The Shadow of Boris Johnson

The former foreign secretary was steering a diminished Britain—and may have helped accelerate its decline.

Boris Johnson raises his hand in a fist while standing with his wife outside a polling station on the day of the Brexit vote.
A victorious Boris Johnson and his wife, Marina Wheeler, after voting "leave" in June 2016 (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

It’s not hard to discern the similarities between President Donald Trump, who is visiting the U.K. this week following the NATO summit, and Boris Johnson, who resigned as the U.K. foreign secretary on Monday. The two share an affinity for offensive language and alienating their colleagues, and a casual disregard for the facts, among other traits. They also appear to share a mutual affection—Johnson, who quit because of the apparent belief that Prime Minister Theresa May was not pursuing a hard enough version of Brexit, reportedly mused at a private dinner: “Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.” Trump, for his part, called Johnson a “friend” earlier this week, and said he might meet with him while he is in the U.K.

Which would be a little odd, since Johnson is no longer in charge of the U.K.’s foreign policy. Indeed, his short tenure as the U.K. foreign secretary, characterized more by gaffes than by major accomplishments, is an apt reflection of the diminished state of the U.K. on the global stage. Trump’s visit, coming so soon after a contentious meeting of America’s traditional allies, serves to highlight the chaos that has characterized the politics of post-Brexit Britain and helped weaken its international standing. Johnson, as a champion of Brexit and an ineffectual foreign secretary, is emblematic of that process.

The tenor of his short term became apparent early on, when, for instance, Johnson hosted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) annual open house. Welcoming the public into the building, the newly minted foreign secretary expressed his regrets that he could not show visitors his own favorite room, “the little antechamber which absolutely nobody sees, which I think is the foreign secretary’s dressing room, which contains all manner of delights which I unfortunately can’t, for security reasons, reveal to you,” he said. “But Palmerston the cat—a very famous cat—much prefers the stairs, where you’ll often see him licking his paws, and other things, in the sunshine.”

The “little antechamber” was just one of many secrets that Johnson kept during his two years as foreign secretary: the most important, of course, being what his foreign policy actually was. He seemed to have no plan for Brexit, which he had helped make a political reality. Having sold it, however, he would ultimately resign rather than implement a model he disliked—one that deviated from his own vision of a “glorious” Brexit. “He will be remembered as the person who clinched the Brexit vote,” said Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Institute for Government, an independent, cross-party think tank. “That was the high point of his popularity … It’s been downhill from there.”

In a way, it was appropriate that Johnson ascended to the top of the Foreign Office after the referendum to leave the EU: Brexit effectively meant that Britain suddenly lacked a pillar of its prior foreign policy, and Johnson, who revels in unknowns, would have found plenty of them in his new job.

Johnson’s gaffes have been well-documented, which leaves open the question: What, concretely, did he accomplish during his tenure? Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has succeeded Johnson, thanked him Monday for his key foreign-policy achievement—his effort to rally more than 20 nations to expel Russian diplomats after the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury. But “to say that is kind of damning with faint praise,” said David Edgerton, a historian of modern Britain at King’s College London. And even that accomplishment was accompanied by a damaging gaffe, when Johnson seemed to mischaracterize the state of the evidence linking the crime to Russia. (Johnson told a reporter that scientists at the U.K.’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down were “absolutely categorical” in linking the poison to Russia, a claim that Porton Down’s chief executive publicly denied.)

“Johnson is clearly the least substantial foreign minister that we’ve had in the [past] century—and we’ve had a drunk, Lord George-Brown,” Edgerton said. (Lord George-Brown, who served as foreign minister from 1966 to 1968, was twice convicted of drunk driving.)

Yet Johnson also fit the longer-term pattern of decline in British foreign policy. The FCO, which once served as the bureaucratic heart of the British Empire, has been growing gradually weaker over the past several decades, as the U.K. has begun to turn away from European politics. Over time it has become “less cool,” as Maddox put it, for diplomats to hop on the Eurostar to Brussels. The ministry’s funding has been gradually cut since 2009, its ranks depleted, with fewer foreign postings available. “It’s not a happy organization. It’s been downgraded,” said James Hoare, a former consul general at the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Brexit meant that it lost what Anand Menon, the director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe initiative, called one of “the jewels in its crown, the U.K. representation in Brussels.” In March, Johnson attempted to compensate for this loss by announcing a massive expansion of the FCO’s diplomatic presence abroad, championing the creation of 250 new posts and 10 new sovereign missions meant to spread the U.K.’s  “buccaneering spirit.” But with Brexit still in the works and the FCO in flux, it’s unclear what policy the new recruits are meant to promote.

As a result of its gradual turn away from Europe, Britain has lost its formerly in-depth knowledge of “what European capitals are thinking,” in Maddox’s words. And Johnson did nothing to correct that. As for engagement with the rest of the world, his proclivity for stereotyping foreigners—for instance, with his limerick ridiculing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or his reading of a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem to dignitaries in Myanmar—in Maddox’s view “made things worse.” Johnson found the FCO hollowed out, and instead of rebuilding it and helping explain the British point of view to the world, he created gratuitous strains with other countries.

At the precise moment when Johnson assumed office, Prime Minister Theresa May also diminished the state of the Foreign Office bureaucratically. She created two new ministries, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, that subsumed many of the traditional responsibilities of the Foreign Office. The restructuring seemed to match Johnson’s apparent lack of enthusiasm about the job.

Still, it would have been a uniquely difficult job no matter what, given the state of British politics. “To be fair to Johnson, no other ministry has been governing either,” Menon said. “It’s not unique to the Foreign Office; we just don’t have a functioning government at the moment.”

Johnson came to political prominence during his two terms as mayor of London, from 2008 to 2016; according to James Kirkup of the centrist think tank the Social Market Foundation, he essentially led by “selling and talking.” That strategy worked fine for him as mayor, but less so as foreign secretary, a post that required him to sell the prime minister’s vision instead of his own. Johnson ultimately failed to articulate a coherent plan for a post-Brexit U.K., choosing instead to outline a notion of a “global Britain” that nostalgically invoked the British Empire’s 19th-century colonial exploits. His imperial rhetoric came through explicitly in his resignation letter to May, in which he warned that her vision of a “soft Brexit” meant that “we are truly headed for the status of colony—and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement.”

“He’s one of those people who tends to believe that the British Empire was great,” Menon said. But Brexit “is not like being a colony, because being a colony is not something you choose.”

If Johnson now seeks higher office as many suspect he will (he has long wanted to be prime minister), his undistinguished tenure in his last job may well thwart him. Which is not to say he leaves behind no legacy.

“I think he won’t be remembered as a foreign secretary,” Edgerton said. “He’ll be remembered as an indicator of how British politics lost the plot.”