Boris Johnson an Undiplomatic Pick as Britain’s Top Diplomat

Brexit Aftermath: Theresa May's Cabinet Changes
  • Former mayor said Kenyan ancestry affected Obama view of U.K.
  • Also compared EU to Hitler, Clinton to mental hospital nurse

Boris Johnson, who led the successful campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, was appointed foreign secretary by new Prime Minister Theresa May, two weeks after she mocked his negotiating skills.

Johnson, who’s left a trail of gaffes when talking about foreign affairs, is a surprise choice as Britain’s chief diplomat. Earlier this year he accused U.S. President Barack Obama of disliking Britain’s imperial legacy because of his “part-Kenyan” ancestry. During the referendum campaign, he compared the EU to one of Adolf Hitler’s projects.

But he’ll be taking control of a ministry with diminished powers: May has appointed a separate minister to take charge of negotiating the Brexit, and created a new department for international trade.

“If you’re thinking about giving someone a job they can burn up in and yet not do any damage to the government’s electoral fortunes, that’s the one,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in a telephone interview. “His role will now be glorified trade promotion and PR.”

It is the first job in government for Johnson, who finished his second term as London Mayor earlier this year. After David Cameron quit as prime minister, Johnson’s campaign to succeed him ended on the same day as it began when he lost the backing of his principal supporter, Michael Gove.

“We have a massive opportunity in this country to make a great success of our new relationship with Europe and the world,” Johnson told Sky News after his appointment. “I’m excited to be asked to play a part in that.”

For Johnson, who was born in New York, the fence-mending may have to start in Washington. He once compared Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate for president, to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and said she is “everything I came into politics to oppose.” An editorial when Johnson was in charge of the Spectator magazine described President George W Bush as a “cross-eyed Texan warmonger” who “epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy.”

The U.S. is “always going to be able to work with the British no matter who is occupying the role of foreign secretary,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington. The relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. “goes beyond personalities,” he said. “We look forward to engaging with Boris Johnson.”

Johnson also has bridges to build beyond the U.S. and EU. He referred to Africans as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in a newspaper column in 2002, apologizing six years later. He’s also compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to “Dobby the House Elf” in the Harry Potter films and called him “a ruthless and manipulative tyrant.”

‘Likely Rival’

When she launched her own Tory leadership campaign, May made fun of Johnson’s negotiations with Germany when he was a mayor.

“I seem to remember the last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannons,” she said. May, as home secretary, refused to let him use them.

Johnson was most famous for his appearances on a comedy TV show before becoming London mayor in 2008, and his popularity with rank-and-file Conservatives is cemented every year with his performances as the star turn at the party’s annual conference.

His support among Tory Party members -- he was favorite to be prime minister before Gove torpedoed his bid for the party leadership -- meant May had to give him a job. It was in her interests to do so anyway, said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham.

If Johnson remained outside government, “people could point and say it’d be better under him,” Fielding said. “She’s protected herself from a likely rival. He’s implicated and neutralized at the same time.”

‘Trump With Thesaurus’

Johnson more than anyone shaped British cynicism towards the EU during the 1990s through his work as a reporter in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, writing stories about bureaucracy and petty regulations -- some of which he cheerfully admitted were untrue.

Sacked from the Times newspaper as a cub reporter for making up a quote, and fired as a Conservative spokesman for lying over an extra-marital affair in 2004, Johnson has a colorful past which might have fatally damaged other politicians. But his use of humor and Latin quotations to get out of sticky situations has endeared him to voters.

During the referendum campaign, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described him as “Donald Trump with a thesaurus.”’

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