LONDON, KIGALI and MADRID — As Boris Johnson departed London last week for an epic foreign tour spanning two continents and three world summits, he already seemed weary of the baggage he was carrying with him.
Addressing the traveling U.K. press pack at the start of the eight-day trip, the British prime minister lacked some of his familiar spark. The usual verbal hand grenades were not deployed.
By that stage Johnson knew the first leg of his journey, to a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Rwanda, would be overshadowed by two scenes of domestic conflict: an ugly row between Downing Street and Clarence House — the home of Prince Charles — over Johnson’s flagship immigration policy, and a double helping of by-election defeats for the Conservative Party back in the U.K.
On the plane an aide articulated what many suspected, that Johnson wanted to use the CHOGM, G7 and NATO summits to return to a heavy focus on Ukraine — a foreign policy area which has been his safe space in a year dominated by questions over his personal integrity.
But the fallout from the disastrous by-election losses — the defeat in Tiverton, south-west England, being the heaviest his party has ever suffered — has dogged him throughout the trip, with rumors swirling back home of an organized attempt by rebel Tory MPs to force a second challenge to his leadership.
As a consequence, Johnson’s battle to keep the focus off his dire domestic troubles has met with varying degrees of success. And as ever, his propensity for eye-catching, off-the-cuff remarks proved both his greatest asset and his deadliest enemy.
Arriving in Madrid Tuesday for a summit of NATO leaders — the final leg of his journey — Johnson walked straight into a fresh domestic row, this time with members of his own Cabinet over the U.K.’s defense spending commitments. Aides said he will spend the rest of the week trying to switch the focus on to the need for NATO partners to increase their own spending. It’s a familiar cycle, repeated over and over again throughout the trip.
Diplomatic speed dating
On paper, a long-delayed Commonwealth leaders’ summit had looked like the perfect chance for Johnson to shine on the world stage. The 54-member organization, many of which have historical ties to the U.K. as former colonies, hold a particular attraction for a leader politically invested in international cooperation outside the EU.
Discussing the Africa free trade area in a speech to African foreign ministers, Johnson could not resist a swipe at the trading bloc Britain recently left behind. “I remember the U.K. helped to found the European free trade area many years ago,” he said. “(It) then got taken over by something called the European Union … but never mind that.”
Johnson’s diplomacy, such as it is, relies heavily on personal magnetism; a legendary ability to draw people in when up close. A U.K. diplomat recalled of Johnson’s time as foreign secretary: “He did have star power. People suddenly wanted to meet the British foreign secretary again, because everyone knew Boris Johnson. He was a political celeb.”
Yolande Makolo, a Rwandan government spokesperson, suggested the dynamic still holds true. “Of course,” she said. “Everybody knows Boris.”
As always, humor was deployed to good effect. A bilateral meeting with the notoriously austere Rwandan President Paul Kagame was described as “upbeat” by two people present, who said Kagame even cracked a smile at times.
Johnson shared a joke with Jamaican PM Andrew Holness about which man looked more like James Bond in their dinner jackets. An aide described Johnson’s diplomatic style as a kind of “speed dating.”
The love I lost
But if the prime minister was hoping for an endless love-in on his escape from domestic duties, he would be disappointed.
In Kigali, one of Johnson’s first engagements was an audience with Prince Charles, an awkward prospect after the future monarch privately condemned the U.K.’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling.” The prime minister had initially sought to play things down, telling journalists he could not be sure the prince had even made the attributed remarks.
But Johnson’s attempts at restraint did not survive contact with the litany of media interviews required of an extended foreign trip. Within 24 hours the PM had reignited the row, telling TV reporters he would “of course” defend the immigration policy when he met with the prince.
One person present at the interview said Johnson appeared to realize immediately — but too late — the trouble his comments were likely to cause. Clarence House reacted furiously, having agreed to present a united front. Downing Street did not deny the two camps were hurriedly in touch following the interview.
Yet in private, Johnson was unrepentant. The same Downing Street adviser quoted above contrasted the weight of pressure on the PM on multiple fronts with the (assumed) lighter duties of the prince and his aides, noting drily that Johnson had limited time to spend on “humoring men in tights.”
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON APPROVAL RATING
And while the by-election losses in Wakefield and in Tiverton on the first night of the trip may have been priced in by travelling aides, Tory MPs back home were still deeply unsettled by the scale of the anti-government vote. The morning after proved a rougher dawn in Kigali than expected, thanks to the shock resignation of Johnson’s party chairman, Oliver Dowden.
Again, Johnson attempted a sober response, trotting out his lines about focusing on the real challenges facing the U.K. and the world. Again, the façade could not be maintained for long.
Pressed by reporters about his clouded future, Johnson replied boldly that he planned to lead Britain through the next two general elections and on into the 2030s. Tory MPs back home, already baying for blood, were unimpressed.
Asked what had become of the adulation Johnson once enjoyed from both his party and the wider public, a No. 10 official told journalists: “He gets that here — but not from you lot.”
Such comments form part of a pattern that has seen Johnson and his allies blame his current woes upon the media’s reporting of the so-called Partygate scandal — an ironic outcome for a former journalist who is used to being able to play the press like a fiddle.
It also lays bare Johnson’s transparent quest for love on the world stage while things fall apart at home.
At the G7 summit in Bavaria earlier this week, Downing Street had seemingly sought ‘strongman’ headlines following Johnson’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, briefing journalists that the PM had delivered clear warnings about not bowing down to Russia.
But in truth the meeting was more of a love-in, with a back-slapping Johnson turning on the charm and avoiding all difficult subjects — even nodding along with Macron’s plan for a two-speed Europe that might one day see Britain join an outer circle.
“Prime Minister Johnson showed lots of enthusiasm,” the Elysse said afterward. “He was just being polite,” Downing Street sources quietly explained. British tabloids dubbed the meeting “Le Bromance.”
And while Johnson chases adulation on the world stage, his climate-focused policy agenda risks being left on the sidelines.
The U.K.’s COP26 team — so recently at the wheel of the global discussion on climate change — had to watch from London as leaders at the G7 eroded some of the wins achieved in Glasgow last year, not least demands supported by Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz to invest in gas infrastructure. However, Johnson was able to resist some of the most damaging changes.
Certainly Johnson wasn’t pushing the agenda forward, despite the U.K. being the official U.N. climate presidency for most of this year. On Sunday evening, Johnson skipped the relaunch of a major green infrastructure push he himself had fostered as G7 chairman the year before. While seven out of the nine leaders attended, Johnson was busy trying to patch up his relationship with Macron.
It may be — given the prime minister’s unique character — that efforts to separate his domestic troubles from his adventures abroad were ultimately always doomed.
Karl Mathiesen and Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.