If Boris Johnson and Boris Becker battled over who would make a better foreign secretary, Becker would easily win

Matthew Norman
The two Borises have more in common than borderline albino pigmentation and a shared profession: Reuters

Is the British foreign secretary the most laughably unqualified blond Boris posturing as a diplomat today?

Until now, the question was too crudely satirical to be worth asking. The only legally permissable response was a wintry cackle at the notion that, in such a narrow field, Boris Johnson could have a rival for the accolade.

Then up popped Boris Becker with his Central African Republic diplomatic passport, and what looked like a BoJo walkover finds itself in a tight fifth set.

The tale of the wildly divergent paths that brought the two Borises to this battle has the flavour of the synopsis for a novel Jeffrey Archer was too ashamed to show his publisher.

It begins in the summer of 1985, when to be young, blond and Boris was very heaven. Johnson, just turned 21, had finished his second year at Oxford as secretary of the union and one of the top rated flingers of a bread roll in the entire Bullingdon Club.

Becker was putting even that stellar precocity in the shade, winning Wimbledon at the startling age of 17. If he was a 100-1 shot before the tournament began, the odds against the Borises sharing the same profession in 2018 were too astronomical to be calculated. Yet here they are, 33 years on, locked in a struggle for supremacy that is devilishly hard to call.

By conventional criteria, Becker should have a decisive edge. His qualifications for diplomatic work as one of Africa’s more troubled nations’ cultural attache to the EU look flimsy on the face of it.

This morning he reassured Andrew Marr that he legitimately came by his passport, which he says was in Brussels the last time he checked. He also insists that his motives for taking the post are wholly humanitarian, and nothing to do with any master plan to use diplomatic immunity to stymie bankruptcy proceedings brought by the private bank in London to which he reportedly owes many millions.

The CAR appears to disagree. A presidential spokesperson dismisses that passport as a fake. Its minister for foreign affairs, Charles Armel Doubane, baldly states: “Boris Becker is not an official diplomat of Central African Republic.”

The thing about foreign ministers these days is that you can’t take a word they say on trust. If Johnson has taught us anything, it’s that. He claimed that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British national still in an Iranian jail, was in Tehran teaching journalism. As he later confessed, this was cobblers.

So it may be that Doubane is equally mistaken about Becker’s appointment, and the holder of seven grand slam titles is a duly accredited CAR cultural attache.

But even if Doubane is right – even if Becker’s only reason for claiming diplomatic status is to pull a legal fast one and avoid going broke – does that make him a less credible diplomat than his fellow Boris?

Whatever Becker’s limitations in the field, credit him for this. In his short, possibly imaginary, career as a diplomat, he has neither offended another country with comic reference to its gruesome colonial past, as Johnson did in Myanmar, nor endangered the future freedom of a fellow citizen by falsely smearing her to her captors.

Nor has Becker ridiculed his country’s leader by dissing a key Brexit negotiation tactic as insanity.

Admittedly, he hasn’t shown the intuitive grasp of etiquette that has led Johnson to dismiss the CBI’s concerns about the state of those negotiations with as classically diplomatic a turn of phrase as “F*** business!”.

But Becker has only had his attache posting (if he’s had it at all) since April, and may want more time to master this discipline than he needed to perfect his serve and volley grass game as a gangly boy.

The two Borises have more in common than borderline albino pigmentation and a shared profession. Their rollercoaster rides from teenage wunderkinds to diplomatic titans have involved oodles of controversy, not all involving the pregnancies of women other than their wives.

And then there is tennis. Although it may be a bit late for Johnson to snaffle the world number one ranking, he has made a lot of money – albeit for the Tories, the time-honoured party of business he serves as foreign secretary – from the game.

But think about this. If the wives of former Putin ministers are willing to pay £160,000 at one of those enchanting fundraisers to play Boris Johnson, what would they bid for a few sets with the legend Boris Becker? A million? Two million? Three?

The job swap solution is almost too obvious to spell out. As cultural attache to the Central African Republic, Johnson could finally lay the ghost of the racist epithets (“p******nies”, “watermelon smiles”) that have plagued his reputation for so long.

As the first foreign secretary in the Lords since Peter Carrington, the appeal of Baron Becker of Broom Cupboard to Theresa May stretches beyond him raising enough at auction to fund a dozen Tory election campaigns. As a German hero, he might have it in him to build bridges with Angela Merkel and avert the no-deal Brexit cataclysm.

Even if not, the prime minister must accept this. Boris Becker may not be the best pretend diplomat in the world today. But so long as Boris Johnson is on the scene, no one sane could consider him the worst.