Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli quotes from Endymion, the last of the latter’s novels, published in 1880 after he had ceased to be Prime Minister. “Look at Lord Roehampton. He is the man. He does not care a rush whether the revenue increases or decreases. He is thinking of real politics: foreign affairs; maintaining our power in Europe.” By this measure, Britain’s recent foreign policy has failed.
There is a twin reason. First, the legacy of the Iraq War and, second, the implementation of Brexit – in short, trying to leave the EU while a weak government was in place with no working majority.
At a stroke, that last factor has changed in a day.
The first question one government asks of another is: will it last? The answer in Theresa May’s case was No. And a government that won’t last is seen as a weak government. The European Commission, Parliament and other European governments didn’t take her seriously as a player.
As they look at Britain’s new government, the first thought that these governments will have is that Boris Johnson’s majority will probably last the Conservatives for two terms – and that it is therefore a very strong government indeed, at least by comparison with others. Angela Merkel is no longer leader of the CDU, and Germany is in transition. Emmanuel Macron is in a dominant position in France, in the sense that he has no obvious coming rival and his party is well entrenched in power, but his popularity has fallen and protest has grown: we all know about the yellow vests.
Johnson therefore has an opportunity, both in the Brexit talks and more widely, to make the most of his “huge great stonking mandate”, as he calls it, abroad as well as at home. What will he do with it?
British Prime Ministers have a way of turning to foreign affairs when they become frustrated by domestic ones: that was true to some extent of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the most recent holders of the office with big majorities. Their successor is not remotely at that stage in the political cycle.
His concentration is bent on transforming the Conservatives domestically: turning them into what he has taken to calling “the People’s Party”. That means concentrating on Dominic Cummings’ policy triplet: more money for the NHS; an Australian-style point-based immigration system, and tax cuts for less well-off workers, together with a more recent policy: more police officers and law and order.
Cummings is also focused on modernising the economy through infrastracture spending, research and development and freeports, inter alia. Whether this Bismarckian vision, driven by an interventionist state, will work is not our issue today. It is rather whether its intensity, which is about to consume a sweeping Whitehall reorganisation and reshuffle, will leave Johnson the headspace and room to become a Disraelian figure abroad.
What might he want to do? The Conservative Manifesto has a list of foreign policy and international development aims under the heading “Promote Our Values”: these include “an independent Magnitsky-style sanctions regime to tackle human rights abusers head on”; campaigning to promote media freedom and eradicate modern slavery; helping to end Ebola and malaria and – to cite a particular commitment of Johnson’s – improving education for girls. And there is a touch of the Politics of And: both an international LGBT conference and a religious freedom push.
It is harder to see him wanting Britain to become more deeply engaged in resolving conflict in Cyprus, Sri Lanka or what the manifesto calls “the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two state solution”.
If he wanted to, mind you, there’s an opportunity – or might be, anyway. As one senior government figure said to ConHome, there are now three Trumpian figures at large, at least in terms of the way they like to operate: the President himself, Johnson…and Macron.
The first and the last are not always bracketed together, but both have a disruptive way of thinking aloud, occasionally on the same subject. Trump first came to our attention when, as a candidate for his Party’s nomination for the presidency, he questioned the workings of NATO. Macron recently did the same when he referred to the organisation’s “brain death”. His medium may be the in-depth interview rather than the 280-character tweet maximum, but his off-base purpose is the same.
The President was rapped over the knuckles by Germany at the NATO summit (the country’s diplomatic service is formidable) – a reminder that the two countries’ post-war alliance is under strain over Russia, Iran and perhaps above all the future of the EU.
One source claimed that if Johnson wants to push greater “five-eyes”-style security co-operation with France – trading it off against gains for Britain in the Brexit talks – he now has an opportunity to do so. Though he will want to put some clear blue water between the Government’s own thinking and wider EU defence plans. Tom Tugendhat is pushing Britain as a future leader of non-EU middle democracies – “mid dems” – who are committed to neither “Little Europe” nor “America First”, but instead to promote human rights, freedom and liberal values worldwide. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman sees a revitalised Foreign Office as integral to this aim.
Whether Johnson wants to realise such an aspiration, make a major push for a security deal with Macron, and become a bigger force abroad returns us to that first factor in foreign affairs policy-making: the legacy of the Iraq War.
For while British politicians like to make much of our meeting of both the NATO minimum spend and the 0.7 per cent of GNI on international development, the experience of our diplomatic service, the (relative) strength of our armed forces and the pervasiveness of British “soft power”, the reality is less sparkling.
This is not only because Brexit has consumed Whitehall energy. The plain fact is that voters are not in much of a mood for adventures abroad. They are willing to see our armed forces deployed if there is a clear national interest reason. But sapped the national appetite for intervention. All the evidence is that the British people are in a Glastonian rather than a Disraelian mood when it comes to foreign affairs.
But never forget: Johnson has only held one Cabinet post before becoming Prime Minister. He was Foreign Secretary. His many enemies have been energetic in talking down his period in King Charles Street. That makes it hard to reach an accurate assessment of his time there.
So if he now wants to dive deeply into foreign affairs again, in his usual intuitive and unpredictable way, there is nothing to stop him doing so. With a majority this large, and an Opposition in agony, he can do almost anything he likes, for the time being. Until the normal forces of discontent, atrophy and decay began to make themselves felt.