A man for whom sartorial elegance and élan is anathema, our new global ambassador and plenipotentiary representative cuts an unusual figure on the world stage.
Walking out of Downing Street following his astonishing catapult to high office, Boris Johnson, as the new foreign secretary looked every inch the roguish public schoolboy leaving the headmaster’s office after being told that, despite being caught drinking at the local pub and bringing the school into disrepute, he will be a Prefect after all.
Boris is a carefully choreographed construct. As he shuffled towards the cameras positioned outside his house last night, Johnson crammed a pudgy fist in the middle of his thatch of hair and instead of tidying it, made it, impossibly, even messier. On the steps of the Foreign Office, shirt trying desperately to hang out, Johnson looked shell-shocked. [A point of trivia: the current permanent undersecretary to the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald was Britain’s Ambassador to Israel].
This is all part of Project Boris. The man channels a kind of Wodehousian public schoolboy exterior which allows him to say outlandish comments, to look benignly dishevelled and just about get away with it. Even a spokesman for his former boss/friend/rival/chap he betrayed (sorry Boris, but, you did), David Cameron, once sighed “Boris is Boris”. The image Johnson concocts belies a ferocious intelligence and ruthless ambition.
During his trip to Israel in November 2015, he caused controversy for calling BDS supporters “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics”. If any other politician had said that (though I doubt there are any politicians who would command such colourful vocabulary – at least in public), their political stock would have plummeted. And yet, Project Boris kept chugging along.
Though one has to wonder whether Johnson has occasionally overstepped the line. The comparison of the EU to Hitler in the run up to the EU referendum and the racism directed towards a sitting U.S. president (and personally pointed criticism to both presidential nominees) do not sit well with the image of bonhomie Boris wishes to convey, certainly in the role of Our Man at large.
In many ways, Johnson is a complex character. One of his flaws is that he just wants to be liked. He is probably the only politician known only by his first name, or has his own acronym “BoJo”-though it sounds more like a swish new restaurant.
The death knell for a politician’s career is the wrong photograph. Think of the photograph of former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, brandishing a banana at the height of the phoney war against Gordon Brown. Or even the photograph of his brother, Ed Miliband, failing miserably at eating a bacon sandwich (religion notwithstanding).
Johnson’s recent trip to Israel was incredibly well documented – probably more than a mayor from any other metropolis. We saw photographs of Boris enthusiastically embracing a whopper of a fish in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda; we saw him riding a bike in his shirtsleeves, grinning sheepishly along Rothschild in Tel Aviv; and we saw him looking gormless and unkempt, sporting a massive pair of virtual reality goggles at Google’s Tel Aviv offices. All had the same effect: isn’t he funny! Everyone wants to meet him. Talk to him. And, that acme of achievement, have a ‘selfie’ with him.
But beneath Project Boris, lies a serious politician. His language regarding BDS may have been colourful, but his intention was clear: Boris Johnson champions Israeli democracy. And that is Johnson’s modus operandi: he has serious convictions which he dresses up in his own flamboyant colours. There cannot be many politicians who, when Calais threatened to end UK border controls, responded with such insouciance as: “donnez – moi un break” in those familiarly plummy tones. In fact, I don’t think that any politician would have been able to have said that with impunity. But Boris, being Boris, did.
Well, we may not need him, or want him to be funny for much longer. Foreign policy, particularly where Israel is concerned, is a serious business. When he withdrew his leadership bid, Mr Johnson’s advisor remarked that Johnson can now return to “national treasure” status. No such luck for the crowd-pleasing Mr Johnson.
Instead, he may well need to, as David Cameron once said of Jeremy Corbyn, wear a “proper suit and do up his tie”. He may also need to comb his hair. And he will need to pull his socks up, or all he may be left to do, is dish out the Ferrero Rocher at the end of an evening to the siren call of “Foreign Secretary, you really are spoiling us”.