Depending on how closely you watch politics, you may have either had nightmares or woken up to the fact that Boris Johnson is now Foreign Secretary – announced as part of the first wave of Theresa May’s ministerial appointments.
Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. I’ll let that sink in for a minute before continuing…
First of all, let’s dispel a myth that’s been doing the rounds at the moment:
Some poor person is having to security-check Boris
MPs are not subject to the same vetting procedures as civil servants.1 MI5 will pass on any security concerns about potential ministers to the PM, but ultimately it is up to Theresa May to appoint ministers.2 If MPs did have to be vetted, it would potentially give civil servants a veto over ministerial appointments, which would be unacceptable in a democratic society. Besides, Boris went to Oxford, which makes him ‘one of us’.3
Security concerns aside, the appointment of Boris to one of the Great Offices of State (the others being Chancellor, Home Secretary and Prime Minister) does seem odd at first glance, and even more so for Foreign Secretary. Boris is known for being a bit eccentric, a maverick and gaffe-prone – though I suspect many of his ‘gaffes’ are in fact disguised publicity stunts – which worked well when he was Mayor of London where personality is more important than politics. There were also plenty of opportunities for Boris to show off and stoke his ego.
Foreign Secretary, on the other hand, is unlike anything Boris has done before. It is a serious position, requiring tact and diplomacy. Boris will be in charge of MI6, the agency responsible for the collection of foreign intelligence (cue many jokes about Boris entering the office and announcing himself as ‘Johnson, Boris Johnson’). Unlike the Chancellor with their budget, the Foreign Secretary has no set-piece events which receive lots of coverage in the national media, and unlike the Home Secretary there is minimal influence over domestic policy (immigration falls under the Home Office).
Given that Boris seems entirely unsuitable for the role, why then has Theresa May appointed him? One possible reason is that he would be more dangerous on the backbenches, whereas as a senior member of the Cabinet he will have to at least pretend to be loyal. Another is that May has given Boris his own ‘self-destruct button’,4 in that if he screws up badly as Foreign Secretary she will have good cause to sack him and make sure he doesn’t return to the Cabinet. Boris also appears to be at ease with speaking and socialising and is reportedly quite charming – attributes which may serve him well in a position which potentially involves a lot of interaction with new people.
Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate Boris. He has bounced back from difficulties before, and his outward appearance of a likeable bumbling buffoon hides a sharp wit and intelligence. If he can avoid making any major gaffes, I think he may surprise us all as Foreign Secretary.