LONDON—Britain’s least diplomatic man is the country’s new head of diplomacy.
In a decision that installs the court jester as the international face of Britain and brings into question the very credentials that made her prime minister, Theresa May stunned Britain by naming Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary.
The reactions from Foreign Office staff—past and present—ranged from “Boris fucking Johnson in Beirut dealing with Syria? I can’t even deal with this lunacy” to “OH FUCK.”
This is a man whose thirst for politically incorrect jokes has led him to attack the past, present, and future presidents of the United States in spectacularly offensive style. He has also been forced to apologize to whole cities, countries, and even races over a string of ill-judged and xenophobic remarks.
As editor of the Spectator he also apologized for running articles that claimed black people had lower IQs and African-American NBA players had "arms hanging below their knees and tongues sticking out."
As foreign secretary, Britain’s equivalent to secretary of state, Johnson will be a regular visitor to Washington, where he will hope to charm first President Obama and then Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
That won’t be easy.
He attacked Obama during his visit to London earlier this year as a “part-Kenyan president” with an “ancestral dislike of Britain.”
If Johnson is still in the job by the start of next year, he is likely to come face to face with Clinton, whom he once described thus: “She’s got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”
“She represents, on the face of it, everything I came into politics to oppose: not just a general desire to raise taxes and nationalise things, but an all-round purse-lipped political correctness,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
His caustic words were all the stranger as he was writing a column in support of her run for the presidency in 2008. He can’t help himself. Even a compliment must be wrapped in a too-clever-by-half witticism or a malevolent sideswipe.
Johnson never grew out of his boarding school banter.
The final words of his plea for Clinton to succeed President Bush showed the fundamental unseriousness of his thinking.
“For all who love America, it is time to think of supporting Hillary,” he wrote. “Not because we necessarily want her for herself but because we want Bill in the role of First Husband. And if Bill can deal with Hillary, he can surely deal with any global crisis.”
It’s not just Democrats who fall foul of the Conservatives’ cult hero. Bush fared little better. When Johnson was editor of The Spectator, his editorial column concluded: “The President is a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomizes the arrogance of American foreign policy.”
Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was dismissed as a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg.”
As mayor of London, Johnson was given license to go after Trump last year when the presumptive Republican presidential nominee claimed the city had become so radicalized by Islamic extremists that the police feared for their lives.
Obviously, Johnson hit back.
He said Trump’s “stupefying ignorance” proved that he was “clearly out of his mind” and was “frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.”
“I would invite him to come and see the whole of London and take him round the city—except I wouldn’t want to expose any Londoners to any unnecessary risk of meeting Donald Trump,” he said.
It’s a far cry from the diplomatic language usually employed by a nation’s most senior international envoy.
So what is Britain’s new prime minister thinking? This one appointment has added an asterisk to her sobriquet “safe pair of hands.”
For one thing, May, who opposed Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, is employing Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: You broke it, you own it.
She has handed responsibility for untangling the almighty Brexit mess to the men who led the campaign for Britain to quit the union. She keeps repeating the phrase “Brexit means Brexit,” but the shape and style of any deal with the European Union and the rest of the world is still a total mystery.
May has appointed Johnson to the Foreign Office, Liam Fox as the secretary of state for international trade and created a new post of secretary of state for leaving the European Union for David Davis. The Brexiteers broke it, now they have to figure out how to fix it.
Foreign affairs is also a favored destination for powerful potential rivals whom you want to keep sweet but well away from the crucial business of domestic government (see: Obama and Hillary Clinton; Gordon Brown and David Miliband.)
In addition, if they do slip up on the international stage, it usually reflects badly on the individual rather than hurting the leader.
This case is a little different, however, as Johnson’s humiliating exit from the Conservative leadership race, in which he was favorite just a couple of weeks ago, left him on the margins of the party. May could easily have kept him out of trouble with a far less significant role.
That raises the question of whether his abrupt withdrawal from the race came after striking a secret deal with May about a plum job in her new administration.
That would certainly help to explain what otherwise looks like a baffling decision.
Johnson can’t even be trusted to stay out of trouble in the regions of England outside London. He was forced to embark on an apology tour of Liverpool after his Spectator editorial accused the whole city of existing in a “flawed psychological state” that encouraged them to “wallow in their ‘victim status’” and fail to accept that the city’s misfortunes, such as the Hillsborough disaster, were partly their fault.
On the global stage, he said “Chinese cultural influence is virtually nil, and unlikely to increase.”
He mocked Africans as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” And in a offensively paternalistic 2002 article on Africa for the Spectator, he wrote: "The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more."
Only this year, he wrote and published a dirty limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
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.
If Johnson is to make progress for Britain on Syria or with Europe’s migrant crisis, he will almost certainly need Erdogan as an ally.
Papua New Guinea is of less strategic importance, but it deserves more than being dismissed as the home of “orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.”
When the country’s high commissioner in London kicked up a fuss, Johnson said: “I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.”
He promised that he would “add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apology.”
That itinerary is about to get a lot longer.