Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May set about building her team to implement the Brexit vote, making a clean break from the past, but her appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary evoked much mirth and moans in European capitals and elsewhere.
The hitherto dominant “Notting Hill set” comprising Tories such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove did not find a place in the new dispensation, as May sacked chancellor Osborne and justice secretary Gove.
She created a new department called “Exiting the European Union” and gave key cabinet portfolios to leading lights of the Brexit camp, including Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. Defence secretary Michael Fallon survived in his post.
As May continued the appointment process on Thursday, Johnson’s appointment was perceived as a joke, ridicule or worse across the world, particularly in the US, Europe and Turkey, where his wit and remarks in the past riled many.
US state department spokesman Mark Toner was hard pressed to suppress a smirk when asked for a reaction to Johnson’s appointment, while former Swedish premier Carl Bildt tweeted: “I wish it was a joke, but I fear it isn’t.”
According to French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Johnson is a liar with his back against the wall. Asked if he was surprised by the appointment, he told French radio: “I don’t know if it surprised me. It’s a sign of the British political crisis that has come out of the referendum vote.”
“During the campaign, you know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall. He is up against it to defend his country and also so that the relationship with Europe is clear,” Ayrault added.
Britons voted on June 23 to exit the European Union, triggering a political crisis that led to the resignation of former premier David Cameron.
Newspapers in Europe, Australia and elsewhere recalled Johnson’s many gaffes on the international stage, and wondered how a person alien to using diplomatic language could represent Britain in hard-nosed diplomatic talks.
Johnson’s gaffes include calling US President Barack Obama ”half-Kenyan“ and Hilary Clinton a ”sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, penning a rude poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and making a wild claim about China during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Newspapers recalled that last week May had ridiculed Johnson’s negotiating skills in Europe by recalling her quote: “Boris negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon.”
Columnist Sonial Purnell wrote in The Guardian: “The new foreign secretary has no ministerial experience, a weakness for headline-grabbing insults of world leaders and a track record of causing upset on overseas trips. Even his recent leave campaign colleagues doubt his credentials as a statesman.”