Friday 22 July 2016

The Price of Schadenfreude

Thanks to Theresa May's "you broke it, you own it" approach to appointing ministers, Boris Johnson now represents Britain as our Foreign Secretary. Our new Prime Minister is displaying a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour.

Boris Johnson (left) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (right, trying not to laugh).
Source: QZ
As I said of Johnson a few weeks ago:

He doesn't want the responsibility of rebuilding British international policy from the ground up; where's the fun in that?

Johnson is about to find out. He has had an uncomfortable start to his time as Foreign Secretary. It turns out the rest of the world takes notice, when you insult and lie about them for fun and profit.

He now has a serious job, in which he must deal with serious people, who are not impressed by his naughty schoolboy act. For one of the least serious people in politics, it will not be a pleasant experience; but the status of the Foreign Office job is such that he couldn't turn it down. After his role in the Leave campaign, Johnson more than deserves his discomfort.

I can't help but enjoy the spectacle; in these times we must find amusement where we can.

I wonder how Johnson's tenure at the Foreign Office will play out. Here are some scenarios, in ascending order of plausibility:

  • He gets a grip. Johnson is a spoiled, self-indulgent, overgrown child, but he is not stupid. It is possible he will commit himself sufficiently to become an adequate Foreign Secretary. Possible, but not likely.
  • He resigns. To reverse Peter Mandelson's famous self-description, Johnson is a quitter, not a fighter. He might find or manufacture some reason to flounce out. What would hold him back? The perks and prestige of being Foreign Secretary, and the certainty of being consigned to a dull life on the back benches for the foreseeable future.
  • He gets fired. May would do this only as a last resort, because she would then have a miffed Johnson with time on his hands to make trouble. She would need an iron-clad reason. Considering some of the things Johnson has already said, it would have to be egregious. Depressingly plausible; I only hope Johnson doesn't do too much damage in the process.
  • He carries on as he is. The long-suffering diplomats at the Foreign Office try and smooth over the consequences of Johnson's blundering. Johnson remains in post until May feels secure enough to remove him; it could happen if she wins an election in her own right, but I think not before then.
Meanwhile, British foreign policy is the laughing stock of the world. This is unfortunate, since it faces greater challenges than at any time since the 1940s. It may be a sort of poetic justice for this multi-millionaire old Etonian; I only hope the rest of us do not pay too high a price.

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