In what sense does anyone actually disagree with what Boris Johnson said about Saudi Arabia and Iran? Does anyone actually think that his observation that they are both engaged in ‘puppeteering’ in Syria and Yemen is not only true, but understates the seriousness of the problem? Does anyone believe the Foreign Office when it says that Mr Johnson’s remarks do not reflect the position of the Government?
Now I know the argument, viz, that Saudi Arabia is an important and very sensitive ally and the way to deal with its sensitivities is to make criticism in private, which is what, we are invited to believe, Theresa May did when she visited the Kingdom. Everyone knows that the official position of the Government is one thing; what it believes is another, and what it says in private conversations with these governments something else again. Alistair Burt, the former Foreign Office minister, observed that ministers were trenchant, very trenchant, in their conversations to their Saudi counterparts in private. Splendid. He might also have gone on to observe that Saudi is, by a mile, the biggest supporter of the British defence industry.
But you know what? The whole business of discreet criticism hasn’t worked. If it had, Saudi might not have been the prime supporter of groups like al Nusra which are the most prominent of the jihadi rebels holding out in Aleppo against Syrian government forces. It might not have played a role in allegedly supporting IS. It might not have behaved in Yemen in a fashion which is difficult, morally, to distinguish from the behaviour of the Assad/Russian/Iranian forces besieging Aleppo – the difference being that in Yemen there are rather fewer photogenic little girls tweeting to an interested public, and next to no MPs who know or care anything about it. But that’s the thing. We all know these things but we are polite enough, and scared enough, not to say it.
So rather than stick with the failed policy of absolute discretion, of pretending that the Kingdom’s policy of proxy and actual war is somehow not for us to judge, it’s rather heartening that Boris has actually said it how it is. He has told the truth, indeed in a remarkably restrained fashion. He is right; Theresa May is wrong. It says everything about Britain’s role in the world that blatant truth-telling is grounds for the Government to disown the Foreign Secretary. And stupid me to be shocked that it’s a vicar’s daughter who is defending a policy of untruth and dissimulation.