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Europe: The Final Countdown

Boris Johnson Can't Escape the Clown Suit Straitjacket He Made for Himself

A review of Boris as foreign minister, and human gaffe.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson looks up during a press conference with US secretary of state John Kerry (unseen) at the Foreign Office in London. (Picture by: Kirsty Wigglesworth / PA Wire)

Imagine being Boris Johnson.

There is only one man who truly knows what it's like to be Boris Johnson. For the rest of us, some universal law means we can only follow his exploits from the outside. But in some ways, the past 12 days of wall-to-wall BoJo coverage have felt very close to full BoJo internality. It's been a a bit like that film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – the one with the Mogwai soundtrack – in which they just followed the French footballer around the pitch for 90 minutes without reference to the ball.


As he's zipped from verbal car crash to international summit, from New York to Brussels to France, the press pack has clung to his every twitch and emission. Following him has occasionally felt exhausting to watch, but what could it have even felt like from the inside? Nagel suggests it's impossible to truly know, but in the interests of science, we're going to try anyway, by reconstructing his week-and-a-bit in this Full BoJo Simulator, detailed below. If you're ready, then dive in, like a GoPro on a zip-wire, for a full account of Johnson's life as Foreign Secretary so far.

You are Boris Johnson.

In the summer heat, the press bays as you head through the door of Number Ten, but on the other side all is cool, well-upholstered calm. A smiling attendant nods and leads you through to Theresa May, who hands you control over the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – some 15,000 employees, a budget of over a billion pounds a year. You thank her and leave.

After running the other side of the media gauntlet, you read through the online coverage of your appointment. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt says: "I wish it was a joke, but I fear it isn't." The Germans have started the hashtag #Außenminister to post pictures of you alongside Mr Bean. The zip-wire thing inevitably resurfaces in a bunch of papers. Then, the heavyweights. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, says you "lied a lot" to get Britain out of the EU. He vows to speak to the new foreign secretary "with the greatest sincerity and frankness".


Someone has placed a sign at the bottom of your gate, saying: "Sorry World." But it's the Ugandan government spokesman who lands the most withering putdown: "We would be more concerned if the US or Russia appointed someone like Boris. But Britain no longer wields much power globally, that's why they have run away from the EU."

You are Boris Johnson. You head off to your first event – a summit where you will address all your new employees at the Foreign Office. But you can't figure out which black car in the road is your new official ride. You've left your front door, so now you're being chased round and round the road by teams of reporters as you hunt the danged chauffeur who just must be here somewhere.

The car finally pulls up, and you scoot off to the French Embassy's Bastille Day celebrations, where you are booed by the crowd.

Ten hours later, you emerge to issue a short statement sticking tightly to the script like a rabbit in headlights, as the events in Nice unfold.

A little over 24 hours after that, you're back outside the Foreign Office because there's been a coup against a man you once poetically accused of butt-sexing a goat, but it's vital, you assert, that we all now defend him to keep Turkey stable. Truly, folks, we've goat to repel the coup. No kid-ing.

You are Boris Johnson. Three days into your new job, you are in the elegant leather of a Foreign Office BAE 146 aeroplane, taking off from RAF Northolt bound for your first summit in Brussels, with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. You loosen your tie, grab a scotch and whip out a slightly dog-eared copy of the Speccie, but before you can dig into the latest Rod Liddle piece about the Muslamicisation of WH Smiths, the pilot advises everyone to buckle back up – there's been a failure of the plane's hydraulic systems. But don't worry – the emergency landing at Luton will be attended by several fire engines surrounding the runway. You're now hours late for your first ever foreign meeting.


You are Boris Johnson. You are being taken to the Foreign Secretary's official residence, Chevening, a sprawling grace-and-favour country house in Kent. "Wait a minute, there's a car in the drive already," you exclaim as you pull up onto the elegantly-raked gravel turning circle.

"That's one of your fellow house-sharers, sir," your flunkey purrs. "Theresa divided the FCO job into the Ministry for Brexit under David Davis, Liam Fox's International Trade brief and your own job. You'll all be living under the same roof here, for as long as things last. "Brexit Towers", some are calling it. I prefer to think of it as a sitcom called The Three Brexiteers.

You are Boris Johnson. Word gets back that there's another sign at the bottom of your Islington house. This one's a bit more creative at least; a sort of satirical blue plaque: "Passer of buck." "Cripes," is all you can mutter, as you instruct one of the security detail to pull it off some time in the middle of the night so the press don't see.

You are Boris Johnson. Another more stable plane has winged you to New York, to attend an anti-Daesh conference. You meet actual Ban Ki Moon! You meet John Kerry and then you get to do a press conference with him!

The BBC guy asks the first question. Probably a soft lob from the home team, right?

"Can I give you the opportunity to apologise to the world leaders you may or may not have been rude to over the past 12 months, and ask what your strategy is to build trust?"


Your depiction of Hillary Clinton as "a sadistic nurse" comes up again. And yes, you did accuse Barack Obama of harbouring a part-Kenyan's "ancestral dislike for the British Empire". But maybe the guy from the New York Times will go a bit easier?

"Mr Johnson. You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I'm wondering, how Mr Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history?"

You stumble your way to the end of the conference, but all that peripatetic verbosity you keep trying on is increasingly bogged down under the sheer weight of the endless unflinching questions. You're talking for Britain now, and while your age-old strategy of bluster and charm was well-suited to being an innocuous flag-waver for a large European metropole, the sheer insistent drumbeat of questions at the top level of international politics can't easily be swatted away… you cannae hold her much longer, can you captain? Either you spend four years being strait-jacketed into hollow on-brief statements written by your mandarins, or you put up with the pre-emptive laughter of the people who think you're a loose canon, a fringe grown sentient, Basil Brexit, Herr Bean, everything you built this caricature for, in order to seduce a headlines-only popular press has now been turned against you, and it's inescapable. You made Boris Johnson. But only now do you truly realise that you are Boris Johnson. You are him, and there's just no escaping the searchlight as you crawl muddily, bloodily, under the razor wire of your own personality. You. Are. Boris. Johnson.



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