Perhaps no British leader since Winston Churchill has entered office facing such stern challenges. The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson – aka “Bojo,” the incoming prime minister of the United Kingdom – appears to relish the task of delivering Brexit. That in itself may be Mission Impossible: Parliament looks dead set against a “no-deal” departure, while the European Union looks unlikely to grant any deal that Bojo’s rancorous Conservatives would accept. So crippling political deadlock looms.
But at least Johnson knows the Brexit plot. This after all has been central to his prime-ministerial game plan since the 2016 referendum on the UK leaving the EU, during which Bojo was Brexit’s staunchest champion.
However, he also faces a more unexpected and arguably more immediate diplomatic-military crisis: Iran’s oil-tanker seizure. Nothing on the new PM’s recent CV remotely suggests he possesses the statesmanlike qualities necessary to master it.
One almost feels sorry for the blond blusterer, whose endless bloody-mindedness on Brexit doomed the hapless Theresa May. But even had May plotted nightly with her most devious advisers, she could barely have slapped on the dinner plate of her successor such a sizable, such a perfect, such a piquant shit sandwich.
Last week, Iranian forces seized a British-flagged tanker off the Strait of Hormuz. The fact that the operation was filmed from dual locations – a helicopter from which Iranian commandoes descended to the tanker deck, as well as from a fast gunboat circling the ship – and then distributed worldwide make clear Tehran’s intention: Humiliate the United Kingdom.
But Tehran was also acting in retaliation.
Two weeks earlier, the UK had seized an Iranian tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar. Remarkably, it did not, apparently, occur to London officials to advise British shipping in the Persian Gulf to prep for an Iranian response by – for example – taking aboard armed sea sentries. Nor did it apparently occur to the Admiralty to gather British shipping in the Gulf into convoys for escorted runs past the Iranian coast.
The myopia on the part of Westminster mandarins in not anticipating an Iranian tit for British tat is astounding, even bizarre. Was there an assumption that Iran lacked the assets or the gumption to retaliate? And post-facto, the failure of related parties to do the decent thing and fall on their swords indicates that the honorable Westminster tradition of resignation after disaster is no longer binding.
With the Iranian flag boldly fluttering from the mast of the formerly UK-flagged tanker, the UK’s foreign secretary has dubbed Tehran’s action “state piracy.” There is some merit to that descriptor, and certainly, the foundation of the Iranian move looks dubious.
Yet serious questions also hang over the prior British seizure. The ostensible reason for action was that the Iranian vessel was breaching EU sanctions by conveying oil to Syria. However, London’s move has received – at best – very lukewarm backing from Brussels.
Britannia no longer rules the airwaves – or the waves
In the global credibility war, fought across battlegrounds including social-media fora, column-inches and news broadcasts, Tehran’s plan to humiliate the UK looks to have been a stonking success. London’s apparent inability to respond with either fortitude or effectiveness is damning.
This is a cruel, but belated, wake-up call for the average Nigel and Doris.
During the far-off days of Empire, the Royal Navy ruled the waves, playing the game of gunboat diplomacy with ruthless expertise. It remained a world-class fighting force through two world wars, and as recently as 1982 was central to British victory in the Falklands War. There, a Royal Navy task force carried off a perilous amphibious landing in the teeth of Argentine air power and South Atlantic weather – a strategy that soon delivered victory.
The Falklands War proved that the UK still had the knuckles to defend its interests – independent of allies, if necessary.
Fast-forward to today, and the 21st-century Royal Navy is a shadow of its former self. Even prior to military failures in the US-led 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, British defense budgets had been ruthlessly hacked, with the navy arguably the most impacted of the three armed services.
True, it operates nuclear-missile submarines – but these weapons of non-use are political tools, not tactical assets. It also runs a whizz-bang aircraft carrier, but there are worries about its reliability and defensibility. Moreover, the constricted waters of the Gulf are perhaps the worst environment for such a visible blue-water target to operate in.
Most critically, the Royal Navy’s line of battle is woefully short of the two most critical tactical workhorses of naval surface operations: frigates and destroyers. Possessing just 19 to patrol the seven seas, it is little wonder that it can spare just two for the Persian Gulf.
So – much as Bojo might like to hark back to the days of Imperial power – no military solution is feasible. Britain retains world-class special forces and marines, but the Royal Navy lacks the muscle to deliver them to an enemy coast as extensive, well manned and well defended as Iran’s. Despite London’s tough talk there is no military solution to free tanker and crew.
Yankee poodle dandy
Many commentators suggest that the British tanker seizure took place at American behest. The two countries are close allies, but on this issue, London’s judgment looks askew.
Still, London-Washington relations is one area where Bojo brings something new to the table.
US President Donald Trump and previous UK PM May managed to just about paper over their differences for the TV cameras. But very clearly, they were cut from different social, political and personal cloths.
Not so Bojo. One would be hard pressed to point to two national leaders who are so alike as he and Trump. Johnson, like Trump, is a member of a privileged elite who has mutated into a populist pol.
So, for good or ill, the Anglo-American alliance looks set to be strengthened during Bojo’s term in office.
Even so, that fact that the UK can no longer operate independently on the geopolitical chessboard, but is in essence a poodle obediently waiting its turn at the fire hydrant behind the American top dog, may grate on those old-fashioned patriots who back Bojo.
No 10’s revolving door
The impossibility of delivering Brexit will almost certainly be the doom of Johnson, as it was of May. His days at Number 10 Downing Street look numbered.
In the same way that British victory in the Falklands struck a fatal blow to the fascist junta in Buenos Aires that unleashed the war, perhaps the humiliations that loom ahead in the Iranian crisis will accelerate the downfall of Johnson. If that proves to be the case, the British public will owe a grudging favor to Tehran.
Bojo’s strengths are related more to the field of entertainment than to the political: He is a master of presentation, word-smithery and wit. His talents, alas, extend neither to the application of principle nor to the crafting of policy, while his Brexit campaigning signaled minimal respect for detail or even reality.
It is difficult to see him as the staunch, visionary and firm-minded leader the UK needs to navigate through the storms ahead.
There is a ray of sunlight. Once Johnson – a truly hardline Brexiteer – has exited, and once the harsh realities of Brexit have been finally and bluntly made clear to the electorate and polity, the door lies open for a more farsighted, more grown-up leader to grasp the British helm.
The immediate question is how much damage Bojo will do to the national interest in the meantime.