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Hotspot Special: Boris Johnson

Hotspot Special: Boris Johnson
25 Jul
As Britain’s newest prime minister begins his tenure, Geographical’s geopolitical expert, Klaus Dodds, looks into Boris Johnson’s political past to see what it reveals about his possible future

Deliver, Unite and Defeat. With his customary brio, Boris Johnson, Britain’s latest UK prime minister, promised to do three things; deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn at the next general election. At least one of the three has to be delivered by Halloween.

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His elevation to first party leader and thereafter prime minister was achieved by a mere 92,153 votes. By securing a crushing victory over his rival Jeremy Hunt, he secured his spot to be the successor to Theresa May. While Brexit is on his mind, the pending tray for the PM is full of tricky foreign policy issues ranging from the worsening relationship with Iran to navigating a future for a country caught up in the potential endpoint for the post-1945 international politico-economic order. President Trump can be your friend on Twitter, but he might not be so accommodating when it comes to the fine print of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.

Does Boris Johnson’s brief tenure as the foreign secretary give us cause for hope? He was foreign secretary for two years. Appointed by Theresa May in July 2016, he was one of a number of prominent pro-Brexit appointees (the others included Michael Gove, Liam Fox and David Davies), tasked with helping the UK prepare for departure from the EU. The position of foreign secretary was arguably less prominent than it had been in the past because Brexit was a primary matter for the newly established Brexit secretary (David Davis was the first occupant between July 2016 and 2018) and Liam Fox, another prominent Brexiteer, was appointed the secretary of state for international trade. May, a well-known Remainer, used ministerial appointments to ensure that those Conservative MPs who had campaigned strongly for Brexit in the 2016 referendum were directly involved in the Article 50 negotiations.

Initially, there was excitement about Johnson’s appointment in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Johnson was a very different ministerial appointment to his predecessor, Philip Hammond. In the past, the post had attracted leading political figures from both Conservative and Labour including David Owen, Geoffrey Howe, Robin Cook and William Hague. Some British prime ministers have been former foreign secretaries, including James Callaghan and John Major. But few came to the post with the same public reputation for indiscretion and ill-judged comments about others. Johnson’s critics recalled, for example that he had been rude about President Obama, dismissive of the European Union and while writing for the Daily Telegraph in 2002 described the Queen’s like for the Commonwealth because it provides her with ‘regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’. ‘Piccaninny’ is a racial slur against black people and the offending article was made worse by his referencing to ‘watermelon smiles’.

Johnson’s time as foreign secretary was mired in controversyJohnson’s time as foreign secretary was mired in controversy, especially in dealings with the EU

The BBC documentary about his tenure as foreign secretary was not flattering. Inside the Foreign Office, however, revealed his capacity for revelling in attention, being impatient with detail and eager to make a good impression on his hosts. But what it also reminded us that Britain’s newest prime minister is deeply nostalgic (he wants, like Margaret Thatcher, to ‘put the Great back into Great Britain’) and attentive at the same time to building his brand on social media and entertainment television. No other political figure gets called by his second name ‘Boris’ (his first name is Alexander), and no other politician had quite the same public profile. While he is not the first senior political figure to cut a public figure through his writings (older readers might recall the ‘diaries’ and books that were written by leading figures such as Anthony Crossland, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins, Peter Carrington), he has crafted and curated a comedic and shambolic persona. It is easy to google Boris Johnson’s notable quotes and memorable public performances.

Johnson’s foreign policy is going to be inevitably shaped by Brexit and the long-term aftermath. He will discover that ‘political will’ alone is not going to reduce the complexities at stake. Channelling his inner Winston Churchill, the American-born Johnson has received the imprimatur of Donald Trump but however warm the social media endorsement may be, the Anglo-American special relationship is a one-sided affair. Johnson is no James Bond. We don’t get to tell Felix Leiter what to do. Johnson, like his hero Churchill, will want to emphasise the English-speaking peoples and hope that the Anglosphere will deliver. The Commonwealth is no match for the United States and the EU when it comes to the UK’s trading relationships. Johnson might think England’s recent world cup cricket triumph is a good omen; the reality is that countries such as Australia, Pakistan, India, and New Zealand have their own priorities and conceits.

Brexit protestorsJohnson’s maiden speech as PM spoke of ‘uniting the country’ but with positions so firmly entrenched, that’s no easy – even impossible – task

We know less about Johnson’s strategy for a world that is arguably turning away from the international order curated by the United States in the post-1945 era. The US, China and Russia are all ‘disruptive powers’, and the UK will have to work out fast how the UK is to negotiate trade protectionism, populism and nationalism in other countries, and geopolitical fracture around the world. Johnson is on record as saying that he is instinctively ‘pro-China’ and impressed by the Belt and Road Initiative. His time as Mayor of London will have been instructive as he was no doubt told many times about the importance of Chinese investment and number of its students attending UK universities. This might act as a cautionary note to those who might wish the current prime minister to speak up about the ongoing struggles in Hong Kong to secure political autonomy and cultural distinctiveness from mainland China.

Having a can-do attitude is one thing, getting to implement the doing is going to be a lot harder in a world that is being buffeted by competing visions about how to find your way in the world. Johnson has set himself an ambitious agenda; uniting a divided country, delivering a post-Brexit arrangement with the UK’s biggest trading partner, and defeating internal and external opposition to his premiership.

As we enter the second half of 2019, we could well be faced with a new general election and further delay to the UK’s departure to Brexit. Or Johnson could be right; the UK is leaving the EU and about to go where none have gone before.

Klaus Dodds is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (purchase via Amazon here)

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