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Jayne Dowle: At least there’s one woman who’ll put Boris in his place

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily thornberry is applauded by Jayne Dowle for holding Boris Johnson to account.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily thornberry is applauded by Jayne Dowle for holding Boris Johnson to account.
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I MUST admit I’m an admirer of Emily Thornberry. The Shadow Foreign Secretary is just the kind of role model we fiftysomething women need.

Never mind this actress or that daytime TV presenter going on about finding “empowerment” or losing “invisibility”. Ms Thornberry, who’s 57, looks smart, has a good voice and is never afraid to take her opposite number, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, to task.

Boris Johnson en route to Tuesday's Cabinet meeting after missing the Heathrow Airport vote.

Boris Johnson en route to Tuesday's Cabinet meeting after missing the Heathrow Airport vote.

She also has three children, a long-standing husband – who’s a High Court judge – and is the daughter of a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General. However, after her parents divorced, she was brought up by her teacher mother and had to rely on free school meals. This didn’t stop her studying law at the University of Kent and going on to become a barrister before taking up politics.

In short, as a woman, she’s probably Johnson’s worst nightmare. Every nanny and school matron he ever had, rolled into one, with more than a hint of the suffragette about her. The Labour member for Islington South delights in putting the errant Cabinet minister on the spot – precisely what an Opposition front-bencher should do.

This skill was aptly demonstrated at Foreign Office questions earlier this week: “Four years ago he [Johnson] was asked the biggest lesson that he had learned from his supposed hero Winston Churchill and his answer was, I quote, ‘Never give in, never give in, never give in’. For some reason Churchill didn’t add ‘Unless you can catch a plane to Kabul’.”

In response, Johnson gave only a wry smile. He was lost for words. His absence from the Commons for the crucial vote on the third Heathrow runway is just the latest in a series of gaffes and diversions which call into question his suitability for the post of Foreign Secretary, this most responsible and public-facing of jobs in Theresa May’s government.

Famously, Johnson had previously promised to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” to prevent Heathrow expansion. In the event, called to Parliament to vote on the controversial third runway on Monday evening, he high-tailed it to Kabul on a mysterious 7,000 mile round-trip. The vote was passed with 415 MPs backing the plans and 119 against. He didn’t even have the decency to abstain on a point of principle.

Hasn’t this man heard of Skype? Whatever he went to Afghanistan for can’t have been that important because he was back the next day. Self-protection never looked so blatant, and at taxpayers’ expense too. Those return tickets to Kabul don’t come cheap.

Or are we all guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusion here? We assume that Johnson is all about the ego. But are we actually looking at a masochist of the highest order, who gets a kick out of being publicly humiliated at regular intervals by stroppy Opposition members and frustrated Government colleagues sick to the back teeth of his airy dismissal of collective Cabinet responsibility?

Or shall we just all stop wasting our time trying to figure him out? You see, that’s the problem with narcissists. The more attention they are paid, the worse their behaviour becomes. If you want proof, just look at President Trump.

As divisive and dangerous as Trump is, he is, at least, America’s problem. After all, they voted him into office. This is not true of Johnson, who was picked for his high-profile role by the Prime Minister presumably in a bid to keep her enemy close and forestall any attack by him on her leadership.

In allowing Johnson free rein to maraud about at home and abroad, which means ducking out of crucial decisions, insulting the intelligence of business leaders and their concerns over Brexit and generally making a fool of himself, she may have played the long game.

Give him the chance to make a total fool of himself and lose the respect of both party members and the public and his already-fragile grasp on credibility will eventually evaporate. An enemy that defeats itself. There’s a concept.

However, I’d say that things have now gone quite far enough. To paraphrase his hero, never before have so many needed a strong, safe pair of hands at the helm of the Foreign Office. From Brexit to Beijing, Great Britain deserves a strong and persuasive representative, not a comedy turn, to show the world we mean business.

There is no doubt that Emily Thornberry is good at bringing him to heel, but she shouldn’t have to do it single-handedly.

If the Prime Minister can’t find the strength to act, then Johnson must do the decent thing. Take a long, hard look at himself and step down.

Amongst his many admirable qualities, his hero Churchill was brave. However, here – amongst the bluster, the back-tracking, the ducking out and the constant distraction and dissembling – is a man very afraid of responsibility. Any kind of responsibility. The sooner he acknowledges this, the better for the Government and the country.