LONDON – Britain’s new top diplomat is shaggy-haired, Latin-spouting Boris Johnson, who in recent months has made insulting and vulgar comments about the presidents of the United States and Turkey.
And those are just his recent gaffes.
When Johnson returned to his London home after the appointment, a neighbour had placed a sign next to Johnson’s house saying: “SORRY WORLD.”
Johnson, 52, has made a long string of racist and insensitive comments dating back to his early career in journalism. He has apologized before and seems likely to do so again – he said after his surprise appointment that “the United States of America will be in the front of the queue” for his next apology, apparently because of his comments about President Barack Obama’s ancestry.
Johnson was a prominent leader of the successful referendum campaign to take Britain out of the European Union who harboured his own leadership hopes, making him a factor for Prime Minister Theresa May to deal with as she tries to unify the sharply divided Conservative Party.
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But her decision to put Johnson on the world stage dealing with foreign leaders is raising questions, largely because of his propensity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, sometimes in the most vulgar way.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said he could not believe Johnson will now represent Britain abroad. He said Johnson must first apologize to Obama for referring to his “part-Kenyan” ancestry and then apologize to EU leaders for saying their plans for Europe were similar to Hitler’s.
“At this incredibly important time that will determine Britain’s economic and cultural relations with Europe, it is extraordinary that the new prime minister has chosen someone whose career is built on making jokes,” Farron said.
Some of his wounds seem self-inflicted. During the referendum campaign, Johnson chose to enter a British magazine’s competition for an offensive poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He “won” – but the sexually oriented limerick was not well received in Turkey, a strategically important, predominantly Muslim ally.
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In April, Johnson criticized President Obama for suggesting Britain should stay inside the EU and described Obama as a “part-Kenyan” who had an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
In 2007 he described Hillary Clinton’s appearance as “like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” And last year he said: “The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”
The flamboyant Johnson was seen as an effective cheerleader for London during his stint as London mayor, a tenure that included the successful 2012 Summer Olympics. After the “leave” campaign scored a surprise victory in the June 23 referendum, he seemed well positioned to succeed David Cameron as prime minister.
But he was undercut by key ally (and campaign manager) Michael Gove, who pronounced Johnson unfit to serve and ran (with no success whatsoever) for party leader himself.
The treachery left Johnson down and out – for two weeks – until May lifted him up again.
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Her move – bravery or folly, time will tell – means the publicity-dependent Johnson will be able to command TV news coverage with a series of foreign trips. It is not clear if he will try to fit the traditional mould of Britain foreign secretary or retain his capricious approach to diplomatic niceties.
Foreign secretaries in Britain have traditionally stayed in a supporting role, refraining from saying anything remotely off-the-cuff or contentious.
That may be a stretch for Johnson.
As a newspaper columnist, Johnson used a derogatory term for black children when describing people in the Commonwealth and characterized people from Papua New Guinea as cannibals. While in Parliament, he offended an entire British city when he complained that people from Liverpool were wallowing in “victim status” after a Liverpudlian was taken hostage and slain in Iraq.
This long record of indiscreet comments has left some wondering about May’s choice, unveiled in the first few hours of her premiership.
“I wish it was a joke but I fear it isn’t,” tweeted Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.