The appointment of Boris Johnson, as the UK’s new foreign secretary raised a number of eyebrows, with some going so far as to say his appointment personifies the United Kingdom’s diminishing influence on the world stage. However, in the days and weeks that have followed he has cut an altogether different persona to the frivolous, jovial personality we have come to expect. Despite a media barrage of apology requests and highlights of his more colourful comments, Boris has conducted himself in a manner that has reduced his controversial presence. This change of approach could see Boris command more scope to influence in his new role, meaning that his views on foreign policy will be taken far more seriously.
His immediate focus – negotiations with the EU – will undoubtedly test his diplomatic ability, with the likelihood of an involvement in negotiating with the European Union. This immediate period is the acid test for his political future – and will also define the country’s foreign policy position in a post Brexit world. He starts from a position of weakness, with many of his European counterparts highlighting the contentious rhetoric, which was used vociferously during the EU referendum. Whilst he made a firm distinction between leaving the EU and Europe, his contribution could prove divisive among a number of the 27 remaining member states. If Boris cannot aid discussions in tandem with the Prime Minister and Brexit Secretary, key objectives – and maybe his position – will quickly become unattainable.
The continued instability in the Middle East also raises many concerns for him, where the foreign secretary has voiced opinions that contradict government policy on a number of issues. For instance, in a 2015 article, he advocated a ‘deal with the devil’ with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad to fight Islamic State in Syria. His pro-Israeli position has been well documented – the cancellation of visits to the West Bank and Gaza, after his remarks on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is telling of the serious baggage Johnson faces.
But developments in this region however will only further deteriorate the more focus is placed on the EU negotiations. Boris must be able to deal with these issues simultaneously in order to demonstrate that he is able to provide authority in a number of areas. Whether he is able to achieve this balance could make or break his ambitions to be prime minister.
Finally, his accolade as the winner of the Turkish President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition will undoubtedly weigh on him significantly in any diplomatic interactions with Ankara. Turkey acts as the gateway to the Middle East politically and economically; for Boris they could be an almost impossible country to engage with personally. With Turkey’s democracy under significant strain, Johnson must command a humbled approach; otherwise he risks alienating the UK against a country that’s global importance would be too costly to lose. If Johnson is committed in cutting ties with his former persona he must make a high-profile visit to Turkey as a high priority in his diary.
Judged purely on his short time in this role, Boris Johnson has not put a foot wrong. But time will tell whether this will continue and if Britain’s international position abroad can be preserved under the guidance of our most colourful minister for many years.