Shaking hands with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday must have been one of the most toe-curling moments Boris Johnson has faced so far in his two months as Foreign Secretary.
Thanks to The Spectator, the former mayor of London is best-known here in Turkey for a limerick that unforgettably described the country’s president as a ‘wankerer’ from Ankara. To make matters worse, the Vote Leave campaign that he fronted caused deep offence by trying to use Turkey’s hopes of EU membership to scare voters into backing Brexit.
Against this backdrop, the three-day visit to Turkey this week could have been a disaster. Mr Erdogan is not known for mincing his words. The country’s pro-government press is never shy about lambasting those perceived to have insulted the country. But it was all smiles for Boris from a parade of senior Turkish ministers. Mr Erdogan even gave Mr Johnson a framed copy of a letter from the mayor of Manchester to the Sultan Abdulaziz dated 1867.
Boris laid on the charm with references to his Turkish heritage (his great-grandfather was a journalist-turned-politician who served as a minister in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire). He professed joy that the Jaffa Cake brand was now owned by a Turkish manufacturer. And he boasted not once, but twice about his ‘proud ownership’ of a Turkish washing machine.
But while his talent for working a crowd has propelled him further along in British politics than many ever imagined, it was neither his jokes nor his puns that made this week’s trip pass without incident. In fact, when I left his press conference I was soon surrounded by a huddle of foreign journalists who were puzzled by what they had just witnessed. ‘What is a Jaffa Cake?’ they wanted to know. And what did he mean by his promise of a ‘jumbo’ free trade deal? Clearly, such japes have limited cross-cultural reach.
Instead, the most important factor in British-Turkey relations in the last two months was not an offensive poem or even Vote Leave’s Turkey-bashing. It is Britain’s steadfast support for Ankara in the wake of the July coup attempt that left more than 240 people dead. The government’s response has been highly controversial. In just two months, more than 100,000 people have been either arrested, suspended or sacked. According to P24, a group founded to support independent journalism in Turkey, at the start of September 117 journalists were in jail.
Mr Johnson devoted just half a sentence at Tuesday’s press conference to the need for ‘a measured and a proportionate response’ to the coup attempt. It is a sensitive time in Turkey and it is hard for the country’s allies to strike the right balance between offering support and urging restraint. But seeing as Boris seemed happy to risk a diplomatic incident with a flippant poem, I was left wondering: does he only champion free speech in limerick form?
Laura Pitel is a freelance journalist reporting on Turkey and Syria. She is a former political correspondent for the Times.