Not quite yet ensconced in Downing Street and we already have before us the tangled wreckage of the first crisis of the Boris Johnson premiership. It does not augur well.
According to Mr Johnson, who is a keen if not especially skilful political spinner, the person responsible for the premature end of Sir Kim Darroch’s career as HM ambassador to the United States is whoever did the leaking of the Sir Kim’s candid emails about Donald Trump.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
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Both the timing and the political reality point to Mr Johnson himself, and his actions. His failure yesterday evening to back Sir Kim has been followed hours later by Sir Kim’s resignation. That is no coincidence.
Sir Kim knew that, realistically, there is virtually nothing now stopping Mr Johnson becoming prime minister, and thus, as Mr Johnson himself made plain during the ITV debate, becoming solely responsible for politically sensitive appointments.
Sir Kim rightly discerned that he would most likely be leaving sooner rather than later, and that his sticking around even for a few weeks was no longer in the national interest. So he took the honourable course and quit. The only benefit of that is that it gives Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt an opportunity to replace him with a professional diplomat, rather than some Trump-friendly Brexiteer fantasist. We can only hope Ms May spends her last weeks in power preventing this crisis turning into an even greater disaster.
Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister of state who has served under Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt, has an opinion typical of the view in Westminster: it is Mr Johnson’s fault, whoever did the leaking in the first place. As Sir Alan put it, Sir Kim was thrown “under a bus” by Mr Johnson’s desire to indulge President Trump’s childish demands, and he has thereby humiliated Britain.
Mr Johnson might say that it’s all to protect the “special relationship”, to which the obvious riposte must be, why would you want a relationship that is so “special” in such an unhappy way? In Sir Alan’s words, this was “contemptible negligence” on Mr Johnson’s part, to serve his own personal interests. Ms May suggested Mr Johnson “will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure”.
Mr Johnson, biographer of Winston Churchill and patriotic dreamer, would no doubt like to recreate the partnership between Churchill and President Roosevelt that saved democracy in the Second World War, and strengthen what he says is the defining international alliance of the past century or so. Well, Mr Johnson is no Winston Churchill, and Donald J Trump is no Franklin D Roosevelt.
Times have changed, however, since the days of the Atlantic Charter, and America’s willingness to be the arsenal of democracy and defender of western liberal values. In Mr Trump they have a leader who undermines the very institutions that were built on the wartime alliance, particularly Nato, but also those devoted to free trade (the World Trade Organisation) and international cooperation (the United Nations).
Britain, for its part, has, over the past half century or so, forged an ever deeper economic and political partnership with its closest neighbours on the continent. The ties of sentiment, culture and loyalty with America forged over decades, most recently seen in the D-Day commemorations, are worth cherishing and strengthening; but they are no substitute for the hard work of a medium-sized economy off the European mainland trying to earn a living in the world. Nostalgia won’t pay Britain’s import bills.
So this wistful transatlantic love affair will not form a reliable foundation for British foreign policy under Mr Johnson or any other leader. The US is not a substitute for the EU, as Mr Johnson and Nigel Farage often suggest. Under an “America First” president, the pursuit of the US national interest will be brutal and, unlike the EU, the UK will have no votes at the table, and precious little influence. If there is ever a trade deal, it will be on America’s terms or not at all. Ask the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Japanese and indeed the EU about how America goes about negotiations – hike tariffs and ask questions later.
With America going cold on Nato, Europe, including Britain, needs to look to its own resources to protect itself. And yet now Britain seems ready to sever its links with its closest allies.
Even that, though, is not the most worrying thing about a Johnson premiership, soon to be grim reality. Mr Johnson seems uninterested in policy or detail. He specifically disdains the “managerial” style of politics that he sees in Mr Hunt and Ms May. He is the rhetorician, the wit, the raconteur, the optimist, who can make us “believe in Britain” and achieve great things. He is not the man, however, who is well qualified to deliver them, despite his deep reserves of self-belief.
Mr Johnson enjoys debate, campaigning, speechifying and being out on the stump; he seems to have something of a horror about the serious responsibilities of office, the “managerial” part of the job he no doubt finds tedious beyond words. In that respect, the Conservative Party is choosing the diametric opposite to Ms May, a woman visibly unhappy at meeting the voters and much more at home with a pile of red boxes and civil service briefs to plough through before supper.
When his one-time ally Michael Gove decided to stab him in the front and end his bid for the premiership in 2016 it was because he had “come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. Mr Gove was right then, and right now.
The Johnson argument goes that the managerial style had failed us, and it is time to replace the dull prosaic May years with the bright poetry of the age of Boris. Perhaps so, but in his gaffe-prone, disaster-strewn, personally colourful, occasionally mendacious career as a journalist and politician as mayor of London and foreign secretary, the chances of him forging a deal with the austere managerial enarque-types of Brussels seem slim indeed.
It would be ironic, if fitting, if his own career as prime minister was cut short by his own manifest failings, and by Brussels’ rejection of him as a suitable man to deal with, requesting instead that the UK send them someone less wacky, and who doesn’t believe that the French are “turds”.