Quips, No Slips But Lots Of Photocalls: How Boris Johnson Arrived On The World Stage As Prime Minister

Premier made lots of noise, but did he achieve anything of substance at the G7 summit?

“Can you hear me? Louder? LOUDER?”

Boris Johnson was struggling to be heard above the engines of the RAF Voyager as he addressed a pack of journalists on the way to his first global summit as PM.

Cup of coffee in one hand, a scribbled briefing note in the other, Britain’s new premier took his unmistakable baritone boom up a notch as he set out his aims for the G7 gathering of world leaders in the south west of France.

Standing in the ‘business class’ section of the specially adapted military jet, Johnson looked every inch at home as he rattled out his summit priorities: “sticking up” for free trade, for biodiversity and for improved education for girls around the globe.

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson attend a working breakfast at the Hotel du Palais on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson attend a working breakfast at the Hotel du Palais on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.

Johnson had been on board the Airbus A330 before as foreign secretary, and had even once questioned its dour colour, asking “why is it grey?” (before being told it was used by the RAF to refuel fighter jets).

Now he was here as prime minister, preparing to glad hand Donald Trump and others on equal terms. Forget ‘Blair Force One’ and ‘Theresa Jet’, welcome to ‘Boris Airways’.

“Good, good, good, thank you very much everybody for coming on this wonderful Voyager plane to Biarritz. This is a big, big old summit that Emmanuel Macron is organising,” he began.

Boris Johnson with journalists on board the RAF Voyager
Boris Johnson with journalists on board the RAF Voyager

He proceeded to deliver what sounded like an audiobook of a Daily Telegraph column, listing a range of British goods that faced US trade barriers, from shower trays to pork pies to cauliflowers.

The man who made a journalistic and then political career out of his stories about EU rules on bendy bananas, was adapting the routine to single out why a free trade deal really was needed with the United States post-Brexit.

Aware that his chat with the media was running late and the plane was already in descent mode over the Basque coast, he finally offered himself up to some scrutiny.

“Having cunningly exhausted as much time as I can, with a lengthy but very very important recitation of the problems British exporters face in the US, I’m very happy to take your questions,” he joked.

Johnson proceeded to tell the BBC to “cough up” for TV licences for all pensioners and had a pop at EU chief Donald Tusk, but body-swerved trickier questions about what he would do if MPs forced a Brexit extension on him and whether he’d cut fuel duty.

Asked directly for the first time if he was ‘Britain Trump’, as the president had suggested, his reply was a textbook study in Johnsonian evasion. “I’m very proud...to have, er, I was born in the United States…because I wanted to be close to my mother at the time,” he said, with a grin.

“I think the most important…thing for any prime minister of the UK is to have a very close friendly relationship with our most important ally and that’s what I intend to promote.”

Johnson had indeed made himself heard above the din of the aircraft, but was it all just political white noise? And did he actually manage to achieve or move on any of the UK’s big strategic goals while he was in Biarritz?

For him and his team, the key thing was getting across his main messages, as well as the all-important photos and videos of him making his debut on the world stage.

With a wafer-thin Commons majority and troublesome Tory rebels back home, the three day summit certainly gave him a chance to add some invaluable footage to a general election campaign video.

No10 was unabashed about the importance of the visuals, tweeting out on Monday a neatly edited selection of his meetings with the leaders of the US, India, Australia, Canada, France and others, all accompanied by stirring music.

Trump was undeniably Johnson’s main focus of the trip and, acutely aware that ‘walk-and-talks’ are often what the president likes best, he got as much ‘face time’ with the president as was physically possible.

Having chatted to him on the phone the night before Trump flew out, the PM went for an evening stroll with him on Saturday, ahead of their breakfast meeting the following day.

And it was at that Sunday meeting that the closeness of the pair was palpable. Appearing at the top of a grand staircase in the Hotel du Palais, “Do you know who this is, does everybody know?” Trump asked the White House press corps. “He’s going to be a fantastic prime minister, I can tell you.”

Shrugging off the perception that Trump was unveiling a junior member of his administration, Johnson simply joked: “You’re on message!”

As the British and American teams faced each other down a long table, Johnson played to Trump’s ego by congratulating him on the “fantastic” US economy, while making clear that talk of trade wars with China was in fact concerning for the UK.

“Just to register a faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war - we are in favour of trade peace on the whole. The UK has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade. We don’t like tariffs on the whole.”

Trump retorted with a jibe about the UK’s struggles with Brexit: “How about the last three years? Haha! Don’t talk about the last 200.”

There followed an hour-long meeting on trade and foreign policy with officials. Trump surprised Johnson by asking why England was not as prominent as the UK itself. “Where’s England? We don’t use it too much any more,” he said.

Afterwards, Johnson then managed to get extra one-on-one time with Trump as they walked away from the hotel. The aim, as ever, was to make himself an indispensable counsel. Or, as Johnson’s sister Rachel put it: “Every president needs a Johnson.”

Boris Johnson meets Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.
Boris Johnson meets Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.
PA Wire/PA Images

Johnson is certainly an admirer of Trump’s own direct messaging with the voters. Asked by HuffPost UK about the way the president was viewed by the British public, he replied: “President Trump has pioneered a quite remarkable way of communicating directly with the electorate. My impression is that is also popular with large numbers of people in our country.”

Critics claim that he’s also learning from Trump’s war on the media. In Biarritz, a team from Channel 4 News discovered that their planned interview with Johnson had been cancelled less than 24 hours before it was due to take place.

Add in No.10 unease at what it sees as Sky News’ anti-Brexit blogs, and the PM’s call on the BBC to pay for TV licences, and relations with broadcasters are scratchy, to put it mildly.

The PM has long thought that there is ‘method in the madness’ of Trump’s media strategy. Aides believe that his strongest card is clarity and delivery, and that’s precisely why carrying out Brexit on October 31 has Gospel-like status within Downing Street.

The other lesson from Trump is that domestic policy really matters, allies say. That’s precisely why Johnson has rolled out a series of non-Brexit announcements through the summer since he took over from Theresa May.

Virtually every other day, the No.10 ‘grid’ has landed with the media, a stark contrast with the previous regime. From an end to the liquids ban on flights to reviewing HS2 and hints of a fuel duty cut, each announcement has been designed with politics firmly in mind.

“He’s not a one-trick pony, and that really matters,” one senior aide says. A classic example was the announcement during the G7 that a further 50 towns in the UK would become eligible for a £1bn fund to revive ailing high streets.

The towns included plenty of key marginal seats that could help Johnson secure that Commons majority he wants. Even Labour’s Lisa Nandy, herself keen to deliver Brexit for her constituents, welcomed the news because it “recognises how this is a national crisis worthy of concerted focus from all parties”.

And unlike May, Tory aides are relieved at last because “we have some product to sell and a salesman to sell it”. The former PM was notoriously ill at ease with journalists, whereas Johnson knows what will make a good headline.

He also has a new social media team which is slowly taking on a Labour operation that has been far superior since Corbyn won his party leadership. “Labour still have some beautifully crafted films, but we are getting our act together at last,” one said.

Outspending Labour on Facebook ads every week, the Tories are pushing hard their images of Johnson on visits up and down the UK, in hospitals and high streets.

They are now supplemented by footage of the PM on his travels in Berlin, Paris and Biarritz. The UN general assembly in New York next month is another chance for the statesman-abroad images.

Abroad as much as at home, May was almost allergic to small talk, even though it often greases the wheels of international diplomacy. By contrast, Johnson has spent the G7 enthusiastically meeting-and-greeting fellow leaders, often with a joke or colourful phrase.

“He finds a connection he can make with another politician and uses it to then make serious points about how we can get our objectives,” one source said.

In one aside to Macron, he praised him for his handling of the “difficult” opening dinner on Saturday night as several G7 leaders said why Trump was wrong to think of inviting Russia to rejoin their meetings.

“You did very well last night. My God, that was a difficult one,” Johnson said, in remarks picked up on the livefeed of one session. He added, in French, “bien joué”: “Well played.”

Johnson chatted about the Ashes cricket match with India’s Narendra Modi, before taking time out to watch highlights of England’s shock victory while waiting for a leaders’ ‘family photo’ on Sunday.

He then watched the whole thing again on an iPad back at his hotel base. He and Australian PM Scott Morrison also exchanged jokes over which country would triumph this summer.

As with his early morning swims off the Biarritz beach, the overall message was that Johnson was playing hard and working hard. “I think we’ve seen lots of images of the PM actually enjoying himself,” one official said.

Johnson with French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife
Johnson with French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife

But despite all the photocalls, the actual substance of the summit was more questionable. On Brexit, he made no progress at all in his talks with the EU’s Donald Tusk, aside from ramming home his message that he was serious about no-deal.

Johnson quipped about him and Tusk being “in completely glutinous agreement” on foreign policy issues like Iran, Russia and Hong Kong.

Yet he failed to propose any more detail on alternative plans for the Irish ‘backstop’. Sunday newspapers had been briefed that the UK would refuse to pay its ‘divorce bill’ in the event of no-deal, but Johnson made no mention of it in the meeting.

EU sources told the FT afterwards: “They have been telling the press they have new ideas and eventually they will come up. But they didn’t come up today. The brutal fact there is nothing.”

On climate change, Johnson had made clear to Trump that the public mood was now firmly behind taking action.

“One of the things the PM has been quite keen on is the idea that when we talk about climate change or when we talk about trade issues, that doesn’t always necessarily resonate to somebody back in the UK,” a UK government official had said on Monday.

“In Birmingham and Manchester, they want to know how these things impact them. Talking about loss of species, loss of rainforest, how it affects us, that’s maybe a more tangible issue that people can see climate change through the lens of.”

Yet his wooing of Trump appeared to hit the immovable object of ‘America First’ and the president’s scepticism of global agreements.

The president snubbed a Monday G7 session on protecting habitats from climate change, a key priority of Britain for the summit. Trump was simply not present as other leaders pledged to spend more money on protecting the Amazon and set a path to new targets.

And for all the British emphasis on biodiversity, White House aides made clear they wouldn’t be bounced on environmental issues by Marcon, with one suggesting climate change was a “niche issue”.

Trump, as ever, did things on his own terms, often with impromptu press ‘sprays’ and freewheeling news conferences.

In his meeting with Johnson, he talked about getting a UK-US trade deal as early as next June, something even the UK has thought highly unlikely.

“I’ve been waiting for him to be prime minister for about six years. I just think his time is right, this is a great time for Boris,” Trump said.

Johnson’s own press conference at the end of the summit was his first as prime minister. He took plenty of questions but studiously side-stepped most of them.

Crucially, he repeatedly refused to say if he would prorogue parliament if MPs tried to stop no-deal. He also had a veiled warning for Speaker John Bercow to respect ‘the will of the people’.

There were a couple of verbal flourishes - using Norman French to play down suggestions Philip Hammond had been smeared by Downing Street, stating the German car slogan Vorsprung Durch Technik to suggest tech solutions can solve climate change.

Yet underlining his new-found discipline that was lacking during the Tory leadership race and his spell as foreign secretary, he avoided any major slips or gaffes.

Johnson even tried to make light of his shifting stance on whether a no-deal was now more or less likely if Brussels refused his demand to remove the ‘backstop’ from May’s withdrawal agreement.

“You’ll remember that all statistical estimates that I give about the chances of a deal, whether they are expressed in odds of a million to one or ‘getting closer’, or hotter or colder, or whatever, they all depend exclusively on the willingness of our friends and partners to compromise on that crucial point: you get rid of the backstop in the current withdrawal agreement.”

The contrast between spin and reality was brought home by a European Commission official who had warned that the UK would get no new trade deal with the EU if it reneged on the multi-billion pound bills it still owed. Red carpets and red lines don’t often mix, even at the G7.

Still, for this prime minister the personal is the political. Johnson aides are well used to building in ‘Boris Time’ to his schedule to allow for selfie requests from the public. On the tarmac in Biarritz, even local French gendarmes asked for a photo alongside him.

On the plane journey back the UK, he celebrated with a glass of red wine on board the RAF Voyager, then walked through the plane, tie off, shirt buttons undone, and posed for photos with the air crew.

Johnson was pleased with the way the summit had gone. He knew he had a turbulent few weeks ahead in Westminster and in Brussels. Yet after years of wanting to become PM, it was hard to take the smile off his face that he was now part of the global leaders club.

On the flight out, HuffPost asked if he was now getting used to being called ‘prime minister’. “Yes, yes, at last!,” he replied. “It took a while!”

As Britain heads to that Halloween deadline for Brexit, the next few weeks will decide how long he’ll be in No.10 - and whether he can really enjoy it.


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