Boris is no mugwump, but he is a risk on the world stage

by Luke Lythgoe | 27.04.2017

Boris Johnson has launched a scathing attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy. But while the Labour leader’s policies may not inspire confidence, nor does Johnson’s track record as foreign secretary. His initiatives have been at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.

In an article in The Sun, Boris Johnson called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump” who is a risk because he has “no grasp of the need for this country to be strong in the world”. In contrast, Johnson’s recent diplomatic efforts suggest he has no grasp of how to make Britain strong on the world stage.

Take the pig’s ear he made of the response to the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. First he dropped out of a visit to Moscow at the last minute, ostensibly to help US secretary of state Rex Tillerson deliver a “clear and coordinated message” to Russia on behalf of the G7. He then achieved the opposite when his public calls for sanctions on key Syrians was ignored by his G7 counterparts.

European foreign ministers are reportedly put off by Johnson’s euroscepticism, his blustering, his historic inconsistencies and the impression that he is willing to upend 20 years of the UK’s Middle East policy “for the sake of a good trade deal with Donald Trump”.

His closeness to Trump’s knee-jerk presidency should also worry British voters. In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme this morning (listen from 02:28:00), Johnson said it would be “very difficult for us to say no” if America asked for support in attacking the Assad regime in the event of another chemical weapons strike. In further signs of the Tories’ potentially authoritarian approach to government, he also suggested lending such military support to the US would not necessarily involve consulting the House of Commons, saying “that needs to be tested”.

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In his article, Johnson further argued that a Corbyn government would create “a recipe for paralysis and uncertainty – and for Britain to get totally stiffed in the [Brexit] negotiations”. This combative, zero-sum view of the negotiations is perilous. Johnson has previously asserted that no deal would be “perfectly ok”. It would in fact be bonkers, and incredibly damaging for Britain. Labour, on the other hand, have rightly said “no deal is the worst possible deal”.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s “mugwump” jibe at Corbyn seems to have had the desired effect in the media, burnishing his playful, larger-than-life persona. But this is exactly the kind of name-calling that makes Johnson a worrying choice as Britain’s top diplomat. Remember when he compared the French president to a Nazi prison guard? Or, admittedly before becoming foreign secretary, when he penned a bawdy limerick suggesting the Turkish president had sex with a goat?

The term mugwump, apparently plagiarised from a fellow Tory MP, was perhaps a fitting choice by Johnson to contrast himself with Corbyn. If we assume Johnson wasn’t comparing Corbyn to a wizard from the Harry Potter novels, then the intended definition of mugwump is “a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics”. This is precisely what Johnson is not. Indeed, many suspect his primary motivation for backing Leave in the referendum was to reach the top of the greasy Tory pole.

But if Theresa May does win her vast parliamentary majority on June 8, she will no longer be under pressure from Tory Brexiters like Johnson. She may decide that having a reliable foreign secretary is more important than keeping her Brexit-backing political rival close. In fact, Johnson’s political decline could be one of few silver linings for Remainers resulting from a May majority.

This article has been corrected to make clear that Boris Johnson was never intending to visit Russia with Rex Tillerson, but separately.

Edited by Alan Wheatley