An extraordinary first week for Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson before his meeting at the United Nations Image copyright EPA
Image caption Boris Johnson before his meeting at the United Nations' headquarters in New York

Boris Johnson has had an extraordinary first week in office.

The UK's new foreign secretary had hardly finished a tour of his King Charles Street office before he was forced to deal with the attempted coup in Turkey.

He has hosted two conferences in London on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

He has toured the diplomatic capitals of Brussels, Washington and New York, shaking hands with a flurry of fellow foreign ministers whose names he will now struggle to recall.

He has spoken and voted in the United Nations Security Council. He has been savaged by US journalists before the world's cameras, accused of being a liar who had insulted a woman who might just be the next president.

Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to defend his appointment both on the floor of the House of Commons and at a press conference with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On the day of the Republican convention, he was asked by one TV journalist if he was Britain's Donald Trump, a question that was as tonsorial as it was political.

A soft landing it wasn't.

Rock star status

When his appointment was announced, some in the Foreign Office were horrified.

One official who was asked for his reaction by a reporter at the Financial Times replied: "Just imagine being told that Piers Morgan had been made the editor of the FT."

But having spent a few days following Mr Johnson around Washington and New York, I can report that some diplomats are reassessing their view of their new boss.

They have woken up to the fact that Mr Johnson attracts attention, both from the media and other politicians. They have a minister who has what one called "rock star status".

They note the contrast between the foreign secretary and his predecessor, Philip Hammond.

One source told me Mr Johnson was a risk-taking James Hunt to Mr Hammond's more cautious Niki Lauda. Mr Hammond was known for his mastery of the detail, something that the Americans valued, particularly in their talks over the Iranian nuclear deal.

But Mr Hammond was not flamboyant, nor was he hugely visible. That cannot be said of his successor.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Johnson meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

At the anti-Islamic State conference in Washington, Mr Johnson was a man people wanted to meet.

Diplomats and officials took pictures and selfies with him. Other foreign ministers sought him out, apart from his German counterpart - Herr Steinmeier - whose handshake was so curt as to be almost discourteous.

So this notoriety - in every sense of the word - has prompted a rethink among some in the FCO.

The foreign secretary spent much of the week looking rather like an old Labrador who has just flushed out a pheasant for the first time and is rather pleased with his unexpected success.

In contrast, his officials looked like children with a new bicycle that they can't wait to take out for a ride but are worried they might crash.

Some had feared that from now on most of the Foreign Office's bandwidth would be taken up with Brexit. But with an activist and attention-seeking foreign secretary, they hope there is new diplomacy to be done as well.

The big question is what?

Mr Johnson is telling everyone who will listen that Britain wants to play a more proactive role in the world. Part of this is designed to convince people that Brexit doesn't mean isolation.

New pro-activism

But it cannot just mean Mr Johnson rushing round the world flying the flag. So the hunt is now on for new things for Britain to do in the world.

Diplomats have been asked to dust off imaginative ideas that were shelved in the past and send them into London.

We caught an early glimpse of some of these ideas in Washington.

Mr Johnson called for more to be done to gather evidence of war crimes as allied forces take territory off the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

He also tried to get the Americans and others to start thinking more about how to stop IS extremists dispersing around the world once their stronghold in Mosul is captured.

To the disappointment of some US diplomats, this new pro-activism is unlikely to involve the deployment of more UK forces against IS.

Britain does not really have the military hardware to increase its bombing in Syria or Iraq. Nor is there enough political will to start bombing IS in new countries like Libya.

And the deployment of special forces, because it is never acknowledged by the UK government, cannot be used to illustrate a new, expansionist foreign policy.

But the expectation is that by the UN general assembly meeting in the autumn, the UK will have four or five plans or initiatives to show the world that it is not just focused on Brexit.

Image copyright Getty Images

Now this Foreign Office enthusiasm for their new charge is tempered by some realism.

They know that Mr Johnson does not have unlimited political support in Downing Street. He is not part of Mrs May's inner circle.

She and her advisers may tire if Mr Johnson claims more media attention than they would like. Mr Johnson is always just one interview away from a gaffe.

Thus far he has been uncharacteristically disciplined and stuck rigidly to the FCO script, much to their admiration and his relief. But even he would admit that that cannot last for ever.

Mr Johnson could also fall out with his fellow Brexiteers, David Davis and Liam Fox, over Britain's future relationship with the EU.

The foreign secretary told me he had "absolutely no doubt that a balance can be struck" between access to the single market and free movement of labour.

Polymathic brain

Messrs Fox and Davis, in contrast, say free movement should not play any part in the Brexit negotiations. And there is always a risk that Mr Johnson fails to meet the expectations he has raised by promising what he calls "more Britain" on the world stage.

But that is for the future.

For now diplomats have a foreign secretary whose polymathic brain and linguistic skills they respect.

They note that that their allies appear more worried about Brexit than Mr Johnson's journalistic baggage. And they all seem to be having fun.

As the foreign secretary told UN reporters: "I have hugely enjoyed my first week as a diplomat."

During the Conservative leadership race, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson told an off-colour joke about how the party "had just withdrawn its massive Johnson" from the contest.

In fact, he is being deployed around the world and it could be quite a ride.

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