We learn that Boris Johnson has supposedly committed another gaffe, in being recorded at a conference abroad claiming that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are “puppeteering” and waging “proxy wars”. We know this must be a gaffe or a diplomatic failure on his part because in sombre tones the BBC in the latest news reports deems it to be so, reporting that it creates awkward questions for the government. But does it? Really? No, don’t be daft.
In the age of Trump, when the President-elect of Twitter almost daily tears up diplomatic norms and implies he will junk entire treaties, Boris Johnson being caught on tape by The Guardian saying what is true about Saudi Arabia barely counts. After the events of the last year it can hardly be said to be remotely shocking or disappointing.
Incidentally, for once Trump himself was spot on when it came to the question of Taiwan. Anyone finding it horrifying that he talked to the Taiwanese leadership in supposed breach of protocol needs to pull themselves together. The Chinese government has had it its own way for far too long, whether it is in terms of Western leaders humiliating their countries by kow-towing or with Chinese companies stealing intellectual property and technology and exploiting open markets in the West that it will not open properly at home to Western firms. Terrible Trump is onto them, which is a rare shaft of light in the darkness.
Equally, the statement by Boris that the Saudis and Iran are fighting proxy wars and puppeteering is not, or should not, be remotely controversial. It is simply true, in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, as the BBC’s Justin Webb pointed out when interviewing an analyst who thought it was true but that Boris should not say so, because… protocol. This is classic British Establishment balls. Such a truthful statement by Boris in no way contradicts the possibility of the British government legitimately supporting – reluctantly even – the Saudis in their vile efforts in Yemen, because the alternative is an extension of the Iranian regime’s influence, the last thing needed.
But this fair interpretation of his latest comments runs counter to the orthodoxy which states that Boris is a national embarrassment when he is not. Every quirk, interesting remark, and flash of humour, must be blown up out of proportion to fit the narrative that he should not be in post. Especially valued are examples of a few foreign diplomats and ministers being rude about him, perhaps on the basis of them having been briefed about other such reports which they then parrot. There were even reports published recently that friends of Boris had asked people to stop laughing at him if they want Britain to get a good deal on Brexit, which sounds much more like it came from enemies of Boris who know exactly what they’re about.
There is a campaign running against Boris as Foreign Secretary, which is fine up to a point. No-one forced him to take the job. He is a big beast who mauled plenty of politicians in print when he rampaged across the pages of The Daily Telegraph, and must expect to be a target in high office.
Even so, the campaign against him is reaching levels of intensity and silliness which suggest that his enemies – internally and externally – have figured out that if Theresa May fails on Brexit and falls then a Leaver (and Boris is King Leaver) will most likely be the next Tory leader. If he can be made at every stage to look naive or ill-equipped for serious office then it might reduce his chances of becoming Prime Minister.
Running contrary to the campaign is the feedback from MPs on the foreign affairs beat. Boris seems to be a breath of fresh air in his willingness in private to talk and think the big subjects through with officials and MPs. He is interested in the world and in history, which is a lot more than can be said for some of his predecessors who have occupied that office since New Labour took over in 1997. Johnson’s critics will scoff at that, but then his critics cannot allow for the possibility that it is true when it is not in their interests and they are determined to stop him.
In this row there is an echo of Trump, of course. Although they are entirely different characters, both break with protocol and challenge norms. While Trump does it in a wild way, and Boris is almost conventional in comparison to the President-elect, they share an instinct and understanding that the supposed rules as dictated by the established media, with its attempts to define what is a gaffe and control the terms of debate, are all but meaningless when voters have lost faith in the media arbiters of taste and protocol. It did not work against Trump in the US. It will be interesting to see if it works in Britain against Boris.