Johnson quits the stage, but his foreign policy plays on

Despite the theatrics of Boris Johnson resigning, the UK approach to global issues such as Ukraine, China, and the Indo-Pacific will not change with a new leader.

Expert comment
Published 7 July 2022 Updated 25 November 2022 3 minute READ

John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

The UK prime minister’s detractors – old and new, sincere and opportunist – have been comparing his refusal to go with that of former US president Donald Trump. Far-fetched as that might be, one clear similarity is that even his closest allies were raising the alarm by the end.

What changed in Boris Johnson’s case was not his behaviour, but a belated view that it was more a liability than a virtue as Conservative MPs began to see the damage he was wreaking on Britain’s politics, stability – and their own prospects of re-election.

Crucially, with the world facing a series of crises of ever-increasing intensity and frequency, what difference will the departure of this most bombastic of leaders make?

Both during Johnson’s rather quixotic tenure as UK foreign secretary as well as his time in 10 Downing Street, so much of the UK’s image in the world has been wrapped up in the personality of this one man

Publicly and privately, the word many Conservatives are using is ‘delusional’. Johnson had convinced himself that not only had he received a huge personal mandate at the December 2019 election – constitutionally false in the UK as voters vote for individual MPs not the party leader – but also his party and country would collapse as soon as he had gone. ‘Après moi, le déluge’, pace Louis XV.

Political leaders always face bitterness

The rules of politics in Britain are not based on a written constitution but in convention and precedent, and no prime minister goes without an element of bitterness or even rancour. Margaret Thatcher felt stabbed in the back by her party in 1990, Tony Blair was done in by his successor Gordon Brown in 2007, David Cameron fell on his sword after presiding over the European Union (EU) referendum defeat in 2016. Theresa May was undermined by hard Brexiteers in 2019, cheer-led by Boris Johnson.

But none clung on in this way, or showed so little contrition, as Johnson did in his departure speech. For the moment he intends to remain in office for at least two months until his successor is chosen, and it is too early to tell the extent to which the dramas will leave medium and long-term damage to Britain’s reputation.

Among diplomats – not just Europeans still smarting over Johnson’s approach to the EU but further afield too – the biggest cause for complaint in recent years has been the loss of pragmatism and dependability, two traits previously seen as synonymous with the UK. ‘We used to assume a certain stability, a certain reliability in British foreign policy,’ says one envoy in London. ‘Now you can assume nothing.’

For the past few years – both during Johnson’s rather quixotic tenure as UK foreign secretary as well as his time in 10 Downing Street – so much of the UK’s image in the world has been wrapped up in the personality of this one man. British diplomats speak frequently in confidence of their deep distress at having to represent not just certain policies but also behaviours to the outside world.

Many of the biggest challenges – climate, energy prices and shortages, immigration and demography, public health – are operating at a global level and deeply embedded in the Whitehall system

Even while fulfilling their functions professionally, they blanched when challenged on issues ranging from the observance of international law with the Northern Ireland protocol, to human rights with Rwanda and asylum seekers. They tried to help even by describing unpredictability as the strategy itself, as a virtue. ‘We like to think of ourselves as the Uber of foreign policy’, one told me. ‘We see disruption as a good in itself’. But ultimately, Britain needs to be honest and, as a start, abide by agreements it is party to.

Relations with Europe just might start to change

Although the leadership contenders will each set out their own foreign policy stalls, some general trends are already clear. On many ‘red letter issues’, expect little change. Johnson’s strong military and political support for Ukraine – seen as courageous and sensible, and domestically popular – will continue. Expect the new UK prime minister to make an early visit to Kyiv.

Similarly, the harder line on China and the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ should be seen as longer-term strategies while many of the biggest challenges – climate, energy prices and shortages, immigration and demography, public health – are operating at a global level and deeply embedded in the Whitehall system.

Trade deals will continue to be pursued, doggedly and at a frustratingly slow pace. As for the economy, many challenges are generic but the economic effects of Brexit in a country whose performance is ranked second lowest in the OECD – above only Russia – is a specific one.

Europe overall provides a key area of differentiation, and the picture here is not all negative. Beyond his hero status in Ukraine, Johnson’s government was thanked by the Swedes and Finns for giving a security guarantee ahead of their NATO accession and was seen as courageous by Poland, the Baltic states, and others.

Johnson quits the stage, but his foreign policy plays on 2nd part

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the UK’s security and intelligence assets to the fore, giving a potential route back to a more reliable set of relationships across the continent. Cautious first steps have been taken but expect considerable circumspection in coming months.

The departure of Boris Johnson may remove much of the theatrics from British politics and diplomacy, and that will be welcomed by most. But policies and partnerships provide far sterner and longer-term tests.

This is the first in a short series of expert comments examining the impact of the changes in the UK government on the country’s global role. The next article will focus on potential new leaders.