‘Boris is Boris’. That is the phrase wheeled out whenever Boris Johnson speaks out of turn. It is a most pathetic choice of words that does nothing to explain Johnson’s lack of tact, a go-to excuse whipped out with a fond grin whenever the Foreign Secretary happens to let his mask of charm slip.
Johnson was once a credit to the Conservative Party, one of the few faces capable of rescuing party members from the shame so often associated with being a Tory.
Increasingly, however, Boris does not remedy embarrassment, but causes it.
Few expected this year’s Conservative Party conference to run smoothly. Despite the continued decline of party fortunes, activists and MPs have done their very best to present a unified front.
Theresa May, somehow still staggering along, managed to battle both a cheap stunt orchestrated by Simon Brodkin and a horrid cough only rectified by a sweet from Philip Hammond, still emerging at the end of her keynote speech the steadfast general of a united army.
So, who should disturb the peace but Boris, a constant headache at a time when each passing day seems a migraine. Prior to conference, Johnson forgot he was not Prime Minister and undermined his leader with a 4,000-word article detailing his vision for Brexit, an issue central to government yet one about which he is claimed to be a ‘backseat driver’. He was then recorded reciting lines from a colonial-era Kipling poem in a temple in Myanmar, a country once held under British rule.
For fear of not causing enough offence, Johnson then laughed that the Libyan city Sirte could one day be the ‘next Dubai’, provided they ‘clear the dead bodies away’. The Foreign Secretary responded to the justified outrage that followed by claiming his critics have ‘no understanding of Libya’. A better judgement would be that he has no understanding of diplomacy.
Boris Johnson leaves behind him a trail of offensive remarks, from his description of black children as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ to his bizarre portrayal of Hillary Clinton as a ‘sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’. Johnson’s past is so cluttered with stupid slips that very little of that he says warrants surprise. More shocking than the drivel that he spouts is the fact that, despite attracting gaffes like an umbrella does lightning, he was thought an appropriate choice for the Foreign Office.
It is the primary role of the FCO to promote British interests abroad. If we’re to blossom in a post-Brexit age and prove to our neighbours that we possess the gut necessary to stand out on the world stage, we need a Foreign Secretary who hasn’t offended more countries than he can count.
If nothing else, Johnson has at least succeeded in uniting both his colleagues and opposition parties in their disapproval of him. Fellow Conservative Sarah Wollaston suggested he rethink his position, but MPs Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry bluntly, and rightly, asked that he be sacked.
However, the most biting criticism of all came from Ken Clarke. The parliamentary veteran, who even at seventy-seven could run statesman-like rings around Johnson, told BBC Radio 5 Live the former London Mayor should ‘go away and learn about foreign policy.’
Not only is Clarke’s slap-down of Johnson satisfying to a sadistic degree, he also highlights the conflict of his position perfectly. One could struggle for days in an attempt to understand why Theresa May, empress of the politically inept, deemed him a suitable figurehead for British diplomacy, at a time so crucial in our history that national image has never mattered more. The damage was done the moment of his appointment in July last year.
So long as Boris Johnson remains at the Foreign Office, the ‘British lion’, as he himself imagines our country, will not emit a roar, but a whimper. For the sake of Britain’s international prospects, he must go.
As ashamed as I might be to admit it, I will not deny that Johnson has on occasion made me laugh. Politicians are too often stuffy and dull in presentation, but Boris has beneath the messy hair and habitual duplicity a real penchant for sharp delivery. He thinks up quips and phrases that would sound entirely unnatural if uttered by any of his colleagues. He even managed to turn a technical fault with a zip-wire, after which he demonstrated uncommon self-awareness by calling himself a ‘prat, into a highlight of the 2012 Olympics. Therefore, the problem is not that Boris Johnson is without talent, it is that the talents he possesses are not the sort expected of a competent Foreign Secretary.
The ability to crack a joke is no doubt a treasured one in an environment often drenched in tension, but Johnson’s relaxed attitude to what he perceives as gentle banter threatens the credibility of the important office he holds. The Conservative Party has no aversion to clowns, but it does not want one writing its foreign policy.
Nor does the Conservative Party want a buffoon like Boris as its leader. Should Theresa May find it within herself to hand the Foreign Secretary his P45, she would run the risk of provoking him into a leadership challenge.
It is obvious to even the politically blind that Johnson desires Downing Street. Indeed, it is the dream that has driven him for much of his adult life, his reasons for backing Brexit purely those of personal gain. To a degree, Johnson’s role at the Foreign Office distracts him from the machinations in which he would no doubt love to indulge. Forced onto the backbenches, he would be free to plot as he pleased.
The Prime Minister is one poor step away from collapse. She would risk an early exit, and the fragile peace of the party, should she give Boris the push.
Yet it is a risk she must be prepared to take. In her conference speech today, Mrs May said ‘the test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you’. With Boris Johnson she has the opportunity to pass such a test.
To respond to a question put to her recently by Andrew Marr, he is not unsackable, but a man who likes to think himself unsackable. Boris is not a ‘British lion’, but a particularly scruffy domesticated cat that enjoys whining aimlessly at the moon, only later wondering if his howls are overheard, and never demonstrating remorse when they are.
When Johnson makes offensive comments, he insults not just his government, nor even his party, but the country as a whole. Too many times we have dismissed the offence he has caused as mere folly. For the sake of the country he proclaims to love, his time as Foreign Secretary must come to an end.