Bojo has got his mojo back, reaching out to remainers, rejecting the idea of paying for Brexit and being the statesman in Washington. It’s just a pity some Italians mistake him for Trump
Boris Johnson has a message for people who voted to stay in the European Union — well, sort of. The man who ushered Britain to the exit door is revelling in Theresa May’s decision to trigger article 50 this week, kicking off two years of negotiations. But he also wants to bury the hatchet with the people he has branded “remoaners”.
“I do accept that there are some people who voted remain who do feel a sense of loss, who do feel a sense of pain and who do feel unease and apprehension, and I cannot ignore that,” the foreign secretary says. “I have to understand that, and I have to work and conciliate and explain, because I passionately believe we’ll be better off in 10, 20, 50 years’ time for having taken control of our democracy.
“Sometimes in the heat of battle both sides have allowed ourselves to become too polemical. It really is time to reach out, to embrace each other and to try to take this thing forward. That’s what I want to do.”
The foreign secretary tells me he will stop referring to “remoaners” if they stop “slagging me off”. He recalls recently being called “a c***” by the 16-year-old daughter of Thandie Newton — as the actress herself revealed in The Sunday Times Magazine last week. “Various tart rejoinders occurred to me but I wisely bit my tongue.”
An encounter last weekend on a family trip to Venice was more comical: he was mistaken for another flaxen-haired controversialist. “At least two Italians said, ‘It’s Donald Trump!’ It was absolutely humiliating. I had to do selfies with two different sets of Italians.”
The foreign secretary has stern words for his EU counterparts. “I think it really would be irresponsible for them to seek to punish us. I think they’re big enough not to do that. In the end it would not be us they were punishing; it would be their own voters, their own workforces, their own economies that would suffer.”
Johnson is uncompromising when it comes to the first area of disagreement that threatens to derail the talks before they have even begun — the £50bn exit payment Brussels is poised to demand after May fires off her letter on Wednesday.
He does not believe in paying into the EU budget after we leave — except for specific schemes of which we remain a member. “I don’t see any need to pay in for cohesion, structural or regional funds or access to the single market. I don’t think that makes any sense.”
I feel Obama vacated the pitch. He left a yawning void where American influence and leadership could have been
So what leverage does Britain have? “One in five German cars is bought by Brits. We contribute 20% of EU GDP, 25% of defence spending, 30% of the European aid budget. They know we are worth having a good relationship with.”
After last week’s terrorist attack the matter of Britain’s vast contribution to continental antiterrorism activities looms large. Johnson says the idea our intelligence would be used as a bargaining chip is “for the birds” but makes the case that we need a quick Brexit deal to avoid damaging our security links with Europe.
“The world feels it is our responsibility to do this as quickly and amicably as possible. The EU is excessively anxious about the notion that other countries will want to follow suit. That simply hasn’t happened. It’s a dog that hasn’t barked.”
We are speaking on a trip to Washington and New York, where the man who made Brexit is now revelling in his status as a statesman. Six months ago he was making weekly gaffes and his colleagues were enthusiastically briefing against him, but Bojo seems to have relocated his mojo.
He has become the de facto link between No 10 and the Trump administration. On Tuesday night he entertained HR McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, at dinner in the ambassador’s residence in Washington. The next morning he was in the White House with Steve Bannon, Trump’s most influential adviser, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, and Stephen Miller, another senior adviser. Later he met the vice-president, Mike Pence, and had extensive talks with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state.
Despite the mistaken identity in Venice, the foreign secretary is warm about his new friends. “These are world-class public servants and they have an agenda that is very close to ours.” In public and private he makes the point that the “US is back” after Barack Obama’s drift toward isolationism.
“I feel that he just vacated the pitch,” Johnson says. “He left a great yawning void where American influence and leadership could have been.”
Johnson will be in Russia at the end of this week to meet his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, bearing a demand from both Britain and America: “Russia needs to give a sign that it can be trusted.” The message to Vladimir Putin is simple: help sort out the mess in Syria and rein in North Korea, which is stumbling dangerously towards long-range nuclear weapons, and we’ll do business. “I’m going to be talking to Sergei Lavrov about both those things.”
He is realistic about his chances of success. “I wouldn’t say I’m bursting with optimism. Virtually every foreign secretary, every prime minister, every president begins hoping there can be a reset with Russia. It has proved disappointing every time. I have no real grounds for thinking this will be any different.”
Johnson’s trip has been punctuated by the terrorist attack in Westminster. “Seeing something like that happening on that patch of ground that I tread every day, that I love, is deeply shocking, and it’s upsetting for me as a former mayor to think of it happening to tourists, to people visiting our city.” But he does not want to see an overreaction in the policing of parliament: “Keep calm and carry on. There are all sorts of ways to lose a war on terror, and the worst is to be terrified.”
What he does want is a crackdown on internet companies that host jihadist material. “I’m furious about it. I think it’s disgusting. They need to stop just making money out of prurient violent material. It’s time for the internet providers and the social media companies to accept their social responsibility and to take this stuff off the web.”
For all his new seriousness, Johnson has not lost his haphazard charm or his energy. He got up this morning at 6.30 to demolish one of his aides on the ambassador’s tennis court. “I noticed that he was unbelievably hung over,” Boris chuckles.
The same gleam is evident in his diplomacy. At a drinks do in the British ambassador’s Lutyens mansion with Republican movers and shakers, Johnson had reminisced with Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about their time at Oxford and one energetic night when he climbed the walls of her college for a liaison with one of her friends.
He tells me: “I was in love with a girl in her college, who she had remembered. It was a very good night. It all went well.”
Which sums up his trip to America as well. His reputation depends on Brexit going as smoothly.