When Boris Johnson selected Cornwall as the venue for this weekend’s G7 summit, he must have imagined greeting the world’s leaders against the backdrop of a blazing blue sky on the English riviera, while getting to grips with the great global challenges of climate breakdown and Covid.
Instead, his first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden on Thursday had to be moved from the picturesque St Michael’s Mount to the conference hotel in Carbis Bay, because of the Cornish mizzle – and Brexit was frustratingly high on the agenda.
The summit was meant to mark the arrival on the world stage of a newly emboldened, diplomatically nimble UK, no longer a member of the EU, but internationalist nevertheless.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, a committed Brexiter, said recently that instead of “some big cumbersome whale”, the UK could now be “a more agile dolphin”.
There is a shift in priorities, too: Johnson’s recent integrated review of defence and strategic policy signalled a new “Indo-Pacific tilt”, and to that end Australia and India will be attending part of the summit – though the Delhi delegation will do so remotely.
And for Johnson, this weekend was intended as a moment to showcase the statesmanlike qualities his allies insist he possesses.
But as he tries to remodel the UK in the eyes of the world, Johnson continues to be dogged by the painful details of implementing the historic policy with which he will for ever be most associated: Brexit.
Even Johnson’s most ardent defenders concede that he is not a details man, or a completer-finisher. He operates through colourful political gestures: driving a JCB through a wall of polystyrene blocks emblazoned with the message “Get Brexit Done”, for example.
“For the prime minister, for Boris Johnson, the performance matters far more than the substance: strutting the world stage. This is performative politics,” says Anand Menon, the director of thinktank UK in a Changing Europe. Or as an article by political scientists at the University of Southampton recently called it, “the politics of spectacle”.
But his fellow leaders appear unwilling to allow him to sweep aside the trade dispute over the status of the Irish border.
As Biden flew in on Wednesday, it emerged that his administration has been warning the UK that it wants to see the increasingly bitter spat between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol urgently resolved.
David Frost, the cabinet minister responsible for negotiating with the EU, was a late addition to the G7 guest list, as Downing Street acknowledged that, like the mizzle, the subject would be unavoidable.
The UK will fear that the standoff over implementing the protocol will overshadow efforts to persuade the G7 to pull together on other pressing issues.
The EU’s position, that the UK must implement the deal Johnson signed up to, is likely to be forcefully reiterated by the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Council president, Charles Michel, when they meet the prime minister.
And while the EU’s point-man on the protocol, Maroš Šefčovič, didn’t quite say so directly on Wednesday, there is an increasing whiff of bad faith – a fear that the UK signed up to a deal it never had any intention of abiding by. Von Der Leyen insisted on Thursday that Johnson must abide by the “rule of law”.
Number 10 was stressing on Thursday that the G7 summit was not about Brexit, and there were much bigger issues at stake, including the climate crisis and the urgent need to vaccinate the world’s poorest against Covid. One senior Tory source said optimistically that Friday was intended to be “save the world day”, with the recovery from the pandemic on the agenda.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, agreed there were much wider issues at stake. “It’s an important moment. It’s perhaps the most historic G7 in a generation, not just because of Covid, but because of climate change. This will be the moment when we will find out whether the G7 can lay the groundwork for an agreement at Cop26 [the climate summit being hosted by the UK] in five months’ time.
Much of the work is done in the run-up to major summits like these, with the UK’s Jonathan Black the key figure in the behind-the-scenes G7 negotiations.
But goodwill and trust are essential in oiling the wheels of global agreements – and certainly in making them stick when the summit hotels empty out and the leaders return home.
There appears to be precious little of either when it comes to Johnson. He had a notable rapport with Biden’s predecessor, who dubbed him “Britain Trump” – though allies insist it was just that Johnson knew how to “handle” the notoriously unpredictable president. They claim this is a skill he can extend to very different leaders, too, including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
Yet Nandy says contacts in foreign ministries around the world have told her they feel the UK has simply left the field when it comes to a string of challenges, such as unrest in the Middle East. And she argues that it makes no sense to talk of “global Britain”, without having a friendly working relationship with the EU, the vast trading bloc that just happens to be on the UK’s doorstep.
Johnson will want this weekend to end with smiles – though not handshakes – in the Cornish sunshine. “For the prime minister, for Boris Johnson, the performance matters far more than the substance: strutting the world stage,” says Menon.
But Brexit, which the prime minister had hoped to leave behind, may continue to cast a cloud over his big weekend.