BIARRITZ, France — Boris Johnson was quite clear about what he wanted to discuss with the president of the United States.
“Cauliflowers!” the U.K. prime minister bellowed over the sound of jet engines as he briefed reporters on his Royal Air Force Voyager plane bound for the G7 summit in Biarritz.
Not just cauliflowers: “U.K. bell peppers,” “wallpaper, pillows and other fabrics,” “British-made shower trays,” and — crucially — “Melton Mowbray pork pies.” All face restrictions to entry to the U.S. market, he said, and he had made the point to Donald Trump and would make it again on Sunday when the two leaders have their first face-to-face meeting of Johnson’s premiership.
Reporters had gathered near the front of the plane for a mid-flight huddle. Johnson, suited and with an uncharacteristically neat collar, clutched a few pages of notes — some typed, some scribbled by hand. He went on for several minutes, while increasingly bemused journalists waited to ask questions about some of the more pressing matters on the G7 agenda: Brexit, the Amazon rainforest fires, the threat of a global economic downturn.
Anyone used to Johnson from his days as foreign secretary and mayor of London would have recognized the schtick: distract and divert with humor, and hope to avoid scrutiny. Even Johnson knows his routine has been rumbled. The Q&A would now begin, he said at last, “having cunningly exhausted as much time as I can with this lengthy but very, very important recitation of the problems British exporters face in the U.S.”
“President Trump has pioneered a quite remarkable way of communicating directly with the electorate” — Boris Johnson, British prime minister
In fairness to Johnson, he then fielded questions happily for 10 minutes, his ease in front of the press in stark contrast to his predecessor Theresa May, whose own briefings on ‘May Force One’ were curt, uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to hear over the sound of the engines. Then again, he is a former journalist who has spent a good part of his life talking to fellow hacks and clearly enjoys their company.
Only the imminent landing of the plane stopped him from talking for longer. “We’ll get thrown off the plane if I don’t get you sat down,” said one Downing Street aide to reporters, as the RAF crew politely but firmly requested everyone return to seats for landing.
“Are you getting used to being prime minister?” one reporter asked before heading back to their seat. “Yes!” Johnson replied. “At last. It took a while.”
New captain, same course
Fellow G7 leaders seeking to get a handle on what kind of British prime minister they are dealing with could still leave the summit perplexed.
Johnson seems to face both ways. His enthusiasm for Brexit, and his free-wheeling diplomatic style appear to place him firmly in the Trump camp. But on other areas of substance, his decisions to maintain continuity with British foreign policy on questions like climate change and Iran put him alongside Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
The split personality was on display on RAF Voyager. He spoke of his horror at the Amazon fires and listed biodiversity, free trade and girls’ education as his three key summit priorities.
His shopping list of grievances against Trump and U.S. trade policy was in part an attempt to amuse, in part very deliberate positioning of the U.K. in favor of internationalist free trade over protectionism (although he was clear some things were “completely off limits” for the U.K. in any trade deal, including the National Health Service.)
Asked about the U.S.-China tariff stand-off, he delivered a sharp rebuke to Trump (and to China) warning that those imposing tariffs “risk … incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy.”
But in the same breath he lavished praise on the U.S. president. Asked if he was flattered by comparisons to Trump, he noted that it was “the most important thing for any prime minister of the U.K. … to have a very close, friendly relationship with our most important ally.”
“President Trump has pioneered a quite remarkable way of communicating directly with the electorate. My impression is that is also popular with large numbers of people in our country,” he said. (That’s not what Britons are telling pollsters — according to YouGov, only 21 percent of British people have a positive opinion of Trump and 67 percent negative.)
But while a meeting with Trump on Sunday is the centerpiece of this G7 for Johnson, the most pressing issue in his in-tray at home, Brexit, still overshadows everything.
He waded into a row with European Council President Donald Tusk, who warned Saturday that Johnson risked going down in history as “Mr No Deal.” Johnson suggested it was Tusk who might earn the label if the EU refuses to agree to the U.K.’s demand to re-open May’s Withdrawal Agreement and scrap the Northern Ireland backstop plan for avoiding a hard border.
Asked about his relations with Tusk, and the European Council president’s comment that those who promoted Brexit without a plan had a “special place in hell”, Johnson joked with reporters that he didn’t want to get into “post-Brexit eschatology with the president of the Council.”
‘Eschatology’ — referring to the field of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of humankind — is not a word that commonly featured in Theresa May’s clipped press briefings.
But while the former prime minister made an art of giving unrevealing answers, Johnson’s own bombastic style can also be a way of dodging difficult questions. Pressed on whether he would bring forward the “credible alternatives” to the backstop that the EU is demanding as the basis for further talks to avoid a no-deal Brexit, he fudged it. There were “a large range of alternative arrangements” which “will be discussed with our friends in the coming weeks,” he said.
Asked what he would do if the U.K. parliament legislated for a Brexit delay, Johnson swerved again. “It’s parliament’s job now to respect not just the will of the people but to remember what the overwhelming majority of them promised to do over and over and over again and that is to get Brexit done,” he said.
Two sides talking past each other on Brexit, and a parliamentary battle waiting at home. May Force One may have made way for Air Boris, the prime minister’s style of communication may be the polar opposite to his predecessor’s — but Britain still faces the same tricky course to avoid a crash landing.