Everyone's laughing, but Theresa May just made a huge tactical move with Boris Johnson

The World
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office in London, July 14, 2016.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses staff inside the Foreign Office in London, July 14, 2016.

Andrew Matthews/Reuters

David Graham laughed when he heard that former London Mayor Boris Johnson would become the foreign secretary of the UK.

"Boris has such a record of saying outlandish things," Graham, a staff writer at The Atlantic, says. "The idea of him as a diplomat, and as a chief diplomat, was pretty entertaining."

But while his initial reaction to Prime Minister Theresa May's decision may have been laughter, the next was a tip of the hat. Politically, it's a great move for the new resident of 10 Downing Street, Graham says.

"It's a cold, political calculation," he argues. "Boris remains popular in the Conservative Party. Theresa May herself didn't support Brexit and so she's building a coalition. He's such a towering figure in the party that it would be weird not to give him a high-ranking cabinet post."

Graham isn't the only one interpreting May's decision this way. The New Statesman's Stephen Bush agrees that it makes political sense for May to keep Johnson busy overseas.

"Johnson’s many eruptions and indiscretions over his long career as a columnist will be a cause for occasional embarrassment for Downing Street," Bush wrote. "But it will keep him out of the country, unable to sustain a rebel following in the parliamentary party … On this evidence, Theresa May will be prime minister for as long as she wants."

Cutting insults were a signature of Johnson's work as a columnist and became a defining feature of his political persona, as Graham has chronicled in a short history of Johnson's insults for The Atlantic.

Will Johnson bring that undiplomatic style to his role as Britain's top diplomat? If so, he won't be the first insult-lobbing diplomat. Look no further than former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who once said, "The [UN] Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories, and if you lost 10 of them today it wouldn't make a bit of difference." Some diplomats, it seems, are the designated attack dogs of their governments.

But Graham isn't so sure Johnson will be that guy, even given his history. Johnson seems to understand the difference between being the British foreign secretary and a foreign affairs columnist. He knows his words will carry much more weight and have real geopolitical consequences.

The foreign secretary position could even be a good fit for Johnson.

"You know, for all these statements, Boris is a cosmopolitan guy," Graham says. "He was born in the US and was a US citizen until recently. (He says he's renounced it.) His great-grandfather was Turkish. He spent time in Europe as a reporter. So he really has a great deal of foreign experience. Probably more than you would expect of most cabinet members. So from that perspective it does make some sense."

"And when you are not trying to insult people," Graham adds, "you're a little less likely to insult them."