Boris to foreign minister a clever but risky move (no really)

Theresa May has shocked the world by nominating Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. Why appoint a man who has spent a career mocking the wider world (most recently a disparaging limerick about Turkey’s PM) to be our representative to it. Why send a man whose appointment is already causing people around the world to struggle to keep a straight face? Why give one of your top policy jobs to someone who is famous for knowing little to nothing about international policy?

It didn’t make any sense until I saw that she had also installed a long-time Euroskeptic Tory heavyweight as Brexit minister. And then the penny dropped.

On some level it really doesn’t really matter all that much who England’s negotiator is, because it’s likely to be closer to a dictation than a negotiation. You can read the full reasoning here, but the short version is that we need trade with the EU far more than they need it with us. They can credibly threaten to walk out on us, but if we tried to play hardball back, they can just smile and say “good luck with that.” The EU is not only in a position to more or less dictate terms, but they also are pretty much obliged to give us a harsh deal, pour encourage les autres (i.e., they can’t afford to make leaving the EU look like a good deal, because too many other countries would want to follow).

So let’s game it out: If May gave these jobs to moderates, then they would inevitably limp back with a bad deal in hand, and then Johnson and the Brexit-mongers would shout to the heavens that Britain has been betrayed by weak negotiators who didn’t get Britain what it deserves. When the blame game starts, they will kick it off by pointing at the negotiators.

This way, the outcome will be pretty much the same – bad for Britain. But it’s the Brexiters who will be the ones landed with the unpleasant business of being on the sharp end of a lop-sided negotiation, sitting across from people who hold almost all the good cards, and are angry at them. And then, later, when the results are in, the people who were the public face of Brexit will be the ones left publicly holding the bag. There will be nobody to point to, BUT them.

The risk, of course, is that in the meantime Foreign Minister is an important job, with a lot of responsibility. But Britain is no longer the major first-tier world player that it used to be (and sometimes still thinks it is), so there’s only SO much damage to be done.

I think Theresa May is making a smart play on the long game here. At least in terms of the internal national politics of it.

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