In Brief

Boris Johnson stands by Saudi Arabia remarks on Riyadh visit

Foreign Secretary says he is not backing down but what he did say was 'distorted'


Despite being slapped down by Downing Street, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is standing by his criticism of the UK's ally Saudi Arabia, which he accused last week of "puppeteering" in the Middle East.

Johnson, who is currently in the Saudi capital Riyadh, said he had not retreated from his remarks during a day of closed talks with officials, although he added that his words had been "distorted", reports the Daily Telegraph.  

"We have a very, very good and strong friendship with Saudi Arabia and that means it does extend to candour about all sorts of things," he said.

"You would expect me to do that. I certainly haven't retreated from or adjusted anything I have said, but obviously I think that what I did say was distorted in a very bizarre way."

Johnson was in hot water over the comments, made at a public conference in Rome last week, in which he said the nation was conducting "proxy wars" and suggested it was "twisting and abusing" Islam for its own ends. 

Downing Street issued an open rebuke to the minister, who made the remarks just as Prime Minister Theresa May had returned from a trade visit to the Gulf. Johnson's Labour counterpart Emily Thornberry also said that his position ran counter to the government's continued sale of arms to the nation and so the lack of consistency represented "shabby hypocrisy".

But on Sunday, Johnson said Britain and Saudi Arabia were "as close today as they have ever been", speaking at a joint press conference in which he said that "we believe in a candour in our relationship". 

The Saudi government also said it considered the matter closed. "There are no mixed messages that we are getting from Britain," foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said, adding that he believed the comments had been "misconstrued and taken out of context".

Boris Johnson accuses Saudi Arabia of 'twisting and abusing' Islam

8 December

Boris Johnson has accused Saudi Arabia of "twisting and abusing" Islam for its own ends in Syria, just as Prime Minister Theresa May returned from a trip to the Gulf where she praised the UK ally. 

The Foreign Secretary was speaking at a conference in Rome last week, when he denounced Saudi Arabia and Iran for using religion to "puppeteer" proxy wars in the Middle East, The Guardian reports.  

He said: "There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That's one of the biggest political problems in the whole region.  

"And the tragedy for me – and that's why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area – is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves. That's why you've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars."

The comments break with the Foreign Office's convention of not criticising allies' behaviour in public and may land Johnson in hot water when he visits the region this weekend. 

The Saudi royal family has allegedly supplied weapons to rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria and has been accused of using the conflict to back the largely Sunni-led opposition against a Shia-led militia.

It is not the first time Johnson has ruffled feathers. Last month, he was criticised for his views on Brexit after telling an Italian economics minister Rome would end up granting Britain access to the EU's single market "because you don't want to lose prosecco exports". 

His latest remarks also cast a shadow over May's two-day visit to the Gulf this week, in which she told countries in the region the UK was "determined to continue to be your partner of choice".  

MPs had called for the Prime Minister not to let trade policy override human rights concerns while on her trip. The Gulf is a key player in Britain's defence industry and Saudi Arabia has been a British ally for a century. 

Boris Johnson denies backing freedom of movement in the EU

1 December

Boris Johnson has denied claims he told high-level diplomats that he supported the principle of freedom of movement in the European Union.

The Foreign Secretary allegedly made the comments at a private lunch for EU representatives.

Sky News spoke separately to four EU ambassadors under the Chatham House rule, "which allows their comments to be reported, but not directly attributed". 

According to one top diplomat, Johnson "told us he was personally in favour of [freedom of movement], but he said that Britain had been more affected by free movement of people than other EU member states".

Another ambassador had a similar story, saying: "He did say he was personally in favour of free movement, as it corresponds to his own beliefs. But he said it wasn't government policy."

However, The Independent reports that Whitehall sources "dismissed the claims as a 'lie' and said the politician 'never said anything of the sort'".

A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary said Johnson supports rolling back freedom of movement laws and limiting immigration.

"He did not say he supported freedom of movement and challenges anyone to show proof that he ever said that," he added.

If the comments are accurate, they indicate a gulf between Johnson's position and that of the Prime Minister. Theresa May has indicated she will "prioritise securing new controls on immigration" during Brexit negotiations, says The Guardian.

One ambassador said he was "shocked" the Foreign Secretary appeared at odds with the government's own policy on what is expected to be the major issue surrounding the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

"Boris Johnson has been openly telling us that he is personally in favour of free movement," the diplomat said.

Johnson's alleged comments contradict a Czech newspaper report, in which he was quoted "saying it was 'b******s' that freedom of movement was a fundamental principle of the European Union", Sky News adds.

Boris Johnson dismisses pro-EU letter as 'semi-parodic'

17 October

Boris Johnson has sought to play down a letter he wrote before the referendum laying out reasons for staying in the EU.

In an unpublished newspaper column written in February, days before he came out in support of the Leave campaign, the politician suggested staying in the EU would be a "boon for the world and for Europe" and warned Brexit could lead to an economic shock, Scottish independence and Russian aggression. The column was published in The Sunday Times yesterday.

"The membership fee [to the single market] seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?" he asked.

Yesterday, Johnson, now Foreign Secretary, insisted the case for leaving the EU was "blindingly obvious" and the letter was "semi-parodic" and written solely to see if he could make the alternative case to himself.

However, the revelation "has reignited accusations that Johnson had put his own political ambitions ahead of the country's best interests", says Sky News. He has also faced accusations of "duplicity" from critics.

"Boris was bang on about the threat of Brexit to the economy and the unity of the country - it is a shame he did not listen to his own warning," said Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat's foreign affairs spokesman.

The existence of Johnson's column was known, "but its contents, which contradict positions the Foreign Secretary has adopted since he joined the Cabinet, have remained secret" until now, says the Sunday Times.

Despite his apparent uncertainty at the time, Johnson has emerged as a vocal supporter of a so-called "hard" Brexit, insisting the UK can get a trade deal "of greater value" to the economy than access to the EU single market, which he described as an "increasingly useless concept".

Yesterday, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel claimed a coalition of Europhile MPs, including former Labour and Lib Dem party leaders Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, were "using parliament to subvert the will of the British public" by demanding Prime Minister Theresa May sets out a "Brexit plan" in the Commons.

Patel said the UK could not reveal its negotiation position before talks with EU leaders about the country's departure from the bloc.

"If I were to sit down and play poker with you this morning, I'm not going to show you my cards before we even start playing the game," she said.

Boris Johnson is left in charge of UK – and mockery ensues

16 August 2016

Boris Johnson is running the country - sort of.

With Prime Minister Theresa May on holiday in the Swiss Alps, it has fallen to the Foreign Secretary, as senior minister on duty, to assume the reins of power.

"Cripes! PM puts Johnson in charge for second half of holiday," reports The Times, which also recalls that barely six weeks ago, Johnson's political career seemed to be in tatters after Michael Gove refused to endorse him in the Conservative leadership election.

"Very few people could have imagined a short time ago that Boris Johnson would be in temporary charge of the country this week, including Mr Johnson himself," Labour deputy leader Tom Watson tells the Daily Mail. He even suggests the former London mayor had no prior engagements preventing him from stepping in because until recently, he had not expected to be occupying "one of the great offices of state".

The Daily Mirror says: "Bungling Boris Johnson has been left in charge," while its sister paper, the Daily Record, calls the move "the stuff of nightmares".

Predictably, rival party members are sceptical about Johnson's abilities. Labour leadership contender Owen Smith said the country was being led by a man "who couldn't manage a zip wire", while Labour MP Karl Turner said Johnson "can barely run a bath, let alone the country".

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, meanwhile, said: "Putting Boris Johnson in charge of the country is like putting the Chuckle Brothers in charge of Newsnight."

But Fraser Nelson at The Spectator says the Foreign Secretary is more qualified than anyone on the front bench to run the government. "If you compare Boris's accomplishments to those of Farron - or to pretty much anyone in the Cabinet - then there really is no contest," he says.

Boris Johnson grilled at 'uncomfortable' press conference

20 July

Boris Johnson's term as foreign secretary got off to an inauspicious start as he faced uncomfortable questions at a press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

After private talks in London focusing on the crisis in Syria, the two men took questions from journalists, during which the former London mayor's penchant for colourful remarks came back to haunt him

Earlier this year, Johnson faced criticism for comments about US President Barack Obama's partial Kenyan heritage and supposed "ancestral dislike" for the British.

On another occasion, in 2007, he compared Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, to a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital".

"Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you into your new job as some kind of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?" asked one US reporter.

"Most people when they read these things in their proper context can see what was intended," Johnson replied, saying many of his headline-grabbing remarks had been taken "out of context".

Johnson was also accused of having an "unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies" and was asked how Kerry or other leading diplomats could trust him.

The US politician "was forced to prop up Johnson", reiterating that Britain was a democratic nation and that Johnson has been described to him as "very smart and capable", says The Guardian.

For his part, the Foreign Secretary "looked visibly uncomfortable as he chuckled and mumbled his way through the answers", reports The Atlantic.

"We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I've written over the last 30 years," Johnson said, before attempting to redirect attention to the litany of global crises he will be concerned with in his new post, including the "dire" situation in Syria, a burgeoning civil war in Yemen, and the aftermath of the coup attempt in Turkey.

Kerry also stressed that the "special relationship" between the UK and the US was intact but that no trade deal could be arranged while the country remains an EU member.

Boris Johnson's plane forced to make emergency landing

18 July

Boris Johnson's first international trip as Foreign Secretary got off to a bumpy start yesterday after his plane to Brussels was forced to make an emergency landing at Luton airport.

The small military aircraft suffered a "technical issue" after it took off from RAF Northolt, according to Johnson's spokesperson. The runway at Luton was temporarily closed and several flights were disrupted.

"The Foreign Secretary thanked the RAF crew for their professionalism and was grateful to Luton airport for the brief, unscheduled welcome," the spokesperson added. "After a short delay the Foreign Secretary continued on his way to Brussels by alternative means."  

The emergency landing meant Johnson was late for an informal dinner with EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini, the BBC reports.

The outspoken Brexit campaigner is facing his EU counterparts for the first since since he was appointed to the Cabinet by Prime Minister Theresa May last week. The failed coup in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice are set to top the agenda during the meeting of foreign ministers.

The former London mayor, whose appointment to the senior Cabinet post remains controversial, has a long record of offending foreign leaders and nations.

Johnson's diplomatic skills were put to the test this weekend in the wake of events in Turkey. He was required to speak with Turkish government officials during the crisis after recently penning a crude poem about their president having sex with a goat.

Speaking from Brussels today, Johnson insisted the UK would not be "abandoning" its friends in Europe, despite voting to leave the EU.

"The tone is a marked change from campaigning mode when Johnson compared the European project to Adolf Hitler's ambitions," The Guardian notes.


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