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3 November 2021updated 05 May 2022 12:01pm

Britannia Chained: will Boris Johnson’s Global Britain ever escape the shackles of Brexit?

The UK is still fighting the EU as the Prime Minister tries to define a new role for the country on the world stage.

By Tim Ross

It was dawn in Rome and the air was still cool, the streets yet to fill with tourists and traffic. Inside the magnificent, ruined Colosseum, the first rays of sun fell on to ancient stones and Boris Johnson stood and stared in awe. “He was in his element,” said one aide who toured the monument with him.

The Prime Minister visited the 2,000-year-old arena as a lover of Roman history – but one who also had a job to do. His aim, as he spoke amid the ruins to television crews on 30 October, was to tell a story about the peril facing the Earth, and to persuade his fellow world leaders, gathered in Rome for the G20 summit, to act on climate change. For Johnson, the fall of the Roman empire provided the perfect cautionary tale of what is at stake for humanity: the safeguarding of civilisation or a return to the dark ages following environmental catastrophe.

“My point is that things could go backwards, and they could go backwards at a really terrifying speed,” Johnson told a group of reporters, including from the New Statesman, who travelled with him to Italy.

By the end of the following day, Johnson’s mood had darkened. Talks at the G20 had failed, in his view, to deliver the kind of ambitious commitments needed to keep hopes alive of saving the planet from disaster. Despite flooding, wildfires and droughts, and Johnson’s own impassioned appeals for action, years of promises from world leaders sounded “frankly hollow”, he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visits the Colosseum during the G20 summit on October 30, 2021 in Rome, Italy. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As the diplomatic roadshow prepared to move to Glasgow for the UN’s Cop26 climate talks, Johnson gave another warning. “If Glasgow fails, then the whole thing fails,” he said. “The Paris Agreement will have crumpled at the first reckoning. The world’s only viable mechanism for dealing with climate change will be holed beneath the waterline.”

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The Cop26 gathering of 200 governments and more than 25,000 delegates is frequently described as vital. But the success of the talks depends, in part, on the effectiveness of the UK as the host nation in corralling countries with competing priorities and helping persuade them to sign up to new agreements.

This is exactly the role Johnson and his government envisage for the UK after Brexit, making the summit a key test of his vision of “Global Britain” as an influential actor on the international stage. It’s why his success in delivering on that Brexiteer slogan is now, in November 2021, urgent for the world.

[see also: Boris Johnson will only have himself to blame if Cop26 is a failure]

But however important Britain may be during the climate summit, questions remain over the country’s long-term place in a world being shaped by the rise of new powers and alliances. Will other countries still look to the UK once its “year of leadership” – as host of Cop26 and the G7 – ends? Will developing nations turn to London after Johnson’s government cut foreign aid? Is the UK’s image abroad indelibly tarnished by its ongoing, bitter European divorce?

“The big question is, can you have ‘Global Britain’ and be at war with Europe?” said Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think tank. “My sense is, no.”

For some time after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Johnson, the face of the Leave campaign, wondered if he had persuaded the country to make a historic mistake.

Six months after the vote, as foreign secretary, he set out his thinking on how Britain could prosper. He declared he did not want the UK to be “defined by” its referendum decision, but to look to what it can achieve as “Global Britain”. Then, in December 2016, he gave his audience at Chatham House in London an example which, at the time, seemed unremarkable, but now seems tragically hubristic: the fate of the people of Afghanistan.

Johnson said the then Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani had been “absolutely categorical” that the UK’s legacy was “positive and lasting”. He noted the “millions of girls we have helped to teach”, the fields “irrigated and clear of mines”, and some of the world’s poorest villages now wired up with electricity, “thanks to the labour of British troops”.

“Britain has not always acquitted itself well in Afghanistan and we in our generation have rightly found much to reproach in the vaulting jingo of our Victorian ancestors,” he said. “But in sticking up for a liberal international order in the confusion and discord of the early 21st century, I believe this country is overwhelmingly a force for the good… and we should not be nervous of saying so.”

Now, almost three months on from the fall of Kabul, there are reports of Afghan families being forced to sell their children to pay for food, while the Taliban has banned girls from secondary education. Johnson’s “vaulting” assessment of British achievements came too soon. His critics, and even some of his friends, say the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – during which the US did not consult Johnson’s government first – demonstrates Britain’s diminished influence after Brexit.

But Johnson has persisted with the theme of Global Britain. “After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record, to recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain,” he said in his first speech as Prime Minister in 2019. “No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country. They will not succeed today.”

According to one senior government official, Johnson’s jingoistic slogan never meant much to his more practical predecessor Theresa May. “People thought it was flannel,” the official said. “The idea of ‘Global Italy’ or anywhere else just seemed ridiculous.”

The concept of Global Britain is certainly easy to ridicule. “The problem is, it’s a slogan,” the official said. “What is the substance underneath?” Perhaps, they suggested, a slogan without substance is simply a metaphor for Johnson’s premiership.

The slipperiness of the idea and the sting in the satire it attracts speak to the doubts many have over the UK’s standing after its departure from the EU. The UK is still the world’s fifth largest economy. It has the advantages of a powerful financial services sector, a respected legal system and some of the most prestigious and productive universities and research centres in the world. But diplomatically, Brexit cast Britain somewhat adrift. Tony Blair liked to think of the UK as a bridge between the European Union and the United States. Now President Joe Biden (and Donald Trump before him) does not call London when he needs to talk to Europe.

The painful spectacle of the UK’s exit negotiations played out in front of the world and caused alarm in Washington, especially regarding the question of Northern Ireland. While American politicians often failed to grasp the nuances of the Northern Ireland protocol, they knew they cared. There were suspicions in London that Biden, a proud Irish American, was predisposed to sympathise with the EU position over that of the old colonial “Brits” – whether he fully understood the complexities of the situation or not.

Perhaps hurt by criticism of the Brexit project and of his time as foreign secretary, Johnson set about overhauling the UK’s foreign policy when he entered No 10. He took two important steps. First, he hired John Bew, professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London (and a New Statesman contributor), and tasked him with pulling together an overarching strategy for the next decade of British diplomacy. The result, published in March this year, was Global Britain in a Competitive Age, a 111-page “integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy”.

The paper spans investment in conventional defence and intelligence capabilities, cyber warfare, geopolitical analysis, diplomacy, aid policy and even the exploitation of space. The ambition of Global Britain is not, it seems, limited to the globe.

The review suggests the UK should use its “convening power” to shape “the open international order of the future”. Britain may not be a superpower, but it has the intellectual and economic heft to be able to lead and influence others and bring together important networks, the argument goes.

This logic is what makes Johnson’s Cop26 agenda so important for his government. According to the review, 2021 “will be a year of British leadership, setting the tone for the UK’s international engagement in the decade ahead”.

Johnson also took a second key step, ripping up the machinery of Whitehall and merging the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development. Under Dominic Raab, the newly formed super-department was an unhappy place. Raab alienated some diplomats, who leaked private comments to damage him. Morale was low – an inevitable side-effect of a large structural merger of thousands of staff, one official sympathetic to Raab said.

Development staff were especially demoralised when the Chancellor Rishi Sunak opted to cut overseas aid funding in an effort to rein in public expenditure after the pandemic. Ditching Britain’s legal commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid damaged the UK’s reputation overseas, ignited a revolt within the Tory party and made Johnson’s task as the host of Cop26 and the G7 more difficult.

Raab was moved to the Ministry of Justice in the cabinet reshuffle this September. He was replaced by Liz Truss, an energetic, social media-savvy free marketeer who had built up a cult following among Conservative members during her time as international trade secretary. Truss now aims to revive morale, refocus the UK’s network of diplomats and embassies on core priorities, give ambassadors more autonomy and concentrate her mission around what one source called “economic diplomacy”.

Yet despite Johnson’s hopes for an influential role for Britain, for fresh alliances with like-minded allies in Asia, and for a revival of democratic, open-market economics led by a resurgent, entrepreneurial UK, there is one souring relationship he can’t escape: that with Britain’s ex-partners in the EU.

Johnson’s G7 summit was the first of the UK’s major events in its “year of leadership”, and one that analysts say will give a far better indication of Britain’s global influence than Cop26. His priorities included trying to cut funding for coal-fired power, build an alliance of democracies to counter the rise of China and supply one billion Covid vaccine doses to the developing world. For some attendees, one defining memory of the gathering will be that the German delegation contracted coronavirus and their hotel had to be shut down (the awning on the facade bore the unfortunate inscription “breathtaking sea views”). The leaders may recall Angela Merkel telling jokes on the golden sand during a drinks reception while local chefs prepared a beach barbecue of crab claws, seared sirloin and Newlyn lobster.

But a less palatable discussion dominated much of the diplomatic action for Johnson: the Brexit “sausage wars”. The Prime Minister clashed with the French president Emmanuel Macron, telling him during a private meeting that the EU’s ban on sending chilled meat from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland was like a court preventing Toulouse sausages from being exported to Paris. Macron dismissed Johnson’s idea as “irrelevant”.

Four months later, at the G20 in Rome, Johnson and Macron met and argued again. This time, the row was over fish. With 48 hours left to persuade leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Johnson had to spend valuable time on the dispute over post-Brexit fishing licences for French vessels, and the ongoing debate over trade rules for Northern Ireland. Initially, he tried to laugh it off, saying he had “bigger fish to fry”. But Macron wouldn’t drop his complaints that the UK is withholding licences from French fishermen, claiming British credibility was on the line. What really dismayed Downing Street was a letter from the French prime minister Jean Castex to the EU in which he appeared to argue that the bloc must stand firm to show Britain is suffering the damage caused by Brexit.

The two leaders put their dispute on hold in Glasgow. But for Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, the worsening relations with Paris show “the relationship the UK needs to sort out is with the EU”.

At Chatham House, Niblett argues it will take the UK two or three years to resolve the legislative legacy of a hasty and thin Brexit deal. Johnson’s team does not want to treat the EU as too close an ally. “The UK can and probably will be one of the most influential second-tier countries,” Niblett said. “But until the UK has settled its relationship with the EU, it is going to be launching its Global Britain agenda with one hand tied behind its back.”

Senior government officials agree. Even staunch supporters of Johnson’s project say the tensions with the EU following Brexit seem likely to drag on for some time.

What does Johnson think of his progress in delivering Global Britain with post-Brexit strains still demanding airtime? When the New Statesman asked him while travelling with him to Rome, the Prime Minister was defensive. “I think the UK has had an astonishing impact on the world in the last 18 months or so,” he said, referencing Britain’s leadership role in driving countries to sign up to net zero pledges. “If that isn’t Global Britain, I don’t know what is.”

Johnson also cited the UK’s Indo-Pacific “tilt” and the Aukus defence deal with the US and Australia as evidence of “a country that is thinking confidently and creatively about the way ahead”. The Prime Minister became animated. The UK has struck more than 60 trade deals, he said. “Each of these represent the UK making anew in the world forum the argument for free trade and economic interpenetration, which is an argument that has not been made powerfully in the last 20 years.”

Yet the real test is not how many trade agreements are completed, but whether businesses can actually use them to export goods, one government source said. The Brexit prize of a deal with the US is not likely. According to the latest figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, UK goods trade has fallen sharply both with the EU and with the rest of the world since Brexit.

Johnson’s final case for British influence, as it had been in his first major speech on Global Britain as foreign secretary, rested on the military. “Other leaders often say the single best export of this country is the UK armed forces,” he said. “The thing they most welcome is [the forces’] help and assistance.”

With the G20 over and the cold, grey skies of Glasgow beckoning, Johnson and his team boarded their flight at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. One of the workers helping passengers pass through the terminal building recalled the contrasting scenes he had witnessed there in the summer. “I was here at the end of August,” he said. “All the military flights landed here, full of people flown out from Afghanistan. They slept two nights here and were taken away.” As Johnson remarked in a different context, things can go backwards, at terrifying speed.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s perfect storm]

This article was amended on 3 November 2021 after the print version incorrectly stated the date of the merger of the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development. The merger was announced in June 2020.

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained