That is a renewed Trident deterrent and I am pleased to see you

NATO! I’m absolutely yours! SEATO? Never heard of her!

Is Boris Johnson interested in prime ministering? Obviously he wanted to be prime minister. We are all still living surrounded by the fires started by the flame of his ambition for the job. But does he want to do the job?

It’s partly, of course, the constant low-level whine of complaints emerging from Downing Street that the flat is so small and needs so much money spent on it and it turns out you have to pay tax on it and did you know Chequers charges you if your friends stay and can you imagine having to live on £160,000 a year? There is something faintly adolescent about the muttering that how we just don’t understand how hard his life is. 

But the thought also occurred watching the prime minister set out his “Integrated Review” of defence, security and foreign policy. The review itself runs past 100 pages, but then it sets out most of Britain’s approach to dealing with the world beyond Dover in the coming years, so it probably ought to be hefty. 

Johnson’s statement on it lasted less than 10 minutes, and felt slapdash. We were, as ever, left with a sense of fellow feeling towards all his weary Oxford tutorial partners who realised, two minutes in, that once again he hadn’t done the reading. 

There were all the old familiar hits: maritime nation, dynamic, focused, friends, partners, unswervingly committed to NATO, greatest ally, values and interests, influence, historic mission. Some newer ones too: science superpower, offensive cyber-operations. 

There will be a “national Cyberforce,” the prime minister said, which “will in future be located in a cybercorridor in the north west of England.” This sounds like the premise for a Ricky Gervais sitcom, in which the National Cyberforce is engaged in a running battle with the Regional Cybersquad about who is using all the teabags in the shared kitchen at the end of the cybercorridor.

According to Wikipedia, Johnson was foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018

But where was the heft or the detail? As ever with Johnson’s “prime ministerial” speeches, the most memorable parts were the sections that seemed to have been drafted by a deeply sarcastic member of his team, who had decided they would quite enjoy watching him talk about the importance of lowering trade barriers and bringing people together. 

“Alas,” Johnson said, “there are no far away countries of which we know little.” But he was too modest. There were far away countries, and some really quite close ones too, of which he seemed entirely unaware. 

Has the Middle East disappeared? Your sketchwriter would hesitate to style himself a foreign policy expert, but he has a vague idea that quite a lot of this stuff involves that bit of the world. Johnson didn’t mention it. Are there important things happening in Iran or Syria? Who knows? Theresa May, as prime minister, never passed up an opportunity to remind you that she had been home secretary and understood the brief. According to Wikipedia, Johnson was foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018, but perhaps that’s another detail Dom edited in afterwards

The review itself sets out a plan to potentially increase the country’s nuclear stockpile, which had been due to drop to a ceiling of 180 warheads, to 260 warheads. Johnson didn’t mention this to Parliament. Questioned about it, he didn’t explain, simply making cracks about how some on the Labour benches had voted against renewing Trident. 

Johnson will have felt the pain of being accused of Continuity Cameronism

You don’t have to be Jeremy Corbyn to feel that we are owed a little explanation beyond this. Presumably Britain’s military planners can envisage circumstances in which they’d have fired 170 warheads, and someone would turn around and say: “I told you we should have got more!” What does that situation look like? 

Keir Starmer wanted to know how many troops Britain was going to have. This does not, again, sound like a frivolous question. “Successive Conservative prime ministers have cut the armed forces, but at least they’ve had the courage to come to this house and say so,” he said. Johnson ignored it. 

Conservative MPs were scarcely more impressed. Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, served in the Royal Green Jackets, and knows how to hurt a man. With some, it’s a swift blow to the neck. With Johnson, it’s an unfavourable comparison to Winston Churchill. “There is a 1930s feel to the scale of challenges that we face today,” he said. “I was hoping for a Fulton, Missouri moment when we finally call out China for the geo-strategic threat that it is, and a commitment to our aid budget.” Fulton was where Churchill made his “iron curtain” speech, as Johnson may or may not know.

Julian Lewis, unwanted chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, was withering about the hopes the prime minister expressed for positive engagement with China. “Does not that unfortunately demonstrate that the grasping naiveté of the Cameron-Osborne years still lingers on in some departments of state?” he asked. Ooof! Even if Johnson is a bit hazy on what happened at Fulton, he will have felt the pain of being accused of Continuity Cameronism.

Tom Tugendhat, of the Foreign Affairs Committee, damned the review with the faintest of praise. “I welcome its aspiration to coherence,” he said.

The defence of Johnson’s inattention to detail is that he sets out the vision and leaves others to get on with it. But this time last year he made a foreign policy speech in which his one comment on coronavirus was to worry that it might “trigger a panic”. A bit more attention to detail might not be such a bad thing.

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