Britain’s new prime minister, the Conservative Party’s Theresa May, reshuffled the UK Cabinet after her appointment on Wednesday afternoon. Her choice for one of the top spots, foreign secretary, has raised more than a few eyebrows: Boris Johnson, the controversial former mayor of London and chief Brexit cheerleader.
Johnson is an odd pick for the UK’s top diplomatic post, because he is one of the least diplomatic figures in British politics. This goes beyond his infamous physical comedy routines, which include getting stuck on a zipwire while waving UK flags and decking a Japanese child during a rugby exhibition. Johnson has a habit of speaking his mind, whatever his outlandish opinions — an approach that might not be super well suited to the delicate upcoming negotiations over the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Perhaps the most striking example of this, for American audiences, is Johnson’s recent suggestion that President Obama hates Britain as a result of his African heritage.
During an April visit to the UK, President Obama announced that he opposed Brexit. Johnson, who was at the time campaigning hard for Britain to leave the EU, took offense.
Bojo (as he’s known in the UK) fired back with an op-ed in the Sun tabloid, which suggested that Obama had removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office — because the “the part-Kenyan President” harbored “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” Obama’s father was from Kenya, and Kenya used to be a British colony. Therefore, Johnson insinuated, Obama hates the UK.
UK's new Foreign Secretary is a man with great knowledge of international affairs, as this costume demonstrates. pic.twitter.com/EMoAnWVTAY— Eylon Aslan-Levy (@EylonALevy) July 13, 2016
Just on a factual level, this makes no sense. Obama moved the Churchill bust to make room for a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and has a different bust of Churchill by the same artist in the White House residence — so this is hardly proof of Churchill hatred on Obama’s part. The “Obama moved the Churchill bust” story has been a longstanding meme on the American right and in conservative-leaning British tabloids; one of these two is likely the source for Johnson’s theory.
It’s really poor form for an aspiring UK leader to accuse the American president of hating a country based on a fringe conspiracy theory developed without any evidence. It’s especially bad since this conspiracy theory — that Obama has secret opinions based on his African heritage — has troubling racial overtones. Johnson’s statements were, in a phrase, highly undiplomatic.
Yet the UK’s new top diplomat has no regrets. When the BBC asked him if he had any second thoughts about his conduct in mid-May, Bojo’s response was simple: “Of course not.”
This incident helps explain why the news that Boris Johnson will be foreign secretary has foreign policy observers worried.
The UK is entering one of the most important periods in its modern history, with the future of the UK and the European Union hinging on whether and how the UK ends up actually leaving the EU. The negotiations between the EU and the UK over Brexit will be critical to setting these terms, so you’d think that Britain would want its top foreign policy professional presiding over them.
That’s not Johnson. He’s a bomb thrower and an attention hog — and the last thing Europe needs from the UK right now is more bombs.