Downing Street has insisted that Boris Johnson has the full support of Theresa May, despite the foreign secretary failing to secure the backing of his fellow G7 foreign ministers for plans to penalise Russia and Syria over last week’s chemical weapons attack.
The 30-page communique from the two-day G7 summit failed to make any mention of Johnson’s proposal of imposing sanctions on key military personnel.
But a No 10 source said on Tuesday that the prime minister was pleased with the clear signal from the summit that the Assad regime cannot be part of the political future of Syria – a point repeatedly made in the past by David Cameron – and its push for a formal investigation into the attack.
“Following the meeting, there is now a unanimous view among the G7 and other key partners that there is no future for the Assad regime and that Russia must work to stabilise Syria,” said the source, who also insisted the foreign secretary had been left to drive Britain’s policy on the issue.
A spokesman for Johnson, landing back in London, was bullish about the outcome, insisting the prospect of targeted sanctions remained on the table: “The foreign secretary was the one this week at the G7 calling for tough action against those who have killed innocent people. Some may criticise but it was simply the right thing to do to try to push other countries to punish war criminals and murderers.”
The spokesman added: “Frankly, it is completely shortsighted and wrong to claim this G7 failed to deliver. It unanimously agreed Assad has no future in Syria, that Russia must work to stabilise Syria and work with others and everyone round the table agreed that sanctions should and would be imposed on those involved in the chemical weapons attack once an investigation happens.”
Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, suggested Johnson should have been more cautious about making his aims for the summit so clear in advance, tweeting:
Sanctions: how on earth did Boris get himself out on this limb? He must have known about German etc reservations beforehand.— Christopher Meyer (@SirSocks) April 11, 2017
Downing Street had issued a statement late on Monday evening saying the prime minister had discussed the issue of Syria with Donald Trump, and the pair believed there was a “window of opportunity” to persuade Moscow to abandon Assad.
Johnson used the summit to table a plan, agreed beforehand in bilateral talks with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, that targeted sanctions could be applied to senior military figures from Russia and Syria deemed responsible for last week’s devastating attack.
But his fellow foreign ministers were unwilling to commit to fresh penalties before evidence is gathered and a legal case for action can be assembled.
Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary stunned Westminster last year, shortly after he had plunged out of the Tory leadership race when fellow Brexiter Michael Gove staged a last-minute run against him.
Not known as a natural diplomat, his performance is being closely watched at home and abroad. He is still widely regarded as a potential future leadership candidate, and the foreign secretaryship is regarded as a make-or-break opportunity.
Some senior pro-remain Tories appeared to be enjoying his discomfort on Tuesday. Other Tories questioned Johnson’s punitive approach. Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative chair of the House Commons defence committee, speaking in a personal capacity, said he was not convinced the best course of action was pushing for sanctions on Russia.
“I really think what would be perhaps more relevant in this case is that because a war crime has clearly been committed in relation to use of banned chemical weapons, I believe we really ought to use every legal means to bring the perpetrators before the international criminal court.
“I would have thought if Assad was, as seems likely, responsible for this – not only this criminal act but this incredibly counterproductive act from the point of view of his own interests – I would have thought the Russians would have been pretty fed up with their protege.
“I can’t imagine the Russians would have wanted Assad to do this because it has transformed them from being in a relatively strong strategic position into a position on the defensive. So I am not sure Russia ought to be our target in this.”