Our new Prime Minister Theresa May wasted no time in stunning the world by appointing leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary. It was always on the cards but very few people thought it would ever happen.
As expected, the response was one of amusement and bewilderment. A US State Department spokesperson could barely hold back his laughter during a press conference when he was told the news, a former Prime Minister of Sweden stated “I wish it was a joke, but I fear it isn’t”, and Boris was even booed at the French embassy in his first public appearance as Foreign Secretary. However could it be that Boris’s bold, outward looking, charismatic approach to his new role is exactly what Britain needs right now?
Putting personal political views to one side (as well as a few undiplomatic statements made in the past), Boris’s distinctive personal brand and charm that served him so well as Mayor of London could prove a huge asset to the Foreign Office. At a time of economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote, we need a Foreign Secretary who can be a cheerleader abroad, selling Britain as a brand and convincing others that we have no intention of retreating from the world stage.
Boris speaks several languages, was born in the United States, spent much of his early life in Belgium and his ancestry is made up of Turkish, French and Russian-Jewish origin. In other words, he’s no ‘little Englander’. Let’s also not forget that as Mayor of London he over-saw the success of the Olympic Games, managed a budget of £17 billion a year and had great success in encouraging trade and foreign investment into London. It goes some way to explaining why he was elected twice in a traditionally Labour-supporting city.
Shortly after his new appointment, he spoke of “more Britain abroad and a greater global profile” and this is exactly the kind of energy and motivation that Britain needs. And for anyone worried about the more nitty-gritty aspects of Britain’s exit from the EU, it mustn’t be forgotten that much of this responsibility will come down to the less charismatic but more detailed Liam Fox and David Davis in their newly created positions as Secretary of State for International Trade and Secretary of State for Exiting the EU.
Boris Johnson’s appointment also presents an opportunity to create a global Britain that benefits everyone. We saw from the referendum result that there was little enthusiasm for the EU outside of London and perhaps now the rest of the UK may feel the benefits of international links under the guidance of Boris Johnson.
During the campaign, Boris repeatedly stated his belief that Brexit would have a “positive impact” on the Northern Powerhouse and that control over our own foreign affairs would benefit regions all over the UK. This was bolstered by former Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton’s decision to pre-emptively endorse Boris for the party leadership stating that “the North of England has emotionally and politically abandoned Westminster and we need someone who can bridge that gap and deliver for all of our country.” Wharton clearly sees that Boris’s approach to foreign policy can benefit the entire nation and not just a privileged few as was frequently the case with the EU.
Now that Boris is in a position of power, he has an opportunity to practice what he preached and represent the rest of England abroad and secure its place in the world in a way that benefits everyone.
Simply having control over our own foreign affairs is already a cause for excitement. Take the issue of free movement – whilst there was little enthusiasm for European free movement in the UK, a recent survey found that the idea of free movement between English speaking, developed Commonwealth countries (UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) was supported by around 60% of people in all four countries – far higher than the support for EU free movement.
Whilst making this a reality may sound like a long-shot, the excitement it generates speaks volumes, showing that the British people see a future outside of the EU and need leaders who can harness this new power over our foreign affairs and lead Britain to a prosperous and outward looking future outside of the EU. What’s more is that all those who doubted Britain’s ability to thrive outside the EU are already being proven wrong.
The President of the Confederation of Indian Industry has described a UK-India trade deal as “made in heaven”, Australia has said it is keen to strike a deal “as soon as possible” and the United States Congress has fast-tracked plans to open up free trade with the UK. So much for being “back of the queue”.
This approach falls perfectly in line with that of Theresa May who has put social justice at the heart of her leadership, with an approach that benefits the whole of the UK. She has proudly stated that the “Conservative Party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of working people,” and faced head-on the issue that “if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university” – something that personally matters to me and many others. Actions will speak louder than words but perhaps as a team, Boris, Theresa and her wider cabinet, with social mobility in mind, will shape a new, global Britain where everyone can enjoy the benefits of boosted trade, foreign investment and the re-claiming of our legal and political powers from Brussels. As Theresa May herself put it, “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.
In our increasingly globalised and interconnected world, it is clear that the whole of Britain has a stake in the way we approach our foreign affairs. Perhaps if anything, this is a chance to be more outward looking in a way that works for all, with leaders who do our country proud rather than talk it down. Time will tell if Boris’s input was right for the times but the passion and motivation he has shown so far are certainly a positive sign of what we can look forward to.