One reason Boris Johnson made Liz Truss Foreign Secretary on 15 September was that she, like he, practices “boosterism” at a time when so many Brits are deeply concerned about their country’s future.
Here she was in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, in full cry ahead of visiting the UN General Assembly with Johnson this week. This will be the autumn where “Global Britain plants its flag on the world stage… going out into the world in a positive and confident spirit to tackle the major challenges of our age alongside our friends and allies,” she wrote.
The government would be “positioning the UK at the heart of a network of economic, diplomatic and security partnerships”. Britain was a “global force for good”, an “outward-looking, positive nation”, and a “fierce champion of freedom and free enterprise, promoting democracy and equality around the world”.
Does anyone seriously believe such delusional guff? It was true once, but not now. Far from building partnerships, we have quit the world’s biggest political and economic bloc and, in doing so, squandered our utility to the US.
Johnson talks about “Global Britain”, but the truth is that we are now an isolated, mid-sized nation – albeit one with nuclear weapons and a UN Security Council seat – that is battling to maintain its international relevance. Since his ejection from Downing Street, Dominic Cummings has ridiculed the “Global Britain nonsense” of his fellow Brexiteers, calling it “a crap slogan that 5 years later still means nothing”, and he is right.
Certainly, Johnson pulled off a mini-coup last week when the US, UK and Australia announced a new security pact, with the first two enabling the latter to build nuclear submarines to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. But at what cost?
The Aukus pact has undermined both Nato and Western unity. It has enraged France, our closest and largest neighbour, which saw its own £27bn deal to build 12 conventional subs for Australia cancelled without notice. It has cemented Britain’s growing reputation for perfidy, and shown, once again, our continuing and increasingly risky dependence on the so-called “special relationship” to maintain our standing in the world.
As Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, complained: “Our British friends explained to us that they were leaving the EU to create Global Britain. As you can see, it is a return to the American fold and accepting a form of vassal status.”
After two wretched years as foreign secretary, and two more as Prime Minister, it is remarkable how few friends Johnson has among his fellow world leaders. Indeed, most privately view him as an aberration, and that includes President Biden.
When they meet at the White House tomorrow (21 September), he and Biden will put on the statutory outward show of amity between a British Prime Minister and US president, but it will be exactly that: a show. Johnson reportedly had to lobby hard for the meeting, and we know for a fact that Biden opposed Brexit, regards Johnson’s efforts to wriggle out of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a threat to the province’s fragile peace, and once described the Prime Minister as a “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump.
Biden demonstrated his true regard for Johnson by failing to consult him before abruptly withdrawing the last US troops from Afghanistan last month, then refusing the Prime Minister’s calls. Nor would he have taken kindly to contemporary press reports of Johnson calling him “Sleepy Joe”, and an unnamed cabinet minister describing him as “gaga” and “doolally”. Since Trump’s departure from the White House, any chance of Britain swiftly negotiating a trade deal with the US has completely vanished.
And what of Truss’s other claims about “Global Britain”? A “fierce champion” of freedom and democracy? Tell that to the millions of Afghans we have just abandoned to the tender mercies of the Taliban – or, for that matter, to those in this country who are seeing their rights to vote and to protest eroded by Johnson’s government.
“Outward looking”? We have spent the last five years navel-gazing. We have cut overseas aid. We treat refugees fleeing wars, poverty and repression as criminals. We breach international laws and conventions. We have diminished the Foreign Office and empowered mediocrities like David Frost. We are shrinking the British Council’s presence overseas. We are even restoring the imperial measurement system in some ridiculous pandering to those who really drive British foreign policy these days – the disgruntled Red Wall voters.
Britain “at the heart” of global networks? We have just left the biggest one of all, with nothing to replace it, and deeply antagonised our former European friends and allies in the process. Far from providing global leadership, we are struggling even to hold the UK together, raising the deeply embarrassing possibility that our nuclear submarine fleet could lose its Scottish base.
As for the UK “planting its flag on the world stage”, Truss cites November’s UN climate change conference in Glasgow as an example of that. Let’s see. It may be a great success, and I pray that it is, but seldom will the chair of an event so critical to the future of the world have enjoyed such paltry international authority, goodwill and respect as Johnson does.