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1 November 2021updated 02 Nov 2021 9:40am

Boris Johnson will only have himself to blame if Cop26 is a failure

The Prime Minister is the polar opposite of a statesman. He scarcely knows the meaning of the word diplomacy.

By Martin Fletcher

This is a sentence I do not write often: Boris Johnson is right. He is right when he declares that the world stands at “one minute to midnight”, and that the UN climate change summit in Glasgow is its “moment of truth”.

Here’s another sentence I seldom write. I really, sincerely hope that the Prime Minister makes a success of Cop26, because climate change is an issue that manifestly transcends partisan politics. It poses an existential threat to all mankind.

It alarms me, therefore, that Johnson is so ill-qualified for the mighty task of persuading so many nations with vastly different short-term interests to take the urgent, concerted action required to save the planet from catastrophe.

What’s required is a world leader of stature and authority – but beyond these shores, beyond the orbit of Britain’s sycophantic tabloids, Johnson is widely regarded as a perfidious, jingoistic bombastic showman. 

For all his talk of “global Britain”, he is the polar opposite of a statesman. He scarcely knows the meaning of the word diplomacy.  He has no obvious friends among the world’s presidents and prime ministers – not even the US president, Joe Biden. He makes scant effort to build alliances outside the Anglosphere. He has no reservoir of international goodwill to draw on. His two years as foreign secretary were dire, punctuated as they were by gaffes and gratuitous insults, and his two as prime minister have been little better.

He thrives on confrontation, not collaboration, whipping up his political base by demonising foreigners in general and the European Union in particular. He persuaded Britain to quit the boldest experiment in multinational cooperation the world has known, greatly diminishing his country’s influence in the process. He seeks to renege on an international agreement – the Brexit trade deal – that he signed and acclaimed barely one year earlier. He struggles to hold the UK together, let alone unite the world.

It is completely absurd that Johnson, and this critical summit over which he is presiding, should be distracted by a petty row with France over fishing rights – just as June’s G7 summit in Cornwall was overshadowed by the equally ridiculous “sausage war”. President Macron may be playing hardball, but Johnson has goaded him mightily with his disregard for the Brexit agreement, his provocative Aukus deal and his infantile use of mangled Franglais – “donnez-moi un break”. Nor will Macron have forgotten that Johnson once called him a “jumped-up Napoleon” and the French “turds”.

A second essential requirement of a successful Cop summit is a sustained commitment by the hosts, a willingness to do all the hard, unglamorous, grunt work during the preceding months and years. That is what France’s former president François Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, did before the 2015 summit that produced the landmark Paris climate agreement on which Glasgow is supposed to build. They made the Cop their top priority for a year, and threw the might of the French diplomatic machine behind their quest for consensus.

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Johnson doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t think long-term, only of the next day’s headlines. He doesn’t do slog, or detail, preferring to wing it on the day. Thus the preparations for Glasgow have been sorely underpowered.

In February last year, nine months before the Glasgow Cop was supposed to start (had Covid not forced a year’s postponement), he sacked Claire Perry O’Neill, a former energy minister as the summit’s president. He gave no reason, though her opposition to Brexit doubtless counted against her. O’Neill then lashed out at the Prime Minister’s “huge lack of leadership”, said there had been no serious cabinet discussion of the summit for months, and that Johnson “doesn’t get” climate change.

“We are miles off track,” she warned. “We must move on from Whitehall knot-tying, infighting and obfuscation, petty political squabbles and black ops briefings to real sustained engagement, maximum global ambition, open-hearted international cooperation, joined-up action and alliance building. To do that will require a whole of government reset and for your team to move the vast and immediate challenge of climate recovery to the top of the Premier League of their priorities from where it is now – stuck currently somewhere around the middle of League One.”

Having failed to persuade David Cameron or Willliam Hague to replace O’Neill, Johnson gave the job to Alok Sharma, a figure who scarcely commands attention in foreign capitals and who combined the role with that of business secretary for almost a year. As for the Prime Minister, he only entered the fray with a speech to the UN General Assembly in late September – and then disappeared on holiday for a week. 

It was a good speech, and Johnson said all the right things about the need for the world to grow up and listen to the scientists, but it would have been more convincing had his conversion to the cause not been so belated and apparently expedient. This is a man who used to mock “eco-doomsters”, claimed wind farms could “barely pull the skin off a rice pudding”, and once expressed support for the climate denier Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s brother. Only last week he declared that recycling plastic doesn’t work.

Johnson lacks one other key attribute required for a successful Glasgow summit, and that is genuine leadership – or the willingness to set an example by taking hard decisions. He has set admirable long-term targets for decarbonising Britain, but repeatedly fails to take the painful actions that are necessary now if those aspirations are to be met. Indeed he assures voters the UK can meet its 2050 net-zero target “without a hair shirt in sight”.

Thus his government continues to license new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, and to approve airport expansions. It hesitates to block a proposed new coal mine in Cumbria. Its home insulation programme collapsed in March. It dropped references to climate commitments to secure a post-Brexit free-trade deal with Australia, the world’s second-largest coal exporter. It has failed to help the world’s poorest nations tackle climate change by cutting foreign aid.

Nor will it have escaped the notice of any Glasgow summiteer that Rishi Sunak’s Budget last week maintained a decade-long freeze on fuel duty, earmarked £21bn for roads, and halved the tax on domestic flights. One delegate compared the budget to Poland’s decision to hold 2024’s Cop in Katowice, a city literally built on coal.

What Johnson does excel at is spin, and Britain’s premier wordsmith will doubtless find a way to present the outcome of Glasgow as some sort of progress. Unfortunately, the last thing the world needs right now is yet more empty rhetoric and obfuscation. It needs hard truths and brutal honesty. 

[See also: Boris Johnson tells world leaders they’re failing on climate change]

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