The PM's approach has been “scattered, reactive and random”by Steve Bloomfield / January 21, 2020 / Leave a comment
The problem with Boris Johnson, one senior official who worked closely with him at the foreign office once told me, is that he is “very enthusiastic about what’s in front of him at the moment.” Diplomats who worked with him were endlessly frustrated that he would, as another official put it, “jump from one thing to another.” He reacted to events, but showed little interest in developing a strategy.
It is perhaps not surprising then that a man who left no legacy at the foreign office has shown a similar lack of interest in foreign policy now he has moved across Whitehall to No 10. In his first big foreign policy test as prime minister—the assassination of Iran’s military leader, Qassem Soleimani, and its global fallout—Johnson has been “leading from behind,” Peter Ricketts, a former head of the foreign office, told me. “I’m not sure it works so well,” he added with diplomatic understatement. John Casson, who spent several years as David Cameron’s foreign policy adviser, is similarly unconvinced. “What is his approach to the Middle East? His positioning has been scattered, reactive and random.”
Johnson was on holiday in Mustique when the attack was carried out and refused to come home. In his absence, the foreign office stalled—no one knew the right line to take. “Because we don’t have an agreed strategy with the Americans,” said Ricketts, “nobody had a plan for it.” Would the UK follow the path set out by Theresa May and stick with its European allies? Or would the combination of the lure of a potential trade deal with the US and the fear of what the 45th president of the United States might tweet in anger, draw the UK back across the Atlantic?
Johnson, once he returned, tried to find a middle way. He signed on to a statement by the so-called E3 (UK, France and Germany) that called for de-escalation, but he also tickled the tummy of Trump, using an interview with the BBC to criticise the Iran nuclear deal in terms he would appreciate (“it was negotiated by Obama”) and appealing to the president’s narcissism by praising his dubious deal-making abilities and calling for a “Trump deal.” (The US president, naturally, was…