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Putin Is Watching: The Foreign Policy Price Of BoJo's Partygate Scandal

The damning findings of Sue Gray’s independent probe into the “partygate” scandal held No. 10 Downing St responsible for “serious failure to observe high standards.” But whether Boris Johnson is forced resign, the impact internationally should not be overlooked, particularly as it relates to the West's need to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

photo of boris johnson with his head down

Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street on Monday

Tayfun Salci/ZUMA
Cameron Manley

-Analysis-

MOSCOW — Just after the UK referendum to leave the European Union in 2016, Boris Johnson was clear about his ambitions for Britain’s international role post-Brexit: “We are not some bit part or spear-carrier on the world stage,” Johnson declared. “We are a protagonist — a global Britain running a truly global foreign policy.”

Fast-forward six years, after a stint as Theresa May’s foreign secretary, Johnson has cut a largely inconsequential (and sometimes bumbling) figure on that same world stage as Prime Minister since 2019. Now those failings are being punctuated in a whole new way, with Johnson consumed by a rolling series of home-grown scandals linked to unauthorized festivities that violated COVID-19 lockdown rules — just as the West and Moscow are locked in the most dangerous confrontation since the end of the Cold War over Russian troops massing at the Ukrainian border.

The release Monday of the findings of Sue Gray’s independent probe into the “partygate” scandal — which held No. 10 Downing Street responsible for “serious failure to observe high standards” and “failures of leadership” — hit British domestic politics with full force. Speculation the past month swirling of Johnson being forced to resign will no doubt multiply.


But whether Johnson stays or not, the impact internationally should not be overlooked, particularly as it relates to his largely empty boasts on leading the effort to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. British scholar and broadcaster Mike Galsworthy dismissed the Prime Minister's words about the UK role in the West's “resistance” to Russia. “The claim that the British government is uniting the whole West against Russia is bizarre. He is not liked in Europe, he is not trusted by Biden. He has nothing to do with any of this at all."

Whither 'Global Britain'

Indeed, the image circulating around the world — and in Russia in particular — is of something of a beer-fest and hedonistic haven for Boris and his band of “lads” and “lasses.” WhenNovaya Gazeta reporter Evgeniya Dillendorf asked why the British people put up with Johnson and his government, she said she always received the same answer: “Give it time, one day the straw will break the camel's back.”

Despite the grandiosity of his words back in 2016, there is no question that Johnson’s post-Brexit Britain is still searching for its global identity — and direction. It is no longer part of the European Economic Market. It is miles off doing a trade deal with the United States, and latching on to the Australian submarine deal that elbowed out its French rivals across the Channel. Foreign policy observers also noted that President Biden’s abrupt withdrawal this past summer from Afghanistan caught Johnson largely unaware and left the British foreign policy establishment leaders looking like bystanders.

Some even question whether the Kremlin is pulling strings in Whitehall

And despite Johnson’s enthusiastic cheers for a “buccaneering” Britain that would reinvent itself as a global leader, it is having trouble being taken seriously.

Last March, the Johnson government published a treatise “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.” Though its importance has been somewhat lost in the fog of COVID-19 and Brexit, the review is probably Britain’s most substantial strategic rethink to foreign policy since the Cold War. But it lacks substance and definitive ideas towards leaving its footprint internationally. It also needs a leader to match its ambitions. So far, at least, Johnson shows no sign of being that person.

Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin

photo of lavrov, putin, johnson

Johnson at a summit in Berlin in 2020 with Vladimir Putin and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Kay Nietfeld/DPA via ZUMA

Agent of the Kremlin?

Not only is Britain unable to sway Moscow, some even question whether the Kremlin is pulling strings in Whitehall. Johnson has been forced to face questions last year about certain Russian oligarchs providing financial support to the Conservative party.

What makes this situation all the more troubling is the fact that Johnson has tried to make his personal and ideological antagonism with Vladimir Putin a centerpiece of his foreign policy. He has publicly promised to prove to Putin that Western liberalism is alive and well. British politicians, leading British media and intelligence officials are accusing the Conservative party of being the ones who actually received support from Russia, with Russian news agency Ria Novosti calling Johnson an “agent of the Kremlin.”

Still, the British diplomatic establishment, military and intelligence operations are far from dead and buried. The UK Foreign Office made waves last week by publicly accusing Russia of planning to bring a pro-Russian leader to power in Kyiv. As reported by Kommersant, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the accusations disinformation, “stupid and absurd.”

As Britain waits to see the full fallout of Sue Gray’s report on the prime minister’s party (and party) management, it is important to remember that even if Boris Johnson saves his political career at home, it may be already over abroad.

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