“We used to assume a certain stability, a certain reliability in British foreign policy,” a London-based European diplomat recently told me. “Now you can assume nothing.”
This observation encapsulates two problems: Firstly, the near impossibility of dealing with the United Kingdom in the present circumstances; secondly, the misunderstanding by European Union member states of the current state of British politics. Just because they could not remotely countenance someone as quixotic as Boris Johnson leading their own countries, they struggle to understand how best to deal with him.
They have learnt the hard way: Brexit was just the start. Many Germans scratch their head at the idea of a referendum being called and no preparation being made for the eventuality that one of the two possible results might ensue. When British voters opted by 52-48 to leave the European Union, not a single piece of planning had been put in place. Indeed, it was worse than that. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s government had forbidden civil servants from making any preparations. Such was Cameron’s blithe superficiality and superiority in his view of politics, he couldn’t bring himself to imagine that he might lose.
What resulted, from the first day, was mayhem. Again, in any more conventional country, one might assume that lessons would be learnt, and processes would be improved. The reverse has since happened.
A Policy of Antagonism
At the FCDO, as the Foreign Office now demands to be called, they are busily seeking to superimpose a method to the post-2016 madness. British diplomats have taken to describing unpredictability as the strategy itself, as a virtue. They do so with a straight face and point to the taxi market. “We like to think of ourselves as the Uber of foreign policy,” one told me. “We see disruption as a good in itself.”
This is not just theory, but practice. In most, if not all, of his foreign policy decisions, Johnson sees himself as disrupter-in-chief. He is not only prepared to fight the EU to get his way, but he defines his premiership through his antagonism toward the UK’s erstwhile close partners.
The introduction of a bill overriding large chunks of the Northern Ireland protocol marks a dramatic escalation. But it is entirely consistent for this administration that tried to close down parliament in order to get Brexit legislation through, and that sees institutions seeking to provide checks and balances—from the European Court of Justice (which still has jurisdiction over implementation of the Brexit treaty) to the European Court of Human Rights (which blocked the first attempts to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda)—as hostile forces.
Far from seeking to make amends from his many recent controversies, Johnson is doubling down. He is seeking “wedge” issues wherever he can and telling untruths whenever he needs to. Hence legislation ripping up a negotiated settlement is described as a “relatively trivial” set of “bureaucratic” changes.
In any choice between moderation and the extremist flank in his party—the European Research Group (ERG)—he will opt for the latter. He is prepared to ride out any pressure from the US administration. He has little interest in the actual politics of Northern Ireland; he believes blithely that whatever he does the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the country will somehow hold; he is quite comfortable with “playing” the main Unionist party, the DUP, for his purposes; he quite enjoys being berated by the government in Dublin, which has described London’s latest machinations as a “historic low point.” He believes that the more battles he picks with Europe, the more he discomforts the hesitant opposition leader, the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer.
Most of all he is quite happy breaking international law—and all the consequences that brings to Britain’s reputation in the world. This prime minister is not remotely bothered by accusations of hypocrisy (after all he agreed, signed, and lauded the Brexit agreement with the protocol at its heart) or of dishonesty.
Johnson wants, defiantly, to show how different he is from the European mainstream, or even the British mainstream, which he and his aides deride as “the blob.”
He will look for more eye-catching moments that play to his base and indulge him in his Churchillian delusions. Ukraine allows him to do that. One of Downing Street’s first actions following his recent narrow victory in a confidence-vote victory among Conservative MPs was to broadcast a statement from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, expressing his happiness at Johnson’s political survival.
Zelensky is extremely grateful to the British prime minister for the UK’s military and political support for Ukraine. Expect more mutual love-ins. It also allows Johnson to cherry-pick other European countries to work with (the Baltics, the Nordics, Poland) and those he cannot be bothered with (France and Germany).
According to the Johnson worldview, traditional foreign policy is no longer fit for purpose. First, many international institutions are no longer fit for purpose. The EU—enough said. As for the United Nation, its Security Council can no longer do effective business because of the veto rights accorded its permanent members. Russia and China will stymie any progress. Such problems also apply to the G20. Which leaves only NATO and the G7 (now denuded of Russia), but the problem with them is that they preach to the converted.
The second problem is the most intriguing. It is that populist disrupters get things done whereas advocates of consensus take too long and may even, through too much analysis and too much triangulation, fail to get there. This is the “he may have been somewhat shambolic, but he was brilliant when it mattered” Winston Churchill argument dusted off to proclaim Johnson’s response to the Ukraine crisis. (The same applied when the UK was one of the fastest countries to authorize vaccines in early 2021 during the COVID-19 crisis).
Useful Crudity of Populism
Yet, this argument about mavericks may also contain some truths that are inconvenient to critics of Johnson, as the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh pointed out recently. There are times, he said, when populism “fits the circumstances better than a more considered approach, such as the clever-clever rationalizations of realpolitik, which might have left Ukraine high and dry for the sake of a short-lived ‘stability.’ It is precisely the crudity of populism that has come in useful.” The traditional post-1945 paradigms of diplomacy, Ganesh argues, can “hedge, over-analyze, and treat conflict as some kind of aberration. There is something to be said at times for a more primitive approach.”
The high priest of primitivism may not even be Johnson, but his foreign secretary, Liz Truss. In a recent keynote speech, she extolled the virtues of Brexit, not just in and of itself, but because it enables the UK to act more nimbly, without having to cross check with 27 other states. Britain, she declared, is prepared to “do things differently, to think differently, and to work differently … to get things done.” The word of the moment is “agile.”
Having swatted away all his many crises, Johnson appears more confident than ever to do politics and international relations his own way. He has been lucky in his political adversaries—his Conservative opponents keep on missing opportunities to bring him down. The opposition is perpetually scared of mounting a full-frontal attack. He will run and run, for as long as he can.
The present situation is not an aberration. It is the new normal in relations with the United Kingdom. Expect more of it; much more.
John Kampfner is Executive Director of the “Britain in the World” project at Chatham House in London and a columnist for The Times.