Malcolm Rifkind says jury out on Boris Johnson

Tory former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the 'jury's out' on Mr Johnson's future.
Boris Johnson. Picture: GettyBoris Johnson. Picture: Getty
Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty

The “jury’s out” on Boris Johnson’s future as Foreign Secretary, Tory predecessor in the role Sir Malcolm Rifkind has warned.

The sharp criticism came as Mr Johnson faces a diplomatically testing tour of the Middle East after accusing British ally Saudi Arabia of being behind “proxy wars”.

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The senior Cabinet minister was slapped down by Downing Street over his comments, with Number 10 saying his views did not represent official Government policy.

And in a pointed intervention, Tory grandee Sir Malcolm said Theresa May’s appointment of Mr Johnson had been a “gamble” and he may be more “comfortable” in another Cabinet role.

“He’s made his extraordinary impact, both in Britain and elsewhere, as a celebrity. As a foreign secretary you can’t be a celebrity. Harold Macmillan was once foreign secretary and in his memoirs he said foreign ministers are either dull or dangerous - well, Boris certainly isn’t dull,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

Asked if Mr Johnson was fit to be Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm said: “The jury’s out, if I can put it that way. This is early days. It’s a question of his temperament.

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“The rest of the world are entitled to know that when Boris Johnson, as Britain’s Foreign Secretary, speaks, they are hearing the United Kingdom’s foreign policy, they should not be expected to assume that what he says publicly on one occasion may be completely in conflict with that foreign policy.

“What I am saying is, he might end up being more comfortable in another senior Cabinet position.”

Mr Johnson will deliver a keynote speech at a major regional conference in Bahrain on Friday before heading to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Mrs May’s official spokeswoman said the Prime Minister had “full confidence” in Mr Johnson but told reporters that his comments at a conference in Italy were his own personal view and did not reflect Government policy.

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And she pointedly noted that Mr Johnson will have the opportunity to set out official policy - of Britain’s desire to strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia and support for its controversial military involvement in Yemen - when he travels to the desert kingdom.

Mrs May spoke with Saudi King Salman during her visit to the Persian Gulf this week, when he was able to hear the PM assure him of “her commitment and that of her Government to enhancing and strengthening this relationship”, said the spokeswoman.

The Guardian published footage of Mr Johnson’s comments to the Med2 conference in Rome last week, in which he lumped Saudi Arabia in with Iran when he raised concerns about “puppeteering” in the region.

Mr Johnson 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.”

The Foreign Secretary said there were not enough “big characters” in the region who were willing to “reach out beyond their Sunni or Shia” group.

He told the conference: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “As the Foreign Secretary made very clear on Sunday, we are allies with Saudi Arabia and support them in their efforts to secure their borders and protect their people. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong and misinterpreting the facts.”

Some Tory colleagues have leapt to the defence of Mr Johnson despite Downing Street slapping him down.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell said: “It’s his job to set out the concerns that we have.”