Boris Johnson did not exactly get good press during his first news conference as Britain’s foreign secretary - he ducked and squirmed while US secretary of state John Kerry winced when the leading light of the Brexit campaign was reminded of his “outright lies”.
The grand Locarno Room in the Foreign Office has seen many foreign secretaries and dignitaries, but perhaps no occasion was so uncomfortable as their joint news conference on Tuesday evening, which was telecast live.
So unsettled did Johnson appear that he often referred to the situation in Egypt, when he seemed to mean Turkey, which recently witnessed a bloody failed coup. He tried to bludgeon his way through with his usual bluster but was caught out by journalists.
Asked if he had taken the litany of controversial terms he had used to refer to international leaders in his new role, Johnson looked up and down, for once seeming at a loss for words, before finally insisting he was focussed on his job.
He was reminded by American journalists of his description of US President Barack Obama as “half-Kenyan”, of presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, and of “outright lies” (to Kerry’s grimace) during the Brexit campaign – and asked if he would apologise.
A seemingly chastened Johnson said: “We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years…all of which in my view have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned.”
He added: “There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people when they read these things in their proper context can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well particularly on the international scene.
“We have very serious issues before us today, we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.”
Columnist John Crace wrote in The Guardian: “It’s a bad day when Boris fails even to make himself laugh.”