It is a reflection on Boris Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary that he managed to blow up the Foreign Office’s big symbolic effort of 2018 designed to show the UK will remain an active participant in European affairs after Brexit.
Less than two hours before he was to host a conference in east London highlighting how the UK remained committed to helping the fragile west Balkan states in their quest for EU membership, he decided to quit. It was just one more discourtesy in a profession dedicated to courtesy. The EU ambassador at 3pm tweeted impatiently “still waiting for our host”.
Few Foreign Office civil servants will mourn his departure, finding him as they did a frustrating figure that, at a time of unprecedented challenge for UK foreign policy, could not apply himself with any consistency or purpose to any task.
Often, in relation to Brexit, the issue that truly motivated him, he left the civil service in the dark. On the eve of the UN general assembly last year, a critical week in the Foreign Office calendar, Johnson chose to write a long article for the Telegraph about Brexit.
Team meetings designed to work out jointly with Johnson what the big issues he wished to address often ended not in disarray, but indecision, as Johnson refused to pin himself down. One minute, his theme was to be human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Other plans seemed micro – the ivory trade – but none ever took off. For such a fine wordsmith, he emerged to be oddly unsuited to the art of persuasion. Even his promise of a series of speeches setting out the meaning of ”Global Britain”, his vision for a buccaneering Britain post-Brexit, was half-launched, fizzled for a few days and then died.
At the turn of the year, he vowed the great issue of his era was the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but soon afterwards he had little to say, but to support the Saudi-UAE coalition once they decided to attack the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, he huffed hot and cold on the future of Bashar al-Assad. On Myanmar, he was more cautious than his junior minister to blame Aung San Suu Kyi for the human rights abuses.
More than any other cabinet minister, he took a strategic bet on Donald Trump, incorrectly predicting that the US president could be brought round to British thinking on climate change, Iran and trade wars. Famously he described Trump as a typical New York liberal, a grotesque misreading. Criticism of Trump’s election in his words was “whingerama”.
But Trump’s unpredictability left Johnson badly exposed as the twin postwar moorings of UK foreign policy – Europe and the transatlantic partnership – were simultaneously cast adrift.
Instead Johnson will be remembered for his gaffes. Perhaps the most serious was the suggestion the British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Tehran, a remark that may well have led to extra charges being laid against her by the Iranians.
But his tasteless remark at the Conservative party conference over the stepping over of bodies in Libya also caused deep offence. He spoke of a group of entrepreneurs that “literally have a vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai – the only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”
In January 2017, he compared François Hollande, then French president, to a prisoner of war guard, and at the Munich security conference he pronounced the UK’s departure from the EU would be a liberation, even though in Germany the EU is seen as a guarantor against the return of the horrors of the past.
But Johnson had started at a disadvantage. As the key figure in the leave campaign, he had few natural allies in Europe, but was instead resented for traducing the European idea.
Often he seemed just unmotivated. He attended a conference in Helsinki last week on Ukraine and even in his unscripted remarks he showed no urgency about the threat posed by Russia, starting instead with an anecdote about seeing some naked swimmers as he went for his morning jog. If there was a British communications strategy for the Ukraine, it was lost.
Even his recent lightning visit to Afghanistan – a long way to go to avoid being forced to resign over Heathrow airport – had no discernible purpose, except to keep him out of the country.
To the extent there is a legacy, Johnson did help construct a strong diplomatic alliance against Russia in the wake of the Skripal poisoning. But even this was as much the work of the Cabinet Office, as the Foreign Office.
The new foreign secretary faces a task to repair the damage wrought by a distracted man that ultimately, whatever his personal charm, should never have been asked to take the helm at King Charles Street.