Sidelined on Syria, UK’s Johnson struggles for status

By Dario Thuburn, AFP

LONDON — The rejection Tuesday of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s proposal for extra sanctions on Russia and Syria is the latest setback for a former Brexit campaigner struggling for political relevance. The decision by the G-7 meeting of foreign ministers in Italy came after Johnson on Saturday cancelled a scheduled trip to Russia in apparent deference to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upcoming visit. “Boris out in the cold over Russia,” read The Telegraph front page after the G-7 rejected his sanctions proposal. British newspapers broadly took a dim view of the Conservative politician’s performance on the world stage. “Johnson stung over sanctions” wrote The Times, while the Daily Mail said he had been “humiliated over Syria.”

They had been equally critical in their reactions to his cancellation of the Moscow trip, with The Times portraying him in a cartoon as a dog with a Union Jack collar left outside a U.S.-Russia meeting. Russia’s foreign ministry said his decision not to visit Moscow showed Britain had “no real influence on the course of international affairs, remaining ‘in the shadow’ of their strategic partners.” Johnson has long been mocked for his buffoonish antics and undiplomatic pronouncements and was always an improbable pick as foreign minister after his role in a bitterly divisive EU referendum campaign. When he was appointed in July, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Johnson had “lied a lot” in the campaign and he was booed in his first speech as foreign minister at the French embassy.

At a press conference with then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry just a few days later he appeared to confuse Egypt with Turkey and fended off questions about his scathing past references to world leaders. As delicate Brexit negotiations loom for which Prime Minister Theresa May is keen to show goodwill towards EU partners, his gung-ho spirit appears jarring. The latest front page of Private Eye, a satirical magazine, showed Johnson wearing sunglasses on an armoured vehicle during a visit to Somalia in March. “Tally ho! Gibraltar here we come!” read the caption — a reference to Britain’s opposition to Spain having a veto over the extension of any future EU trade deal to the British territory of Gibraltar. On Syria, Johnson’s views have proved inconsistent.