The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary took almost everyone by surprise.
Why has he been appointed? It’s hard to fathom without recourse to ‘Kremlin watching’ explanations about internal machinations in the Conservative Party.
I’ll leave aside the questionable decision to appoint as our primary international representative someone who cast aspersions on the motives of the President of the USA – our biggest ally – on racial grounds. Or who regularly insults his way around the world as our chief diplomat? I’m sure others will have lots to say about that.
The issue concerning me here is national security.
The Foreign Secretary plays a crucial role in our national security system. S/he controls two of our three most important security agencies – MI6 and GCHQ. S/he usually has access to the highest levels of the most sensitive intelligence – much of which is shared with our closest allies, primarily the USA.
I have worked with one of these agencies extensively (GCHQ on and off for 8 years). I have a reasonable understanding, I think, of how they and our allies work together.
Johnson will be regarded by many in the security community a a risk. He has a well documented history of lying – he was memorably sacked by Michael Howard for doing so. He is also seemingly ‘careless’ with confidences.
A former Whitehall insider recalled Johnson attending a meeting with senior ministers and security officials in the early years of his mayoralty: “It was as if an overgrown schoolboy had accidentally wandered into the room. I wasn’t the only one shocked by his fundamental lack of seriousness” they told me. [added]
Officials with access to Top Secret (and above) material go through a process known now as ‘Developed Vetting’ (DV). It is a rigorous process – I know I have been “DV-ed”.
It is so rigorous that Andy Coulson was not DV-ed when he was in Downing St – I suspect because he would fail.
Would Boris Johnson pass a DV? Without revealing too much about the process, I seriously doubt it from what we know about his history and behaviour.
This will cause huge problems for the UK’s security services. They will have to work out how to handle the fact the Foreign Secretary is ‘problematic’.
Moreover the chances are that our allies – especially the Americans – may be reluctant to share sensitive intelligence with us if they know Johnson will have access to it. This could seriously damage our national security.
Am I being over dramatic? Perhaps. But I suspect there are people in Cheltenham and London, not to mention Washington, tear their hair out today trying to work out how to handle a problem called Johnson.
[PS – I am aware as a Secretary of State Johnson will not be formally DV’d. But the security services will check and the Americans will make their own judgement about what to share – or not – with Johnson in office].