“The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts” – a warning shot from Boris Johnson, Britain’s new top man, on the steps of Downing Street. Or was the obscure idiom totally innocent? It’s hard to tell with a politician so renowned for his bumbling verbosity. At times, it seems Mr Johnson’s meandering drawl has left few on the world stage untarnished, but to doubt his natural charm and powers of persuasion would be foolish. Building bridges with the international community will be his greatest challenge as Prime Minister, as Brexit Britain desperately seeks its new place in the world order. It’s a formidable task for the gaffe-prone Mr Johnson, but proponents of this truly unique statesman believe that he alone can secure the UK’s uncertain future.
Achieving this will require diplomatic mastery on a number of fronts. With Brexit looming, Europe is surely the most urgent of Johnson’s foreign policy challenges. To say he’s not well liked on the continent would be an understatement. As a young journalist, he forged his reputation with withering anti-Europe reportage and Brussels-based mockery. His stewardship of the UK’s pro-Brexit Leave campaign harnessed this sentiment, employing grandiose euroscepticism and pithy EU put-downs to devastating effect. With his unfaltering demand that the Brexit negotiations concluded by his predecessor be reopened, Johnson is on collision course with Brussels once again.
You might not guess that from some of the continent’s warm words, though. European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen said she was looking forward to a good working relationship with Boris, with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel congratulating him heartily on his appointment. But peel back the veneer, and the simmering tension is thinly veiled. Ireland’s Leo Varadkar called out Johnson’s vagueness on the festering Irish border issue (the new British leader has sworn to discard the present ‘backstop’ solution) and made clear a renegotiation of Theresa May’s agreed deal was simply “not going to happen”.
That, Mr Johnson says, would result in the UK crashing out with no-deal – an eventuality the bullish politician claims not to want, but has long been associated with. To mitigate the potentially disastrous economic effects of this, robust trading relations with global powers are a necessity. As the planet’s foremost economy, America is top of Mr Johnson’s list. The US president is a fan of Boris, proudly recognising him as “Britain’s Trump”, having previously endorsed his candidacy in the leadership race.
But allegations of kowtowing to Washington stalk Mr Johnson, with many questioning the cost of his presidential support. When Trump eviscerated the UK’s former US ambassador for less-than-complimentary leaked remarks, Boris broke from the British establishment and refused to intervene. The price for ingratiating himself with the White House was the betrayal of his countryman, critics concluded.
However pragmatic, it’s a fraught path for him to choose. The mercurial White House incumbent is beholden to his ‘America First’ mantra, and will utilise every advantage he has over his British counterpart. If there are concessions to be won off of a pliant Mr Johnson in post-Brexit trade talks, Trump will use this leverage. Worse still, if the precarious peace with Iran takes an ugly turn, Boris before all other world leaders will be pressured to side with the Oval Office.
This is a point not lost on the Iranians, who discarded diplomatic pleasantries in their first communique with Prime Minister Johnson. The British Government’s “seizure of Iranian oil at the behest of the US is piracy, pure and simple,” said Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, referencing the spiralling shipping conflict in the Persian Gulf. “These are our waters and we will protect them,” he added. It’s a clear message, and one that Johnson will have to address urgently.
The UK has, until now, stood firm with European allies in their support of the Iran nuclear deal scrapped by Donald Trump. With Iran threatening to start enriching weapons-grade uranium, Boris will need to commit to a conciliatory tone – or fall in line with American posturing. Either way, deft diplomacy is required if further deterioration is to be avoided.
That rings true on the Russian front, too. It’s not “business as usual” with Moscow, Mr Johnson’s predecessor said after an alleged chemical weapons attack on British soil last year, a position the new Prime Minister is almost certainly wedded to. But if he’s to engage with Putin on areas of mutual interest – combating Islamic terror, dealing with Iran and calming tensions on the Korean peninsula – Boris will need to smooth the nations’ creased relations. A “ruthless and manipulative tyrant” is how he once described the Russian president – for any hope of success, Boris will need to withstand Putin’s veritable powers of machination.
Whether he’s got the mettle to stand up to the Russian leader remains to be seen. For a man who’s carried out much of his career in the spotlight, remarkably little is known of Mr Johnson’s prime ministerial trajectory. Ruffling European feathers seems certain, but the domestic damage that could cause will weigh heavily on his administration. As Brexit distances London from Brussels, renewed bonds with Washington are fundamental. But might worsening relations with Iran – perhaps even war – be the price of that? For a man not known for his predictability, Boris will have to tread a careful and consistent path. Whether he’s up to the task, only time will tell.