Johnson and Corbyn collude in shrinking the nation’s foreign policy horizons

Neither can offer any argument about Britain’s role in the world today—let alone a convincing one

October 04, 2019
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

When Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary in 2016 she did not expect him to do the job well, or really do it at all. The former prime minister knew that Johnson had neither the discipline nor the discretion to serve as the country's top diplomat, but she needed pro-Brexit figures prominent in her government. One Downing Street advisor told me that Johnson was over-promoted to set him up for failure. May thought his unsuitability for high office would be exposed and so the prospects of him ever becoming prime minister would be ruined.

If that was indeed the plan, only the first half of it worked. No one thinks Johnson was an able foreign secretary. He avoided the subject when pitching his candidacy to be party leader this summer, preferring to dwell on his record as Mayor of London. Tory members were not bothered by Johnson's gaffe-strewn, bungled stint at the FCO. If anything, it was a recommendation, burnishing his credentials as a man unbothered by foreign sensibilities; an upsetter of diplomatic apple carts. Boorishness laced with classical allusion is apparently what the Conservative faithful felt had been missing from May's Brexit strategy.

Johnson does not promote an insular political view as such. He thumps the tub for something called “Global Britain,” but that is a rhetorical trick. It is a device to re-package a parochial, nostalgic idea of the UK as something dynamic and modern. The premise is that Brexit liberates Britannia from her continental shackles so she can go commercial buccaneering on the high seas, as of yore. This gratifies the deep-rooted Tory resentment of European Economic Community accession in the context of the early 1970s—a period of national disorientation and dread of decline. The glories of Empire were receding from view and continental economies, in a display of uppity ingratitude for their salvation from fascism, had caught up with, and in some cases overtaken Britain.

It is revealing that Johnson's keynote speech in Manchester this week contained no foreign policy beyond the EU question, and it was opaque on that subject. Brexit was treated not as a project to define the nation's future but as an obstacle to be cleared for the pursuit of Johnson's immediate electoral future. The urgent point was that it be done, out of the way so the party and its leader could talk more freely of other, domestic issues: toughness on crime; funding hospitals; building things. None of the prime minister's policy objectives is actually facilitated by leaving the EU. All would be stymied by the economic constraints that a botched Brexit would impose.

Johnson did not use his speech in Manchester to justify Brexit as part of a project to enhance Britain's status in the world because no such justification exists and his audience didn't need one. “We love Europe!” Johnson declaimed, to awkward, muted applause. “I love Europe, anyway” he hastily clarified. There was a much warmer reception for an impromptu reference to the Commonwealth—the club that Tory Eurosceptics cherish with a passion out of all proportion to its minor rank in the international institutional hierarchy.

There was no reference in the speech to China, none to India, nor any mention of Russia, Iran, the wider Middle East or Africa. There was a glib remark about exporting Jason Donovan CDs to North Korea and a warning that Jeremy Corbyn would sabotage relations with the US. Apart from that, the world beyond British shores was invisible, veiled in a sparkling nebula of “free-trade” opportunity.

Johnson has to avert his gaze from the horizon (and draw Tory eyes away from it) because the geo-strategic reality of Brexit is too painful to contemplate. The dynamics of the negotiations have demonstrated relentlessly the imbalance of power between a bloc of 27 countries, negotiating in defence of their combined interests, and a lone state choosing to withdraw from that collective enterprise. The surrender of a seat at the top tables of EU decision-making diminishes British power. Any notional compensation gained in terms of sovereignty will soon be given away again in pursuit of trade agreements, requiring total regulatory submission to other global players. Britain's failure to dictate terms in Brussels through the Article 50 process is just a foretaste of how compromised the country will feel in negotiations with Washington and Beijing.

Quite separate from the economic disadvantages inherent in turning away from the single market, Brexit represents a strategic folly of epic proportions. That is why the only foreign leaders who view it with any enthusiasm are those that relish the unravelling of an international rules-based order. If the prime minister were to give an honest account of the way Britain's departure from the EU fits into a global narrative for the 21st century he would have to explain its utility as an act of mercenary sabotage towards the European project, serving a wrecking agenda common to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Some of Johnson's supporters are quite relaxed about that tacit alliance. Johnson himself seems sufficiently uneasy about it to avoid the subject.

He is fortunate on that front to have a domestic rival who is instinctively hostile to the EU and no friend of the wider institutional apparatus for global governance. Corbyn comes from the hard left tradition that saw the European project through a warped Cold War lens: not a vehicle for peace by means of economic integration but a quasi-imperial device to lock nations into free-market capitalism—Nato's economic partner-in-crime. Labour's pro-EU membership base inhibits the leader's explicit expression of that view, but his ideological Euroscepticism is at the root of his steadfast refusal to issue any full-throated opposition to Brexit. Corbyn's party conference speech this year was also extraordinarily light on foreign policy. No China, India, Russia. The Labour leader cannot articulate a serviceable idea of Britain's role in the world today because that would require some commitment to a model of future relations with the EU. He doesn't have one of those and apparently doesn't want one.

So Corbyn colludes with Johnson in shrinking the nation's horizons, keeping their audiences comfortably numb to the global challenge, blocking out any awkward truths about the complex world outside the conference hall. Meanwhile the page on which Britain's strategic future after Brexit should be written remains blank.