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Despite all the clowning, Boris is world class when it comes to selling the UK

Everywhere on the globe he has travelled he has caused offence, but Boris could be a great Foreign Secretary, writes Pippa Crerar who has shared many of those trips

Published 15/07/2016

All change: Johnson addressing staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday
All change: Johnson addressing staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday
Captain calamity: Boris Johnson saluting from the deck of tall ship Tenacious
Hot shot: Boris on a shooting range in Iraq
All change: Boris, with his father, Stanley
Family man: with his wife Marina Wheeler
Bus stop: during a visit to Wrightbus Chassis plant in Antrim
Boris Johnson heralding Britain from the skies

As I sat opposite him on a train tearing across the New England countryside last year, Boris Johnson grimaced and put his head in his hands. He did not utter his usual "Cripes" but there was a low groan as he listened to the words I read out. They were his own and, after he was appointed Foreign Secretary in Theresa May's first Cabinet last night, they will be familiar to most.

In a piece on the Democratic presidential nomination race written for his newspaper column seven years previously, he had likened Hillary Clinton to a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital". He rolled his eyes as I reminded him he had once said Secretary Clinton represented "everything I came into politics to oppose" including an "all-round purse-lipped political correctness".

Unsurprisingly, his remarks put a dampener on what should have been considered a major coup - the then Mayor of London meeting the potential next President of the United States.


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When the talks took place the following day at her Manhattan office, Clinton was professionalism and charm personified, sweeping into the room with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Boris, sheepish in the extreme, bowed his head.

If she doesn't make it to the White House, the former mayor has also had a pop at her rival for the presidency. "The only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump," he told us.

The Tory politician had made his mark. The damage was compounded this year when he lashed out at "part-Kenyan" Barack Obama, saying he was biased against Britain because of "an ancestral dislike of the British Empire".

No wonder footage of a State Department official struggling to keep a straight face when he was told Boris will be our new Foreign Secretary, went viral online yesterday. Was it some sort of joke?

There was a similar view held across much of Westminster yesterday morning, even after his vow to put the US at the top of his list of apologies. For eight years I had a front-row seat as Boris travelled the world "banging the drum" for London.

I was in Beijing to read the Chinese press criticising him for "rudeness and arrogance" after he stood with his hands in his pockets during the Olympic handover ceremony in Beijing in 2008, his first foreign trip as London Mayor. He later gave us a taste of what was to come when he got entangled in a minor diplomatic dispute about the origins of ping-pong.

I was there four years later in India when he was sternly told off for riding his bike through Mumbai's Gateway of India as the crowds stared curiously after the streak of blond flying past.

In 2013, the former mayor, back in China, surprised his hosts as he and George Osborne had a very public tussle for the title of Tory heir in waiting.

A flying visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2015 provided a great picture opportunity of him staring down the sights of an AK-47 alongside a Peshmerga fighter - but also a diplomatic headache for his Foreign Office minders, who had to block his attempt to visit the front line of the war against Islamic State and pick up his hotel bar bill.

And then the piece de resistance. On his final mayoral visit last November I was one of a small band of reporters at Boris's side as he waded into the diplomatic minefield that is Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This trip was billed as a "diplomatic visit" as well as a trade mission and designed to show his critics that he was now in the major league.

For several days I sat in auditoriums and meeting rooms across Israel as he denounced calls for a boycott of Israel by "corduroy-wearing, snaggle-toothed, Lefty academics", suggesting their proposition was "ludicrous" because of its status as a democracy.

The fallout with his next hosts, the Palestinians, left diplomatic officials scurrying around trying to build bridges as his trip to the West Bank city of Ramallah was cut short when irate organisers of several events withdrew their invitations. Boris was crestfallen.

Then came the poem about the Turkish President having sex with a goat and the comparison between Vladimir Putin and Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter.

So it may come as a surprise that those who know the new Foreign Secretary best, including those who have watched him working at close quarters over most of the past decade, actually believe he will be quite good at his new job.

For every rugby-tackled Japanese schoolboy, there were thousands of pictures promoting what would have otherwise been a dry trade mission; for every joke about Britain's place in the world, there were foreign business leaders and politicians clamouring to hear more.

Boris has an unmatchable ability to open doors - both at home and abroad. Yes, it may be that Theresa May is doing to Boris what Obama did to Clinton, and giving him a job that gets him out of the way.

He will be too jetlagged and too confused to plot and will, crucially, be kept away from the grassroots.

It is, after all, just days since she ridiculed her new minister's foreign experience, joking that "last time he went to deal with Germans, he came back with three nearly-new water cannon".

But she will also be aware that Boris is hugely popular among the Brexit-supporting public, even as he has lost the trust of many who voted Remain.

The job is not the same one Philip Hammond is leaving - neutralising at least some fears about his poor grasp of detail. Liam Fox will run international trade talks, while David Davis is charged with the heavy lifting of Brexit negotiations. In a foreign policy crisis, No 10 will take over.

It is not wholly true that "what is left is showbiz", as some commentators have claimed, as Boris will be in charge of relations with hotspots including Russia, Syria and North Africa, as well as oversight of MI6.

But Britain's new top diplomat is at his best when surrounded by experienced experts, advising and steering and - often - restraining him.

Thankfully, the Foreign Office is packed with them.

It is a gamble by the new Prime Minister, but comparisons with Prince Philip are understandable but unfair.

But Boris knows he has bridges to build and that he must not commit any more gaffes. He will learn that a sledgehammer approach to democracy will not wash. It will be a test of discipline that he cannot fail.

One thing that the past decade has shown me is that for all the diplomatic gaffes, the unorthodox tactics, the comical approach to international relations, Boris is a world-class salesman.

He has become a globally recognisable figurehead, and if anyone can persuade our international partners that a Brexit vote was one of a self-confident nation, keen to secure existing relationships and strike new alliances, he can.

But, as we sat on the terrace of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem last November, sipping our drinks and chewing over the days' events, Boris told me: "Inevitably, when you say something that is true but controversial, there is a danger of people reacting badly. The crucial thing is to stick to your guns."

It is now time for him to disarm.

Independent News Service

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