BoJo's NZ visit mere lip service for all involved

12:42 pm on 28 July 2017

Opinion - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's short visit to small fry New Zealand is a political footnote and a sign of the man's ornamental impotence in his role.

Boris Johnson inspects a tuatara during his visit to Zealandia wildlife sanctuary.

Boris Johnson inspects a tuatara during his visit to Zealandia wildlife sanctuary in Wellington. Photo: Pool / Marty Melville

Johnson became Foreign Secretary after Theresa May won the leadership of the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister's job, almost by default (and over the political corpse of Johnson and others) last year.

That followed the Tory Party Brexit vote hiatus and the resignation of David Cameron. But Johnson is the least important Cabinet Minister in the Foreign Office hierarchy, despite his title.

May was careful to cement her credentials as an ardent Brexiteer (having been a lukewarm Remainer during the referendum campaign) by appointing three leading Brexiteer Ministers to deal with Brexit. Only two count.

The responsibilities that usually fall to the top Foreign Office job have been stripped out. David Davis is in charge of the actual Brexit withdrawal negotiations and Liam Fox is the salesman finding alternative markets for British Trade after Brexit.

Brexit itself may be five or more years away, and what shape it takes is anyone's guess.

Johnson's role is largely ornamental. And you can see why. His facetiousness and amalgam persona of Billy Bunter and Toad of Toad Hall joker is not taken by anyone abroad for depth.

Gerry and Bill probably enjoyed the banter. Johnson does know, as he often boasts, about the Punic Wars. But that's somewhat ancient foreign policy. He is there because Mrs May wanted to keep her rivals near her.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee in Wellington.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English and Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee in Wellington. Photo: Pool / Hagen Hopkins

Johnson does flag ceremonies, war memorials, Ministerial Dinners and looking (as here) at tourist attractions.

He talked up the Commonwealth, (newly rediscovered by Britain) in which most New Zealanders have little interest or knowledge of.

What Johnson means is the "Old White" Commonwealth, so Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The last where the Morris Minor - that symbol of British manufacturing pride - used to rule the motoring roost: a long, long, time ago.

South Africa would have been included 60 years ago but things have changed.

India and the US have been visited by Mrs May herself. So Johnson is left to tell an expansive story on possible distant trade deals, with the small fry.

When Fox eventually gets to New Zealand it will show that things are serious. For Britain, that is.

The world is a very different place from when Britain managed large parts of the planet with or without the consent of the people who lived there.

Asia, in particular China, as well as Australia are this country's partners now. New Zealand is also more interested in the EU for a trade deal than the 'old country'.

The reluctance of Johnson to make any promises, even about visas for New Zealanders, reflects his own impotence and the political embrace of the EU till after Brexit.

In the intervening years until a Brexit resolution, the opportunities for New Zealanders in the UK will shrink anyway. Companies will begin to move out.

Satirists have suggested Britain is just as likely to sign up for trade deals with Narnia, Westeros or the Land of Nod than anywhere else, including New Zealand.

* David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer & special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

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