A size 12 kicked open the door to the Locarno room in the Foreign Office. US secretary of state John Kerry was taking no chances. Having had the front door of Downing Street slammed in his face earlier in the day by some dude shouting “Britain is closed for business,” he wasn’t going to risk a second black eye.
Kerry raced for the podium; Boris Johnson plodded along behind him. At his first joint press conference with another foreign minister, Britain’s new foreign secretary was giving every impression that some bits of the job weren’t all they had been cracked up to be.
Boris opened his folder and began reading out the speech one of his advisers had written for him. “Syria … leadership and determination … special relationship … strong and vital,” Boris monotoned, fighting against inertia. He was tempted to skip a few pages as the only way he could remain awake to the end. No one had told him he’d have to be as boring as Philip Hammond. He was Boris the Great Gagster, not Phil the Dull Apparatchik.
On he went. “We seek access to something … We are looking forward to something … We’ll be having some talks about Yemen this evening …” Yeah and the talks would almost certainly be really dull and achieve absolutely nothing and it was the hottest day of the year and he’d much rather be back home in the garden necking a few beers. Why had he allowed Theresa to talk him into this?
Over to you, John. Kerry needed no second invitation. The US secretary of state was proud of the special relationship he had forged with Hammond, one founded on a mutual appreciation of each other’s unique talent for putting an audience to sleep, and was determined to pay tribute to Phil. “Prime minister May … foreign secretary Johnson … special and unbreakable ties … US is rooting for Britain … These aren’t just words, folks,” he said.
But they were just words and far too many of them. Kerry was out to prove he could bore for both the US and Britain. A one man drone strike that lasted the best part of 15 minutes when under five was all that was called for. Boris isn’t good at giving others centre stage and it was nearly all too much. He looked at his shoes. He looked up at the ceiling. He tried standing on one leg and chanting “shanti, shanti, shanti”. Somehow he made it through to the end without interrupting. A Herculean feat of will.
He was soon regretting being back in the spotlight, when both the UK and the US media were far more interested in the people – starting with President Obama and Hillary Clinton – he had managed to insult over the years than his unproductive talks with Kerry about Syria. “Obiter dicta,” cried Boris. Which, loosely translated, meant everything he had ever written or said in the past 30 years should just be treated as a load of old bollocks and that now he was foreign secretary everyone – even the black people with the water-melon smiles – should play the white man and cut him a bit of slack. He was sweating by the end of that.
Kerry was then asked to explain if Britain was now at the back of the queue for any trade deals with the US, as President Obama had promised a couple of months earlier if Britain voted to leave the EU. “There are some very complicated questions posed by Brexit and it’s good to have some conversations,” he announced confidently. So yes, Britain was going to be at the back of the queue but because Britain was so important to the US, Boris would get regular updates saying, “We very much value your custom and are very sorry no one is available to take your call. Please stay on the line until one of our operatives is free. Please also be aware we are experiencing a high volume of calls at the moment and your expected waiting time is seven years.”
“Have you ever come across someone like Boris before?” someone asked. Kerry demurred. He had met a lot of weirdos over the years and Boris was well within the spectrum. “I’m told Boris is very intelligent,” he offered.
“I can live with that,” said Boris gratefully.
Kerry appeared surprised by the interruption. “I was only trying to be diplomatic,” he explained.
“This is going extremely well.” But he still hadn’t managed to make himself laugh.
“I’m really hot,” he ad-libbed. “And it just so happens that I’ve got three secondhand German water cannon going spare.” Laughter. At last. Boris was back on home ground.
Kerry made a dash for the exit. After the Downing Street door incident, he wasn’t going to risk a soaking. These limeys had a strange sense of humour.
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