Now the world is Boris Johnson's stage

By Frank Zeller, Charlotte Plantive

Boris Johnson was the last person many thought would become Foreign Secretary, write Frank Zeller and Charlotte Plantive.
Boris Johnson's appointment as Foreign Secretary has been described as a piece of "British humour". Photo / AP
Boris Johnson's appointment as Foreign Secretary has been described as a piece of "British humour". Photo / AP

Dubbed a liar by his French counterpart and lampooned as a "political jester" in European newspapers, chief Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson faced a wave of criticism and mockery after being named Britain's Foreign Secretary.

New Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when on Thursday she appointed the eccentric former London Mayor, known for his political antics and gaffe-prone style, as the top diplomat to lead the country out of the EU.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that, as a "Leave" campaigner, Johnson had "lied a lot" and said his appointment "reveals the British political crisis" following the referendum. Ayrault claimed he was not worried about working with Johnson but stressed the need for a "clear, credible and reliable" negotiating partner.

The outspoken European Parliament chief Martin Schulz also slammed May's new Cabinet, saying it was based on solving internal Conservative party splits rather than the national interest.

"The United Kingdom has to break this dangerously vicious cycle which has direct impacts on the rest of Europe," Schulz said.

Animosity is widespread in Europe about Johnson, who recently compared the EU's aims to those of Adolf Hitler.

After the Brexit vote, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker labelled Johnson and other Leave campaigners "sad heroes".

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking shortly before the news of Johnson's appointment, said he was outraged by Britain's "irresponsible politicians who first lured the country into Brexit, then ... got out, refused to take responsibility, and went to go and play cricket".

A deputy leader of the German Social Democrats, Ralf Stegner, said Johnson was not known for his diplomatic skills, adding: "Now he'll negotiate the Brexit. Bon Voyage!"

Many governments, in line with protocol, congratulated their new counterpart, who will make his diplomatic debut in Brussels next week.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that "we look forward to engage with Boris Johnson" and that the US-UK relationship "goes beyond personalities".

However, Toner struggled to keep a straight face, a broad smile breaking out more than once.

American political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote on Twitter: "Maybe the Brits are just having us on. We probably deserve it."

The foreign ministers of Latvia, Estonia and Norway all said they looked forward to meeting Johnson.

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov voiced hopes that "the weightiness of his current position, of course, will certainly prompt a somewhat different rhetoric of a more diplomatic nature."

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street after being appointed Foreign Secretary. Photo / AP
Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street after being appointed Foreign Secretary. Photo / AP

Most newspapers and social media, however, treated the appointment as the latest act in a political theatre of the absurd.

Germany's Handelsblatt called Johnson a "political jester", the daily Sueddeutsche labelled his appointment an example of "British humour", while the French L'Obs news magazine's headline was simply "King of the Blunder".

Germany's Die Welt said many initially thought the "bombshell" appointment was a joke.

"The fact that Theresa May is ... appointing, of all people, this undiplomatic, unpredictable and disloyal hotshot as Foreign Minister seems absurd at first glance," it said.

But it also saw the move as calculated, arguing that "the pressure now rests upon him - and his undoubted ambition - to prove himself".

Germany news magazine Der Spiegel, in an online commentary headlined "House of Cards in Britain", was withering.

"Those who thought the shamelessness with which Britain's political class play their power games could not be surpassed were disabused of that notion," it said.

"Boris Johnson, King of Brexit, has now been rewarded with the post of Foreign Secretary, having initially stuck his head in the sand after the vote.

"Now, finally, there can be no more doubt that British politics is not concerned with the country's welfare, but with haggling for positions, personal ambitions and power plays."

In its main article from London, Der Spiegel said Johnson "himself seemed surprised", having been widely regarded as "Britain's greatest bogeyman" after the vote.

But it also said May had appointed him "to heal the party and to show the voters ... that she takes the referendum outcome seriously".

France's Liberation reminded its readers that Johnson "has never held a ministerial post and a few days ago he pathetically withdrew from the race to lead the Tory Party".

"What looks like a promotion could in fact be a poisoned chalice," the Left-leaning paper said, adding that "the real negotiations on the Brexit will be managed by a specially created ministry and by the Prime Minister's Cabinet".

On social media, writers let rip too, with one tweeting, "A clown as the new Foreign minister - comedy or Shakespearean tragedy?" and another proposing that Johnson "recruit Mr Bean as an adviser".

Boris Johnson

Position: Foreign Secretary

EU Referendum: Supported Leave

Born: June 19, 1964 (age 52)

Position: Elected MP Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015 (former London Mayor)

MP since: 2001, when he was elected Conservative MP for Henley on Thames, standing as the Conservative candidate to replace Michael Hesletine. Shadow arts minister from May to November 2004, and shadow universities minister from December 2005 to July 2007. He gave up his seat in Parliament when he became Mayor of London in 2008. As his time as mayor drew to a close, Johnson stood again as MP, winning a London seat last year. This week, Prime Minister Theresa May made him Foreign Secretary.

Education: Read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford

Life outside politics: Started his career as a trainee reporter for The Times before holding various roles at the Daily Telegraph and later becoming editor of the Spectator. He is married to barrister Marina Wheeler and has six children.

Did you know? His full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He loves Latin. "Res ipsa loquitur" (the thing speaks for itself) was his response when he was once asked to describe his love for the language.

Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office on his first day as one of Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet. Photo / Getty Images
Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office on his first day as one of Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet. Photo / Getty Images

He said what?

Boris Johnson has a long history of making provocative and sometimes insulting comments. Here are some examples:

• In April, Johnson criticised President Barack Obama for endorsing Britain's position in the EU and suggested that his attitude might be based on his Kenyan heritage. Recounting a story about a bust of Winston Churchill that was returned to the UK, he wrote: "Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British empire - of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender." Obama said later that he did in fact have a bust of Churchill outside his private study.

• Johnson won a prize in May for submitting the most offensive poem, in which he insults Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with vulgar and sexual-oriented slurs.

• Johnson compared US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a sadistic nurse in a 2007 column in the newspaper the Daily Telegraph. "She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital."

• In December, Johnson argued in a column in the Telegraph that Britain should work together with Russian President Vladimir Putin to defeat Isis extremists. That didn't discourage him from describing the Russian leader in this way: "Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, he is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant."

• Also in December, US presidential candidate Donald Trump implied that parts of London were dangerous due to radicalisation. Johnson responded: "The only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump."

• Johnson said in an interview in May that the EU is aiming for a similar goal as Hitler did by trying to build a super-state. "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically," he told the Telegraph. "The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods."

• As a columnist in the early 2000s, Johnson used a derogatory term for black children in a story about the Queen and the Commonwealth.

• In 2006, Johnson offended an entire country by linking Papua New Guinea to "cannibalism and chief-killings" in his column.

• Johnson was in 2004 ordered by Conservative Party leader Michael Howard to apologise to Liverpool, because he had accused the city's residents of wallowing in "victim status" because of public grieving after a Liverpool resident was taken hostage and slain in Iraq.


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