Boris Johnson's South America tour: political pageantry and self-parody
Boris Johnson is standing on the balcony of a remote school on an island in the Peruvian Amazon, in the sweltering heat. With his rumpled shirt and trademark tousled hair, Britain’s top diplomat must cut an unlikely figure to the children and teachers crowded along the balconies and on the grass below.
The foreign secretary, who landed by helicopter half an hour or so earlier with his Peruvian counterpart, Néstor Popolizio, is here to mark the fact that British taxpayers have made a series of donations to the school, including buying a lithium solar battery, which will help to power lighting and computers.
“I’m so impressed by your school and the hard work that you’re all doing. And I’m pleased that we have been able to supply a British battery – which works!” he says, each line being painstakingly translated. “It comes from Wales.”
“I hope you’ll go to Wales!” he adds, glancing across at the pack of lobby journalists travelling with him. It seems unlikely. Some of the children in the crowd hold up placards calling for proper toilets, and a new healthcare centre in their tiny settlement. A few armed police, equipped incongruously with riot shields, lope about in front of the crowd. But at every stop on this colourful tour, Johnson finds it hard to resist leavening his diplomatic duties with a quip, or an arch remark more directed to fans back home than his South American hosts.
All of this is significant for a foreign secretary whose greatest political power back at home lies in the fact that he hasn’t resigned – and the threat that he might. Far away from Peru, his presence in Theresa May’s cabinet is a symbol of the trust the Leavers in her party still – just – have, in her ability to make Brexit happen, and in a way they can stomach. That trust has been severely tested of late; but as he jetted between three South American countries this week, Johnson didn’t seem like a man about to walk away. The question is: could he ever give it up?.
Later that day, asked to say a few words at a formal ceremony, where he and Popolizio have signed a series of memoranda of understanding between their respective governments, he begins: “I’ve done so much today. I’ve fed a manatee, who reminded me vaguely of one of my beloved colleagues in parliament – I won’t tell you who.” Later still, after a long, hot day, he can’t stop himself telling onlookers at a building site visit that, “personally speaking”, he could really do with a shower.
It’s not quite “undiplomatic” behaviour – and in Buenos Aires, a wreath-laying ceremony for the victims of the Falklands conflict goes off without a hitch. His counterparts from all three stops on the trip respond to him with warmth. But watching at close hand, it feels like politics as performance – at times, almost as self-parody.
Johnson has a tic of turning to aides or even to the assembled dignitaries and asking, “how about that?” or “will that do?” after a speech or a gag – like the journalist he once was checking in with the editor. And as he carefully parried questions from journalists in the plush surroundings of the British embassy residence in Buenos Aires, he stood up at one point and mimed batting them away, in the style of the prime minister’s childhood idol, Geoffrey Boycott.
When the foreign secretary talks about the White House approach to constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or the refugee crisis in the region sparked by the parlous state of the Venezuelan economy, he is lucid and convincing; but the streak of mischief is never far beneath the surface.
He allows journalists to lead him into a conversation about whether a “Brexit plane” – to go with the commemorative stamps and a new Royal yacht he has already backed – would help Britain to do trade deals.
“We have the Voyager [the government aircraft, on which the prime minister travels], do we need a plane?” he says. Most politicians would stop there; but Johnson muses on – “what I will say about the Voyager, I think it’s great, but it seems to be very difficult to get hold of. It never seems to be available. I don’t know who uses it, but it never seems to be available ... And also, why does it have to be grey?”.
His remarks duly ended up on the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline “JUMBOJO JET”
His Labour shadow, Emily Thornberry, who has watched him throughout his time at the foreign office, says: “Personally, I’ve got no problem with Boris posing with monkeys and manatees, or dancing with kids. I think immersing yourself in the culture of the country you’re visiting is an essential part of being a foreign secretary.
“My problem with Boris has never been the pictures, it’s always been the words.”
Johnson’s grand tour follows a tough week back home, in which he and fellow Brexit hardliners found themselves unexpectedly outnumbered in May’s inner cabinet, and forced to sign up to a “backstop” deal for Northern Ireland that would keep the UK in key aspects of the customs union beyond 2020.
Bit by bit, the prime minister appears to be proceeding one minor compromise at a time towards an end-result Johnson and the Vote Leave veterans will loathe – but without ever committing a single outrage that would quite justify them crying “betrayal”.
Johnson’s political reputation – or legacy, for a man who thinks as he does in terms of the grand sweep of history – is inextricably bound to Brexit.
Yet he’s less involved in the day-to-day detail than his Leave colleagues in cabinet, David Davis and Liam Fox – or even Michael Gove, busy devising what will replace EU farm subsidies and fishing quotas.
Instead, at times he seems like a kind of roving dispenser of Brexit bombast. “It’s something people are really fired up about,” he says. In Argentina, he talks about the “booming” prospects for trade; Peru is “desperate to do more business with the UK”, he insists; Chile “desperately wants to integrate more closely with the UK”.
But the political pageantry in South America was also meant to underscore a serious point about the kind of Brexit Johnson believes in. In each of the countries he arrives at, as he never tires of saying, he is the first foreign secretary to visit in more than two decades – 50 years, in the case of Peru.
He believes that’s because Britain became too Eurocentric over the period it has been tied to the European Union, as policy coordination on trade, and increasingly foreign policy, constrained London’s room for manoeuvre.
In Buenos Aires, he compares Brexit to Argentina’s “intelligent reinsertion” into the international community, after the isolationism of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner years. To him it’s about rediscovering long-lost political alliances and exploring new markets – not turning inwards.
That’s why leaving the customs union, including the external tariff the EU applies to imports, has become such a touchstone for the cabinet Brexiters – and Johnson’s zeal on this point was only confirmed by his Latin American adventures.
Meanwhile back home, Brexit hardliners on the Tory backbenches, with the redoubtable Jacob Rees-Mogg as their figurehead, are losing patience with the string of Brexit compromises – and becoming increasingly vocal.
If Johnson still harbours hopes of being prime minister – and nothing in his demeanour suggests he has given up – he will need their backing.
So throughout the trip, he plays a kind of cheeky rhetorical game – impeccably delivering the government line; but each time putting the words into May’s mouth.
“The prime minister is the custodian of the plan,” he said in Buenos Aires. “She’s got a very clear prospectus and a clear mandate and it’s all there in the Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches and various other excellent speeches.”
It couldn’t possibly be read as outwardly disloyal; but it is also a reminder – a warning – and a nod to his constituency in the Tory party, as other, younger contenders – Gavin Williamson on the right flank, Ruth Davidson on the left – thrust themselves forward.
He and the other cabinet Brexiters believe their “max-fac” answer to the question of Britain’s future customs arrangements is winning through over May’s “customs partnership” approach, which Johnson publicly denounced as “crazy” (and which Rees-Mogg suggested would mean Britain hadn’t left the EU). But it’s far from clear if they would walk out if they lost.
For now, Johnson doesn’t seem like a man about to throw off the trappings of high office on a point of principle. And what trappings: the agreeable embassy residences, with their period furniture and their wine cellars; the motorcycle outriders; the whip-smart staff.
Does he really trust May, the “custodian” of Brexit, to deliver? Does he believe in his heart that it will deliver the economic bounty and the political reboot he hoped for when he crossed the Thames to the Vote Leave headquarters two years ago? He’s such an adept performer that it’s all but impossible to say. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself.