Is Boris Johnson a Liability Theresa May Can’t Do Without?

Britain’s foreign secretary has plenty of critics, but he may yet be an indispensable part of the Brexit story.

Eccentric, underwhelming and out of his depth. 

Those are just some of the charges leveled at Boris Johnson eight months into his job as U.K. foreign secretary. As geopolitical crises pile up from Russia to Syria, his critics whisper about eccentric performances at Cabinet, off-the-cuff remarks and his inability to deliver on sweeping pledges to slam more sanctions on Moscow. 

Chatter like that raises questions over whether Theresa May is losing confidence in her attention-seeking top diplomat at a time when she’s trying to focus on Brexit. A shake-up of her team this summer would give the prime minister the opportunity to demote him, one minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attends a cabinet meeting held by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, left, at Chequers.
Photographer: WPA Pool via Getty Images

But even after bruising criticism back home over his failure to secure agreement on new sanctions against Russia from the Group of Seven, Johnson’s position is stronger than it seems. May, an opponent of Brexit who now finds herself implementing it, needs the face of the ‘Leave’ campaign at her side, to reassure hardliners that she’s sticking to the course.

“Of all the leading figures, Boris probably did more to swing voters than anyone else,” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University. “They need him to go round saying that this is a proper Brexit. And in the same vein, they need him not to be on the outside saying that it’s not.”

An endorsement from Johnson — if and when May gets a Brexit deal — will help offset the inevitable rebuke from those who want even greater separation. 

Johnson meets in his office with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in July 2016. 
Photographer: WPA Pool via Getty Images

While he occupies one of the best offices in the British government — a vast corner affair, furnished with the treasures of the Empire — Johnson’s current post has some of the qualities of a gilded cage. He has few domestic responsibilities and May handles the more high-profile diplomatic missions personally, such as the U.S. and more recently the Middle East. Brexit and trade negotiations — the biggest diplomatic challenges Britain has faced in decades — have been given their own departments.

That leaves the foreign secretary frequently deployed to countries in Africa, a way to effectively keep him busy and away from the center of power, according to two government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. It’s true that he’s one of the five people on the Cabinet subcommittee handling the divorce talks negotiations with the European Union, but for May not to have included her foreign secretary in this group would have been unthinkable.

Johnson, more known for his wit than his diplomacy, has committed a string of gaffes in his new role. Five months into the job, he warned France’s Francois Hollande — president of a country that was occupied by Germany during World War II — against behaving like a Nazi in a movie.

In private, he has also caused colleagues to raise their eyebrows.

According to one account of a cabinet meeting early in the year, Johnson proposed sending a Hercules plane to drop aid supplies to Syrian rebels without first securing safe passage from Russia, according to an official who declined to be named. When Johnson was told such a move would risk the aircraft being shot down, he suggested flying a fleet of unmanned drones over Aleppo, or driving a truck across the border.  

In response, a spokesman for Johnson said “we have always been very clear that we want to ensure the aid gets to the innocent people of Syria caught up in Assad's barbaric war. However, we don't recognize this account of any conversations.”

“Since the jaw-dropping moment that he became foreign secretary, there’s been a school of thought that he’s completely unfit for the post,” said Andrew Gimson, author of a 2012 biography of the former mayor of London and one-time aspiring prime minister. “Even people who think highly of him think he’s got to change his tone of voice.”

The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson made his name with colorful reports from Brussels, has also turned on him, with an opinion piece entitled “Boris Johnson must learn not to make idle threats.” This from a paper that until 12 months ago was paying him more than 250,000 pounds ($312,000) a year.

In spite of all this, Johnson shouldn’t be written off. He remains one of the country’s best-known politicians, in the elite group identified mainly by their first name. 

His prominence in the Leave campaign may have broken his usual rule of trying to be liked by all, but arguably his early equivocation on the issue of Brexit, before he finally came down on one side, puts him in much the same place as the British public, which narrowly voted to leave. His last attempt to be prime minister may have blown up on the launchpad, but he remains the bookmakers’ favorite to replace May.

As for the sanctions setback, Johnson has come back from far worse. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who previously held Johnson’s job, jumped in to shield him from detractors who said he had embarrassed the U.K. over Syria. “Sometimes some of our partners are less forward-leaning than we are,” Hammond told Sky News.

Johnson arrives at the Foreign Office in London on July 15, 2016.
Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“It would be ridiculous to write him off,” said Gimson. “He’s a very quick learner, and he won’t want to make a mistake like this again.”

For now, his future is in the hands of May, who has shown ambivalence in the past toward a man who was a rival once, and could be again. At an awards lunch in November she showed him who was boss while talking about an Alsatian that was in the news for having been killed.

“Boris,” she said, looking directly at him: “the dog was put down when its master decided it wasn’t needed any more.”