Comment-Ian Swanson: Gravitas is foreign to Boris the entertainer

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Foreign Office. Picture; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Foreign Office. Picture; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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No-one could quite believe it. “She must have a reason,” they said. “It has to be part of some clever plan.” Theresa May’s decision to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary was too bizarre to be accepted at face value.

Why was this man who had won the EU referendum for Leave while, according to sceptics, not really believing in Brexit, and who had then vanished from public view, unwilling to face the consequences of his ‘success’, now being rewarded with one of the highest offices of state?

Labour’s Yvette Cooper has suggested Mr Johnson has been sent to the Foreign Office so there is “someone to blame” if the Brexit negotiations fail.

Others think Mrs May is following the old adage of “keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer” – or that she wants to make sure Mr 
Johnson is busy flying around the world and out of the way while the real decisions are made.

Time magazine has argued that since other ministers have been tasked with negotiating Brexit, the Foreign Secretary’s role will now focus on promoting Britain abroad – more salesman than statesman and therefore ideal for Mr Johnson.

But the fact remains that the former London mayor has gone out of his way to insult many world leaders – describing Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan” who harboured an “ancestral dislike” of Britain, likening Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and penning an obscene limerick about Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan.

It is difficult to see how such deliberate insults can simply be shrugged off when Mr Johnson has to deal directly with these leaders and their governments.

No-one doubts that he is a ‘colourful’ character. During his 2006 campaign to become Rector of Edinburgh University he was pictured in the clutches of several female students, spent a night at Pollock Halls and was drenched in beer during a debate.

The students clearly recognised the entertainment value of Mr Johnson’s candidacy, but when it came to the serious matter of choosing who should champion their concerns in the university’s highest places, they opted for the more sober Mark Ballard, a Lothian Green MSP at the time.

And Mr Johnson appears to be no friend of Scotland. He was accused of wanting to “turn the screw on Scotland” after saying the UK should resist handing new tax-raising powers to Holyrood.

At last year’s UK general election he said a Labour government backed by the SNP would be “Ajockalypse Now”.

And before the independence referendum he even suggested rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall.

In the wake of the EU referendum result Mrs May recognised the need to appoint Brexit-supporting ministers to senior posts. But did she really need to give Mr Johnson anything at all?

The tone of the Brexit campaign he ran – widely criticised for its “lies” about how much the EU was costing and how much could be ploughed into the NHS instead – and his behaviour after the result could arguably have been enough to draw a line under his ministerial ambitions and perhaps end his political career altogether.

Former Foreign Secretary and ex-Edinburgh MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind has urged Mr Johnson to “reinvent himself” and give up the role of “celebrity” if he is going to succeed in his new post.

For everyone’s sake, he should heed that advice. Making a mess of this job would not be funny.