Boris Johnson Seeks Love on the World Stage – POLITICO

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LONDON, KIGALI and MADRID — When Boris Johnson left London last week for an epic foreign tour spanning two continents and three world peaks, he seemed already tired of the baggage he was carrying.

Addressing the traveling British press at the start of the eight-day journey, the British Prime Minister was missing something of his familiar spark. The usual verbal hand grenades were not deployed.

By this time, Johnson knew that the first leg of his journey, to a summit of Commonwealth heads of government in Rwanda, would be overshadowed by two scenes of domestic conflict: an ugly quarrel between Downing Street and Clarence House – Prince Charles’ home. — on Johnson’s flagship immigration policy, and a double helping of by-election defeats for the Conservative Party in the UK

On the plane, an aide articulated what many suspected was that Johnson wanted to use the CHOGM, G7 and NATO summits to return to a heavy focus on Ukraine — a foreign policy area that has been his safe haven in a year dominated by questions about his personal integrity.

But the fallout from the disastrous by-election losses – the defeat at Tiverton, in the south west of England, the worst his party has ever suffered – haunted him throughout the journey, with rumors swirling home about an organized attempt by rebellious Tory MPs to force a second challenge on his leadership.

As a result, Johnson’s struggle to divert attention from his serious domestic problems has met with mixed success. And, as always, his penchant for bold, out-of-the-ordinary comments proved to be both his greatest asset and his deadliest foe.

Arrive in Madrid on Tuesday for a summit of NATO leaders — the last leg of his journey – Johnson walked straight into another domestic feud, this time with members of his own cabinet over Britain’s defense spending commitments. Aides said he will spend the rest of the week trying to focus attention on the need for NATO partners to increase their own spending. It is a well-known cycle, which is repeated over and over during the journey.

Diplomatic speed dating

On paper, a long-delayed Commonwealth leaders summit seemed like the perfect opportunity for Johnson to shine on the global stage. The 54-member organisation, many of which have historical ties to the UK as a former colony, has particular appeal to a leader who has invested politically in international cooperation outside the EU.

While discussing Africa’s free trade zone in a speech to African foreign ministers, Johnson couldn’t resist a swipe at the trade bloc Britain recently left behind. “I remember the UK helping to set up the European Free Trade Area many years ago,” he said. “(It) was then taken over by something called the European Union… but it doesn’t matter.”

Johnson’s diplomacy, as it is, relies heavily on personal magnetism; a legendary ability to draw people in at close quarters. A British diplomat recalled Johnson’s time as Foreign Secretary: “He really had star power. Suddenly they wanted to meet the British Foreign Secretary again, because everyone knew Boris Johnson. He was a political celeb.”

Yolande Makolo, a spokesman for the Rwandan government, suggested the momentum still holds. “Of course,” she said. “Everyone knows Boris.”

As always, the humor was used successfully. A bilateral meeting with notoriously austere Rwandan President Paul Kagame was described as “joyful” by two attendees, who said Kagame sometimes even brought a smile.

Johnson shared a joke with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness about which man in their tuxedo looked more like James Bond. An aide described Johnson’s diplomatic style as a kind of “speed dating.”

The love I lost

But if the prime minister hoped for endless love in his escape from household chores, he would be disappointed.

In Kigali, one of Johnson’s first engagements was an audience with Prince Charles, an uneasy prospect after the future monarch personally condemned Britain’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling”. The prime minister had initially tried to downplay matters, telling journalists he couldn’t be sure the prince had made the ascribed comments.

But Johnson’s attempts at restraint did not survive contact with the litany of media interviews necessary for an extended foreign trip. Within 24 hours, the prime minister had rekindled the feud, telling TV reporters that he would “of course” defend immigration policy when he met the prince.

One person who attended the interview said Johnson seemed to immediately realize — but too late — the problems his comments were likely to cause. Clarence House reacted furiously and had agreed to present a united front. Downing Street did not deny that the two camps had hastily contacted each other after the interview.

But privately, Johnson had no remorse. The same Downing Street adviser quoted above contrasted the weight of the pressure on the Prime Minister on several fronts with the (supposed) lighter duties of the Prince and his aides, noting dryly that Johnson had little time to devote to ‘laughing at men in tights’.


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And while the losses in the wakefield and Tiverton by-elections on the first night of the trip may have been priced in by traveling aides, Tory MPs at home were still deeply troubled by the magnitude of the anti-government vote. The following morning turned out to be a rougher dawn in Kigali than expected, thanks to the shocking resignation of Johnson’s party chairman, Oliver Dowden.

Again, Johnson tried to give a sober response by laying out his rules about focusing on the real challenges facing the UK and the world. Again, the facade could not hold for long.

Pressured by reporters about his cloudy future, Johnson boldly replied that he intended to lead Britain through the next two general elections and beyond into the 2030s. Tory MPs at home, gasping for blood, were unimpressed.

When asked what had become of the admiration Johnson once enjoyed from both his party and the general public, a No. 10 official told reporters, “He gets that here — but not from you.”

blame game

Such comments are part of a pattern whereby Johnson and his allies are blaming his current troubles on media coverage of the so-called Partygate scandal — an ironic outcome for a former journalist used to playing the press like a fiddle.

It also exposes Johnson’s transparent quest for love on the world stage, as things fall apart at home.

At the G7 summit in Bavaria earlier this week, Downing Street had apparently sought “strong” headlines after Johnson’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, and informed journalists that the prime minister had issued clear warnings not to bow to Russia.

But in reality, the encounter was more of a love affair, with a backlash Johnson turning on the charm and avoiding all the tough topics — even nodding along with Macron’s plan for a two-speed Europe that could one day see Britain join an outer circle. .

“Prime Minister Johnson showed a lot of enthusiasm,” said de Elysse afterwards. “He was just being polite,” Downing Street sources calmly explained. British tabloids called the meeting ‘Le Bromance’.

And while Johnson is chasing admiration on the global stage, his climate-focused policy agenda risks being sidelined.

Britain’s COP26 team – so recently at the wheel of the global discussion on climate change – had to watch from London as G7 leaders hollow out some of the victories won in Glasgow last year, not least by the German chancellor Olaf Scholz backed demands to invest in gas infrastructure. However, Johnson was able to withstand some of the most damaging changes.

Johnson certainly didn’t push the agenda forward, despite the UK serving as the official UN climate presidency for most of this year. On Sunday night, Johnson skipped the relaunch of a major green infrastructure push that he himself had promoted as G7 chairman the year before. While seven of the nine leaders were in attendance, Johnson was busy patching up his relationship with Macron.

It could be — given the uniqueness of the Prime Minister – that attempts to separate his domestic problems from his adventures abroad were always doomed in the end.

Karl Mathiesen and Cristina Gallardo reported.

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