Let us imagine that a British Foreign Secretary other than Boris Johnson had been planning to make a visit to Moscow to repair relations with Russia. Then presume that the timing of his proposed trip had also been spectacularly unlucky, because America and Russia had suddenly found themselves at odds. And, finally, suppose that the United States had considered it necessary suddenly to send its Secretary of State to Moscow for talks, as it has done this week.
In such similar circumstances, our Government would have preferred to offend Russia rather than America – even if it did not, as we do now, need the latter’s help over Brexit. A goodwill visit to the former would have been overtaken by events literally overnight. The most sensible course to take would therefore be to cancel the visit – be the Foreign Secretary a William Hague or a Robin Cook or a Douglas Hurd or another holder of the office judged to be a heavyweight figure: yes, be it the third Marquess of Salisbury himself.
So Johnson took exactly the right course in collapsing the trip, or at least allowing it to be collapsed for him by Downing Street. However, the Foreign Secretary immediately found himself under fire over the cancellation last weekend from Tim Farron, who knows no better, and from some centre-right papers, who should do – but none the less preferred to act as part of what Tim Montgomerie once called the right-wing entertainment complex. (The recent claim that the Government is about to restore our pre-EU membership blue passports, cheerfully trumpeted without any supporting evidence whatsoever, was a classic example of the genre.)
The push for new sanctions on Russia is a different matter. The Foreign Office and perhaps Number Ten was spooked by the criticism of calling off Johnson’s visit. They therefore rushed out to brief that the Foreign Secretary would be doing vital work instead by pushing for new sanctions on Russia among the G7. It is true that the door is still open to these if an investigation agrees with America that the Assad regime was responsible for the recent use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. But Germany and other European countries were never going to agree these quickly, if at all. They have no incentive to damage their economic ties to Russia, and very little to help out Donald Trump, at least as their current leaders see it.
The Foreign Secretary was thus always going to take a pasting from the press if his mission this week did not succeed. And so he has duly done. Johnson won’t care much: he has survived much worse. And Theresa May doubtless won’t either. She knew exactly what she was doing when she sent Johnson to King Charles Street – to run a department that had lost the central arch of its policy, EU membership, and been stripped of the responsibilty for planning Brexit and boosting trade. The Foreign Secretary’s mission was to buck up its morale, re-cast its mission and jet off frequently overseas (thus reducing his capacity to re-pursue this leadership aspirations at Westminster).
That some politicians in other European countries detest Johnson because of his role in the referendum campaign is clearly unimportant to her. So presumably is the fact that he will lampooned by parts of Fleet Street as a buffoon, if a policy or initiative is seen to fail, where a more conventional politician might scarcely be criticised at all. Having sacked Michael Gove from the Government, she felt she needed a senior figure from the successful Leave campaign near the top of her administration, and who could be more senior than the man who effectively fronted it? Some cling to the view that the appointment was an error. They argue that a Foreign Secretary must be trusted, and taken seriously, by his fellow foreign ministers, and that Johnson is not.
The Foreign Secretary has made mistakes. (Who hasn’t?) He clearly allowed his mission to the G7 this week to be over-spun. And he failed last year to register the hostility of the incoming Trump administration to a U.N resolution critical of Israel: Britain voted for it at the security council; May then, in an attempt to repair the damage with Trump, kicked the departing John Kerry, Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. But he was early out of the traps in seeing, as soon as the new president was elected, that Britain must make the best of the result, and has established good relations with the new administration.
Since the Prime Minster’s Number Ten operation, like that of most recent governments, keeps a careful grip of the Foreign Office, this is probably the most productive task he can undertake. Nor can it fairly be claimed that he hasn’t reached a view on what our foreign policy should be post-Brexit: his speech to last year’s Conservative conference was the only one, other than May’s herself, to do more than simply meet the needs of the moment – with its identification of Britain as “a soft power superpower”.
The Prime Minister has dropped her public ribbing of him. He is on the main government committee handling Brexit. But while she will want him bound into her negotiation strategy, she will not want him shaping it. She will want the big decisions to be made by her tightly-drawn political circle in Downing Street, with special imput from the Brexit Secretary and the Chancellor. And if her Foreign Secretary is complained of by politicians abroad or briefed against by his colleagues here, that is the price for having him, in more than the literal sense, exactly where she wants him.