What is the point of the foreign secretary?

Glen Newey

So Boris Johnson is the foreign secretary. Heir to the mantle of such as Castlereagh, Palmerston and Halifax. Christ. It hasn't taken long for the new PM to stiletto expectations. If there was one by-blow of Brexit that could command general approbation, it was surely the toppling of Johnson, a clown with a plank who belatedly discovered the plank could do some damage, before getting a pratfall from his straight man. Now Theresa May's spoiled even that.

But May's move, seemingly counter-intuitive, has its reasons. As its name still suggests, the Foreign and Commonwealth (formerly India) Office is a relic of empire. What is the point of the foreign secretary? It's largely a matter of needing to be seen to have one, a pointless curlicue blazoned on Brits' post-imperial delusions. David Davis as Brexit minister will do the heavy lifting. Liam Fox is secretary for international trade, Michael Fallon secretary for defence. Together they bag most of the stuff to do with foreigners.

Has Johnson got even the little it takes to do this non-job? Some doubt it. A few months back the Spectator, in the person of righter-than-thou Douglas Murray (Eton and Oxford), ran a limerick competition to insult President Erdoğan which – in the way of these things, ex-Spectator editor Johnson (Eton and Oxford) won. His squib:

There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats,
With the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

It's said that by stooping to pen such stuff Johnson has shown himself lacking the gravitas for high office. But previous inmates of the Foreign Office have also fancied themselves as rhymesters. George Canning (Eton and Oxford, since you ask) comes to mind. Canning, later prime minister, served as foreign secretary in the 1820s. Then as now, trade wars loomed large on Britain's to-do list. During a spat with the Netherlands over tariffs, Canning wrote a 'separate, secret and confidential' Foreign Office memo of 26 January 1826:

In matters of commerce the fault of the Dutch
Is giving too little, and asking too much.
The French are with equal advantage content,
So we clap on Dutch bottoms just 20 per cent.

At least it scans. Sadly the talk of 'clap on Dutch bottoms' seems to refer to boats.

May's left-field appointment turns out to be a brilliant coup. By being booted over to the FO (clue's in the abbreviation), Johnson has, as they used to say of IRA weapons caches, been 'put beyond use'. Till the next cluster-blooper makes office untenable even by him, he'll be eking out a twilight existence in business class, fuelled by complimentary peanuts. He'll come out of it fatter than ever and with a carbon footprint the size of Jupiter. But more – much more than this – he'll be out of sight.


  • 14 July 2016 at 1:58pm
    streetsj says:
    I find the vitriol squirted all over Boris slightly puzzling. As far as I'm aware he has never done anything particularly bad in public office (has he?). His poem maybe undiplomatic but I don't believe either Glen or the other like-minded LRB readers approve of Erdogan and he held no office when he wrote it.
    Criticism of him seems to be that he's a buffoon but also a schemer; that he's overtly ambitious but happy to look foolish; that he was a prime Leaver but even worse, he wasn't fanatical about it.
    I don't know him from Adam. What, in my eyes, he seems to have, is an ability to communicate with most people; that he seems decently liberal; he isn't dogmatic; that he has an international outlook.
    It really seems as though the issue Glen and the others have is one of presentation rather than substance. And then, if you argue that he has no substance, what better qualification for being Foreign Secretary that he has the ability to bluster to no particular end.

    • 18 July 2016 at 11:10am
      RosieBrock says: @ streetsj
      I would not have thought bluster is quite what one needs in foreign affairs right now. Mild vitriol is justified because he lead a Brexit campaign for personal, political advantage and lied about the £350 million, That alone should have been challenged in court. He then stepped down with a view to run for the leadership but was shafted. I hear from within his former office, that Boris Johnson did not do much when London Mayor. Competent people who slaved for him did the job. Of course, to be fair, politicians tend not to write their own speeches, and the best parts are written by others. That is probably the one thing that Boris is good at, writing and giving an after-dinner speech for which he would be paid an awful lot of money. as Foreign Secretary however, huge efforts will be made to ensure that the bluster that you refer to will be expunged. However, the hidden microphones will be everywhere he goes. Unlike Prince Philip, May can sack Boris for diplomatic incidents. I suspect the mandarins will be extremely nervous as he tours the world about what he might say next. This is the guy who talked about 'picanninies and watermelon smiles' remember. Clubbable he may be, like Ken Clarke, but when he wrote the squib his club was the Bullingdon. He has not really grown up or grown out of it.

    • 19 July 2016 at 7:07pm
      streetsj says: @ RosieBrock
      I find this upset over the £350m weird. In every election all sides lie about the numbers; and all sides point out the lies of their opponents. The referendum was no different: voters believed what they wanted to believe. (I may well be wrong but I'm not even sure that Boris was particularly associated with the £350m - I remember Gove trying to justify it.)
      Interestingly positive article in the Times today after his first European meeting: "il est formidable" said the Luxembourg foreign minister.

    • 21 July 2016 at 4:30pm
      cwritesstuff says: @ streetsj
      How about this (as a Londoner and follower of Boris' doings):
      1. Doing nothing in particular as Mayor. The things he trumpets (Overground, Bikes, Olympics) were all done by his predecessor. The things he doesn't (massive new towers, little affordable housing) are all done by him.

      2. Outright lies for no reason. He replaced bendy buses, which had good reviews from actual bus users, by claiming they killed cyclists. They didn't. He claimed it would cost nothing to make new Routemasters because other cities would buy it. They didn't. In short, he wasted tens of millions for no reason.

      Lying. Again and again. Making up quotes for the Times (sacked), making up lies about the EU for the Telegraph (got him a column for £250K)

      3. Actual awful things:
      - giving Darius Guppy the details of a journalist, so Guppy could assault him. I have no idea why he wasn't prosecuted for aiding and abetting a crime here
      - insulting racial minorities - picanninies with watermelon smiles for example
      - his relationships with women. I would usually choose not to judge men for their affairs (I'd just everyone if I did). But he has had multiple ones, has denied each (remember Petronella Wyatt being an inverted pyramid of piffle?) and has fathered children he has treated terribly. There are reports of him getting a mistress pregnant (does Eton has sex education?) and suggesting to her that she have another affair and pass it off as the second chap's kid.

      4. Having no principles
      - He clearly doesn't want to leave the EU. Evidence, other than his Telegraph column the Monday after and his ghastly pallor the day after?
      - He previously said Brexit would leave "the government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country”"

    • 21 July 2016 at 4:31pm
      cwritesstuff says: @ streetsj
      Is it really that weird? Of course "all politicians lie", but this was a very specific statement which turned out to be completely untrue. There was no deniability, no prevarication, it was just a lie.

      And people voted solely because of that lie. That's the difference.

      Of course Johnson was associated with it.

  • 14 July 2016 at 3:18pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Now that Glen Newey has opened up the floodgates of limerick aiming its shafts at you-know who, I submit my modest effort (scansion not fully guaranteed – but, hey, I’m no poet).

    Part Brit, French and part Turk
    But always completely a jerk
    Boris is now FO to many’s dismay
    A clever ruse by Ms. May just yesterday
    To keep him away from real work

    Sticking strictly to the humorous side of things, I note that over here during the past week I’ve come across some uproarious material about The Donald, with a few Borisovian links. Some wag wrote that Boris seemed to be wearing Trump’s hair-do backwards. In USA Today (which is distributed as a national and international news insert in many local newspapers) there was an article a few days ago about the history of Trump’s prodigious litigiousness. In a case dismissed by a judge as lacking merit, he once sued the comedian Bill Maher for a riposte to his ridiculous efforts to prove that there was something fishy about Obama’s US citizenship. Maher offered Trump a cash award if he could produce a document that proved he was not the descendant of an orangutan. Harumphing and whining all the way, Trump and his lawyers seemed not to understand that the way the proposition was framed depended on the old saw that it’s impossible to disprove a negative (combining a joke about logic with a light-hearted bit of ad hominem observation).

    I think British comedians are on the eve of a real field day. With those pouty expressions and eye-rolls, surmounted by the flaring hair, Boris has often reminded me of that clever and amusing orangutan, Clyde, who was Clint Eastwood’s companion in several “machismo comedies”.

    • 15 July 2016 at 10:56am
      Greencoat says: @ Timothy Rogers
      'Some wag wrote that Boris seemed to be wearing Trump’s hair-do backwards.'

      If that's your idea of 'uproarious' it looks as though Messrs Johnson and Trump are reasonably safe.

      As for British comedians, they are 'on the eve of a field day' in the same sense that the England football team is.

    • 18 July 2016 at 8:47pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Greencoat
      As to "uproarious", I suppose GC is correct, but my 72-year old brain can't retain every choice little bit of humor directed at Johnson or Trump. As to the two orangutanish gents, they are only as safe as voters allow them to be, and enough voters on an irrational rampage can determine, at least for a while, the tenor of the times - humorists won't bring them down, they've never brought anyone down, but they do provide some solace. If British comedians can't have a field day with this cast of characters (Boris, Gove & Spouse, Inc., and Farage), then that's all to their discredit (but I believe they can and will). British football is beside the point - since when did a "game" become a serious matter (except for those who make money from it)? If you live and die with the fortunes of the home team, your mental horizons have been reduced to that of the village idiot.

  • 14 July 2016 at 3:44pm
    JWA says:
    He'll probably have to visit the Falklands at some point. Poor Boris.

  • 14 July 2016 at 3:49pm
    Graucho says:
    Ever since the result of the referendum was known, the Conservatives have been playing the game of pass the poisoned chalice. As things stand getting on extremely well with non EU countries will be the commercial order of the day. Let's see how he does.

    • 14 July 2016 at 8:53pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      Well, if he's going to make his dream of "Brexit without pain" (or real change), he's got to get along with the EU as well. Being the the recipient of the poisoned chalice seems like just desserts for a man who's poisoned the "get along with the EU" well.

  • 14 July 2016 at 9:21pm
    John Kozak says:
    A roving eye had our Boris,
    Fancied himself the new Horace,
    Qui fit, Maecenas?
    There's nothing between us,
    Said Sally and Jane and Aunt Doris.

  • 14 July 2016 at 11:09pm
    David Timoney says:
    Limericks follow the a-a-b-b-a format, but they are usually consistent in the length of a and b, whether that be 8 & 5 or 9 & 6 (usually determined by the place name at the end of the first line). In other words, a classic limerick would be 8-8-5-5-8. Johnson's winning entry was 10-9-6-6-11, which is all over the place. I suspect this is an omen.

    • 15 July 2016 at 1:16pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ David Timoney
      Complying with the more rigorous standard noted by ATE, I have made the necessary revisions, which do move along, in rhythmic sing-song, though they drop internal rhymes.

      He's part Brit, French and part Turk
      And often a grandstanding jerk
      Named FS today
      By the deft Ms. May
      To keep him away from real work

      And, my apologies to Mr. Newey for leading us down this path toward a bound volume of Boris limericks.

  • 15 July 2016 at 12:00am
    Graucho says:
    Mr Johnson campaigner for Brexit,
    Is stabbed in the back and so legs it,
    But Prime Minister May,
    Forces Boris to stay,
    So he gets the blame if he wrecks it.

  • 15 July 2016 at 4:25am
    Joe Morison says:
    The Blonde Beast, to be be wholly blunt,
    To decency is an affront,
    Truth’s put in remission
    To serve his ambition,
    He’s truly a hideous cunt.

    • 2 August 2016 at 1:29pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Joe Morison

  • 15 July 2016 at 5:52am
    cufflink says:
    It is to be applauded that we now have 'Fun Boat' diplomacy.

  • 15 July 2016 at 11:17am
    Ubique says:
    A PM pretender, defeated,
    Found his δαίμων sadly depleted,
    After being FO’d
    He biked Colebrook Row
    Not having the cake he had eated

    • 18 July 2016 at 9:09pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Ubique
      Dear Mr. Coulter - please explain (or as the lit. profs like to say, "unpack" this one for me -- just so I can get the joke). What does the Greek word mean, and how is it pronounced (amateur phonetic transcription is OK here)? And, because I am not all that familiar with London's neighborhoods, what's the connotation of "Colebrook Row"? Help me stay in the fray while things gang aft agley.

    • 21 July 2016 at 4:32pm
      cwritesstuff says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I can answer Colebrooke Row - the pictures of him being booed and harangued after the referendum were on Colebrooke Row in Islingon, rather near his house.

      There is an excellent cocktail bar at number 69.

  • 15 July 2016 at 3:29pm
    Jonbjoern says:
    There was a blond beast, name of Johnson,
    Who ne'er gave an honest response on
    The matter of Brexit.
    Gove showed him the exit,
    Oh! Would that that had been his swansong!

  • 15 July 2016 at 6:43pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Third go-round (well, the subject is compelling):

    A bad boy named Boris declaimed
    Pouting with his mane all aflame
    We’re not you, old EU
    Tell us not what to do
    And Brexited all in a rush

    • 18 July 2016 at 8:54pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I forgot my a-a-b-b-a (having started out with two 'a's in "near rhyme" with the final line, then changing them without changing the final line (perils of the internet "rush to comment"). So:

      A bad boy named Boris declaimed
      Pouting with his mane all aflame
      We’re not you, old EU
      Tell us not what to do
      Hoping Brexit would lose all the same

    • 19 July 2016 at 6:59pm
      streetsj says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I thought the original was meant to be subversive

    • 20 July 2016 at 2:11pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ streetsj
      I think you're expecting too much from the occasional writer of doggerel verse. Anyway, being "subversive" about Boris seems beside the point, given his life-long pattern of undermining the possibility that people should take him seriously (i.e., he subverts his own career). This leads to the more serious question of why other Tories feel that he must be accommodated rather than ignored or cast out (I assume they think he still has some "shelf life" as a fiery faux-populist).

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