G7 rejection of Russian sanctions is the latest in a series of failures for Boris Johnson

Kim Sengupta
Who is to blame for Boris Johnson's repeated failures to meet with Russian diplomats?: EPA

This had been described by some as a defining week in Boris Johnson’s brief and controversial time in the office of Britain’s Foreign Secretary. If that is the case, then it came to be defined quite swiftly and rather embarrassingly.

Less than 24 hours after Mr Johnson announced that he was leading the drive at the G7 summit to impose a super-tough set of sanctions on the Kremlin, the ministers in the group rejected his proposals.

His most punitive demands, such as placing a fresh batch of Russian military personnel on a black-list were given short shrift. There was an agreement to push for an investigation into the chemical attack in Idlib which had triggered the current crisis – but this was something Russia and Iran, allies of President Bashar al-Assad, had already said they would welcome.

It will be interesting to see whether No 10 now seeks to put the blame for this debacle on the Foreign Secretary.

Blaming Boris has certainly been a favourite pastime there – ranging in form from publicly contradicting what he has said to the Prime Minister making well-rehearsed jokes at his expense. Mr Johnson has been remarkably emollient in response. His own jokes, for example, about Downing Street and Theresa May, such as one about her “lederhosen” at the Foreign Office Christmas Party, have been kinder and funnier.

But what happened at the G7 summit in Lucca is the denouement of the strange tale of Boris and a trip to Russia, which was going to be the first by a British Foreign Secretary in five years. It was scheduled for the end of March, but cancelled at the last minute because Rex Tillerson chose to go to Mar-a-Lago and watch Donald Trump play golf with Xi Jinping rather than attend a Nato foreign ministers meeting. The Nato meeting was rescheduled for a date convenient for the US Secretary of State rather than the British Foreign Secretary – something to be expected considering the hierarchy in the Alliance.

But it remained unclear why Mr Johnson could not have gone to Moscow anyway. One explanation was that No 10 would rather that he did not.

The Foreign Secretary’s Moscow trip was then rearranged to start on Monday this week. The chemical attack in Idlib took place last week, making the visit a hugely important one – an opportunity for dialogue aiming at ending the terrible strife amid international attention. But it was cancelled again at the last minute.

Contradictory reasons were offered for what happened. According to one version, the Trump administration was apprehensive about Mr Johnson’s loose-cannon reputation, fearing he might say something problematic in Moscow, where Mr Tillerson was also due this week, and asked Downing Street to intervene. Another version was that it was No 10 which had halted the trip of its own accord to prevent any accidental discharge there by the Foreign Secretary.

The Foreign Office, meanwhile, was on overdrive to maintain that it was Mr Johnson who had hauled himself off the flight. A “Foreign Office source” told the Mail on Sunday that the Foreign Secretary had called Mr Tillerson and said: “Are we looking at this the wrong way, Rex? Is it more harmful than helpful for me to go? After all it was you guys who put the missiles in and have all the leverage”. There were examples of rectitude: “When an adviser warned that cancelling might look bad, Boris is said to have responded ‘I don’t care what it looks like politically, what matters is resolving the conflict’”.

Mr Johnson was accused, over the weekend, of being America’s “poodle” over the chemical attack and the Moscow trip. “Whitehall sources”, however, told the Daily Telegraph that this was “beyond the pale”. Mr Johnson was “biting his lip for the sake of the greater good”. But “far from being Mr Tillerson’s lap dog, Mr Johnson is the tail wagging the dog as he quietly plays a longer game that is starting to pay dividends.”

The dividends did not start to arrive at the G7 summit – it was never likely with the mood among the European allies, led by Germany and Italy, very different to one seeking confrontation with Russia. Mr Johnson, according to one senior Western European diplomat, did not make a particularly strenuous effort to persuade his fellow ministers at the G7 to agree to the tough sanctions. “It was as if having made the noises, perhaps for domestic consumption, he knew there was not much point in pursuing it. That is why it was settled very quickly”, said the official.

One may wonder just how much Mr Johnson was actually flying solo in this affair. Theresa May’s government had been trying hard to please the Trump administration, an understandable stance following Brexit, but at times to an embarrassing extent.

For instance, The Prime Minister criticised John Kerry’s condemnation of the expansion of the settlements in occupied territories by the Israeli government, after the Trump team had done the same. But Britain had just voted against the same expansion in the United Nations. The outgoing Obama administration pointed out what Mr Kerry had said was entirely in line with long-held British policy.

The attempts to gain favour with Mr Trump continued with the British Government refusing to send senior officials to a peace conference on Israel and Palestine held in Paris after the Trump transition team had state they did not want the meeting to go ahead.

London then went on to block the European Union foreign affairs council from adopting the closing statement of the conference, attended by around 70 counties, which urged both sides to take steps to avert further violence and strive for a two state solution.

These are examples of genuflection just on the question of Middle-East. There, as elsewhere, the Trump administration had carried out a bewildering series twists and U-turns on policy. The British Government had been trying to keep pace, but falling one step behind, not unlike Corporal Jones on parade in Dad’s Army.

A similar situation had occurred with Russia as well. The Foreign Office had made discreet approaches to improve relations with Moscow in anticipation of the new US administration forging ties with Moscow.

There was every reason to expect this to happen in the light of Mr Trump’s expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin during his election campaign.

But, reversing his previous stance on Syria, Mr Trump decided to order missile attacks on Russia’s ally, President Assad.

Britain immediately followed the hawkish line with demands for further sanctions against Moscow. But is this really due solely to Mr Johnson? Or is this the natural development of Mrs May’s government faithfully following in the footsteps of Trump?

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