically, his one lasting achievement will probably be the effective renationalisation of much of London’s rail network – hardly something a darling of the Tory right puts at the top of their CV.
Then came his dissembling over Brexit, that clueless, almost apologetic post-referendum press conference, and his disastrous leadership bid.
But for reasons that escape me, people in power keep giving this pampered man the benefit of the doubt. Boris has spent so much time drinking in the last chance saloon he has a stool with his name on it and an engraved tankard behind the bar. He’s 52, for God’s sake, even older than me, so let’s stop talking about him as he’s if he’s some talented youngster who just needs to calm down and find his feet in a grown up job. This isn’t a test for Boris to pass or fail, this isn’t a “chance” for him to show us what he can do. This is the real deal. A good part of our futures may depend on what Boris Johnson can achieve in this job.
The last three weeks have made Britain a laughing stock, and a byword for political stupidity, egotism and outright nastiness. Our standing with our friends and allies has never been lower. Theresa May’s first move was to put the chief clown in charge of the circus. It might yet be a shrewd move. But let’s see who’s laughing in six months’ time.