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Could the big beast at the Foreign Office be sacked by May?
The Foreign Office has traditionally attracted the big beasts of cabinet. As a former Empire state, with a global outlook, the role of Foreign Secretary has been considered one of the major jobs of state, along with the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. Indeed, the position is often considered to be one of the traditional stepping stones on the way to Number 10. While the tradition has waned with the prevalence of younger, less experienced individuals as Prime Minister, the role of Foreign Secretary is still reserved for a major player in the cabinet, an individual who has the ear of the Prime Minister, or is too important to ignore. Remember William Hague in the coalition cabinet of Cameron or Robin Cook in the cabinet of Tony Blair. Which brings us to the current holder of the position – the affable, the jovial, the occasional figure of fun, the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. While his appointment was something of a surprise to many, perhaps it should have been expected given the prominent of Johnson and the rise of his profile after the Brexit vote in 2016.
When Johnson re-entered Parliament as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015, he was considered one of the MPs to watch. The expectation was that he would enter Cabinet under the serving Prime Minister, David Cameron, who now had a slim majority and did not have to share his cabinet positions with the Liberal Democrats. However, the EU referendum changed everything for both Cameron and Johnson. The expectation was that Johnson would join the Remain campaign, as he appeared to be a reluctant but loyal supporter of the EU. Therefore, his decision to join the Leave campaign was greeted with consternation in Number 10, with accusations that he was using the campaign to further his own career quickly following. With the success of the Leave campaign in June 2016 and the resignation of the Prime Minister, Johnson’s calculation looked to have been a shrewd one, and he was in pole position for the top job, until his campaign bedfellow, Michael Gove, ended his hopes when he decided to run himself, arguing that Johnson was not a suitable candidate for the top job. Eventually, neither man was elected as leader, with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister, but what to do with Gove and Johnson?
While Gove could be ignored and excluded, at least temporarily before he reappeared in Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June 2017 after a disastrous general election result for the Conservative government, Johnson was much harder to ignore. His role in the Brexit campaign made him impossible to ignore and, perhaps more importantly, there was a certain logic to ensuring that those individuals who had had been so prominent in the Brexit campaign (including David Davis, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel) were members of the cabinet who would have the thorny job of implementing it. Johnson’s bumbling exterior may have been slightly at odds with his academic abilities, but was his appointment as Britain’s primary representative overseas wise? Surely beneath that slightly bumbling exterior existed a capable politician? As Foreign Secretary, competence was required and a certain amount of subtlety in his approach.
His time in office has not been without incident. He has insulted numerous nations, reportedly suggesting during the Conservative Party Conference only weeks ago that Libya would be a lovely holiday destination once the bodies had been removed, but his comments on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe this week go far beyond the term ‘gaffe’. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently imprisoned in Iran, accused of plotting to topple the Iranian regime. Her family have maintained, since her arrest, that she was simply holidaying in Iran, visiting her parents. Johnson claimed, in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe may have been teaching journalism to students, something her family strongly deny. His claims have been seized on by the Iranian authorities as justification for further charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe and she has had four years added to her existing jail sentence. Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, demanded that Johnson resign if Zaghari-Ratcliffe had her sentence extended and his continued presence in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office owes a great deal to the existence of other scandals, diverting attention from his own actions. The scandal over sexual harassment in the Houses of Parliament and the resignations of Sir Michael Fallon and Priti Patel are creating an atmosphere of scandal and sleaze within Parliament, with comparisons with the Major years coming thick and fast. Will Johnson be able to continue in post after his latest error?
Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. Instead, perhaps we should ask what would happen to the May government if Johnson were forced from office? The first effect would be the need for a new Foreign Secretary, and there are few big beasts left to fill the void. Theresa May is in an incredibly vulnerable position and she needs a strong Foreign Secretary, defending her both inside and outside cabinet. Many Conservative MPs are concerned that May is a spent force, and are biding their time for her replacement after Britain has left the EU. A top job in cabinet, therefore, looks less attractive than it would in other circumstances. For May, Johnson would be a dangerous adversary on the backbenches, so there may be some wisdom in keeping him within the tent rather than having him on the outside. Additionally, with the loss of Priti Patel and the potential loss of Boris Johnson, the leave camp are already beginning to argue that Brexit will be undermined. With the loss of Johnson, May would be in a precarious position and there is an argument that the entire fate of the May government rests upon Johnson’s continued role at the Foreign Office. There is a certain irony that May might have beaten Johnson to Downing Street, but he may well still prove to be the cause of her undoing.
Victoria Honeyman is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds. She tweets @VHoneymanLeeds.
Image: Chatham House CC BY-NC-ND