"The Germans hate him": remembering Boris Johnson's time as foreign secretary

Is there one thing Johnson can look back at and say ‘yes, I did that’? Apart from allegedly driving French politicians "ballistic"?

July 09, 2018

The secret meeting between two Libyan warlords arranged by the French foreign minister was so hush-hush that only a handful of people in the Elysée and the French foreign ministry knew anything about it.

A few days before it took place, Jean-Yves Le Drian decided to widen the circle and rang his counterpart in the UK, Boris Johnson. It was a courtesy call; a recognition that the British had been a partner in the Libyan intervention and its messy aftermath.

Under no circumstances, Le Drian told Johnson, must you mention this to anyone—if it gets out, he said, the deal could be scuppered.

Later that week, at a meeting of the 28 foreign ministers of the European Union, Johnson publicly praised Le Drian for his work on Libya and mentioned the secret meeting.

Le Drian, according to someone briefed on the meeting, went “fucking ballistic.” From then on, he refused to speak to Johnson outside of official engagements.

It is hard to do justice to how little respect the man formerly known as Britain’s foreign secretary had around the world. “European foreign ministers despise him,” one senior foreign office official told me last week. “The Germans hate him—they regard him as a moral affront.”

“Why was he appointed?” asked one ambassador—a genuine question from a baffled onlooker. Another, when I asked what he thought of Johnson, simply laughed.

Nor did Johnson command respect from those who worked closely with him. “He’s just a joke,” said one former senior foreign office official who knows him well. “He has no moral compass and he’s loose with facts. He’s a figure of embarrassment.”

“He has been a useless foreign secretary,” said another former senior government official. “His bluster and banter is utterly inappropriate.”

A former head of the diplomatic service—the most senior civil servant in the foreign office—was as scathing about Johnson as a former diplomat can be.

“Frankly, in Boris Johnson, we do not have a foreign secretary who commands respect abroad,” Lord Ricketts told me last month. “They don’t get his humour and they’ve lost confidence that he’s a serious interlocutor. He is not a serious foreign policy player.”

Those attempts at humour, that bluster and banter, weren’t merely inappropriate—they also caused diplomatic incidents around the world and diminished Britain’s international reputation.

This is the man who joked that the Libyan city of Sirte could become the new Dubai so long as they “clear the dead bodies away”; the man who had to be stopped by an ambassador from reciting a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem about Burma—while in Burma.

Nor was his judgment sound. When Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban won re-election following a deeply anti-Semitic campaign, Johnson tweeted his congratulations.

Long before becoming foreign secretary, let’s not forget, he referred to “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” wrote a poem claiming that the president of Turkey had sex with goats, and wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph titled “Bravo for Assad”. He also pointedly referred to Barack Obama as “part-Kenyan”—a comment that led the US president to refer to him as the “British Trump.”

His bluffing and buffoonery had consequences, for no-one more so than Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen who was arrested and thrown in jail while on holiday in Iran.

Johnson erroneously told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that she had been “simply teaching people journalism,” repeating the charge that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had made against her.

Johnson’s statements were used by Iranian state media as proof that she was guilty. Zaghari-Radcliffe remains in prison.

And what did Johnson actually achieve in office? Is there one thing Johnson can look back at and say ‘yes, I did that’? Even his big diplomatic push—a trip to America to appear on Donald Trump’s favourite TV show, Fox and Friends, to urge not to rip up the Iran nuclear deal—was an embarrassing failure.

Ironically, there he could have had something to show for it if he hadn’t resigned today. While Johnson was dithering in his official residence, a group of Europe and foreign ministers from across the continent were gathering in London for a summit about the future of the Western Balkans.

It was a summit that Britain had begged to host, proof that while we were leaving the EU we were not leaving Europe.

The Western Balkans is at its most fragile point since the wars of the 1990s.

While a successful summit would not have in anyway solved the problem, it could have started a process towards a more peaceful solution—one that Johnson could have claimed some credit for.

Instead, he left them waiting for hours, even failing to tell anyone at the foreign office that he wasn’t going to turn up.

As a symbol of British diplomacy—an empty seat, angry foreigners, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs sat in his house dithering over his own career—it’s hard to beat.