What is the point of the foreign secretary?
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.