For many outside the United Kingdom, the June 23 EU referendum was a quaint exercise; the reasons why it was being held were not exactly clear; few could imagine the EU project without Britain, one of its largest economies and donors. It became interesting when Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who built his political career on wit and the image of a lovable rogue, led the Brexit camp, and won big. It is a different matter that hours before he announced his support for the Brexit camp, he was a confirmed pro-European and had agonised much over the decision. He became the favourite as the next prime minister, until his Brexit partner Michael Gove sabotaged him, and finally both fell on their own swords, paving the way for Theresa May. Now resurrected as the foreign secretary, Johnson’s appointment has predictably been received with much mirth and moans in European capitals and elsewhere.
For one, there is a list of Boris blunders that have riled people on the international stage: Calling US President Barack Obama a ‘half-Kenyan’ and Hillary Clinton a ‘sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’; penning a rude poem about Turkish president Erdogan; making a wild claim about China during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Some believe that Johnson has not outgrown his raucous Bullingdon Club days in Oxford, others claim his remarks are made more in jest and should not be taken seriously, but not many in the subtle world of diplomacy share his enthusiasm for wordplay. Once based in Brussels as a foreign correspondent, Johnson has a love-hate relationship with Europe, which comes across clearly in his popular Monday column in a leading newspaper, and many are right to wonder if he is the right person to be interacting with Brussels as the foreign secretary of a Brexit government.
May has certainly pulled a surprise by appointing Johnson, but a closer look reveals that it may have more to do with her attempt to unite a divided Conservative party riven by the referendum. May was in the Remain camp, but now has to lead Britain out of the EU. Other key appointments have already gone to leading Brexiters. Given the division of labour, Johnson may actually not have much to do, since the Foreign Office has already been downsized over the years: it is not in charge of international aid, nor of Brexit (to be handled by a new department), nor of international trade (led by Brexiter Liam Fox). And it is a truism that foreign affairs are always directed and led by the prime minister. As the mayor of London, he was more of a charismatic and showy salesman, and by all accounts, he did a good job of that, but much will depend on how May uses his services and whether he becomes an asset or a liability.