As the Foreign Secretary laughs at his own “clear the dead bodies in Libya” quips, the rest of the world looks on, horrifiedby Steve Bloomfield / October 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
Every speaker at Conservative party conference has a line about Venezuela. It doesn’t seem to matter that the attack on Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t work—it is as if they are under contractual obligation. So, of course, Boris Johnson had a line of his own. And, of course he had a punchline at the end. And, of course—of course—it was a laboured attempt at mixing the word ‘crackers’ with the capital of Venezuela that everyone could see coming a mile off. But despite all that, the conference hall laughed. He delivered it well. After all, Boris is funny. Not “performing at Edinburgh” funny, but at the very least “great fun in the pub” funny, which—for a politician—is pretty rare. Humour, among other less amusing traits, has got the foreign secretary where he is today. For most of his career, comedy has been an enormous help. Not any more, though.
The signs were there that Johnson’s comedy stock was falling. Just last month it was revealed that he had astonished diplomats during a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by saying “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?”
Yet the Caracas joke wasn’t the only humour Boris Johnson attempted yesterday. Unfortunately for Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, his later jokes weren’t so benign. During his speech, Johnson briefly mentioned the fight against Boko Haram. But instead of using that as an opportunity to talk about how to deal with the threat of terrorism in the Sahel region, it was merely a set-up for another gag: this time one about being on a plane and being told to watch out for “pot shots from behind.” You know where he went with that. So did the hall, laughing before he got to the punchline.
Later, at a fringe event, Johnson decided to keep the jokes coming. Suggesting that a group of British businessmen wanted to turn the Libyan city of Sirte the new Dubai, he joked: “The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.” In case anyone wasn’t sure that this was an attempt at humour, he then laughed.
Boko Haram, Libya, Yemen. Three of the biggest, most complicated foreign policy issues the UK is involved in. At this stage, we can just be thankful that—as far as we know—he hasn’t tried to crack any gags about Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Johnson’s jokes aren’t seen only by Brits; they travel around the world. And this may come as a surprise to Johnson, but the rest of the world doesn’t quite share his sense of humour. They see situations like those in Nigeria, Libya and Yemen as incredibly serious and not the sort of thing to be mined for quips or eccentric witticisms. They are laughing at us, not with us. “Britischer Aussenminister macht Witze über Tote in Libyen,” read one German headline (does it even need translating?)
There is another Tory foreign secretary who made his name being funny on Have I Got News For You. But when William Hague became Britain’s leading diplomat he realised that foreign policy is not a place for gags. When Johnson took on this job he too could have put away the joke book. The fact that he couldn’t resist, despite the damage it does to his—and his country’s—reputation, is no laughing matter.