A top lawyer can't stop Boris Johnson doing what he wants, even when it's his wife

Tom Peck

If you close your eyes and listen to the pleading of human rights barrister and QC Marina Wheeler you really cannot be certain whether she is addressing a) a small child or b) a dog.

“OK, come on,” she says softly. “Let’s get to the house, come on.” Lost underneath the sibilance of the autumn winds there may even be a “good boy”.

But this, it transpires, is not some family video to send to the grandparents on WhatsApp. The subject of her patient weariness is in fact her husband, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, standing in the centre of a full hemisphere of baffled European foreign ministers, one or more of whom he is seeking to coax into a mud-splattered rowing boat.

“Who would like to see the house?” she pleads, the muffled panic in her voice its own acknowledgement of the TV cameras, the muddy bank, the unsteadiness of the vessel her husband has his hand on, and the various spectacularly bad endings she has already foreseen in glorious technicolour.

“Who wants to come in the boat?” comes Johnson’s counter offer.

“Who would like to see the house?” she pleads again.

“Who wants to come in the boat?”

“They’ve got a programme,” she continues. “We’re not drowning the foreign ministers. Come on.”

There is what’s known as a “jump cut” at this point, in the released footage of Boris Johnson’s weekend hosting eight European foreign ministers at his grace-and-favour estate of Chevening, which was nominally to discuss Britain’s role in security arrangements of a post-Brexit EU.

Up to this point, Ms Wheeler had done her very, very best, but even before this point it was clear she had lost.

As Chekhov never quite warned, if you see eight politicians and a rowing boat at the start of a TV news-pool clip, they absolutely must have gone rowing by the end. And sure enough, after a brief fade to black, Ms Wheeler is on hand to extend a wooden oar to the Czech Republic’s deputy foreign minister Ivo Sramek, as he nervously pushes himself off the bank and asks, “Is anybody coming with me?”

Don’t panic sir. Mr Johnson is coming. For a full three pointless strokes around the lake and then a return to “the jetty”.

On the bank, Bulgaria’s Ekaterina Zakharieva and Croatia’s Marija Pejcinovic Buric gamely applaud. By way of contrast, a silver-haired chap simply glowers with the full intensity of a human statue in Covent Garden. This is his weekend, after all.

The people of Europe, it has been made abundantly clear over the last 18 months, do not want to play Boris Johnson’s games. You almost don’t need to have seen them refusing to paddle round a lake with him to know that. But it certainly helps.