Theresa May accuses Boris Johnson of ‘abandoning’ UK’s ‘moral leadership’

Former prime minister says decision to row back on development aid commitments and threat to break international law in Internal Market Bill damaged UK’s credibility
Joel Rouse/Crown Copyright/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

20 Jan 2021

Theresa May has issued a stinging critique of prime ministerial successor Boris Johnson’s impact on the UK’s “global moral leadership” in an article marking the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president.

The former prime minister applauded Biden and incoming vice president Kamala Harris as partners with whom Britain can deliver “positive action to make our world a better place”.

But she said that to firmly establish Britain’s place on global stage after Brexit, and play a key role in shaping a more co-operative world, the nation could not expect to be judged by words alone and said Johnson had undermined the UK's global standing.

May said the UK government’s decisions to “temporarily” cut Official Development Assistance from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% and to threaten to break commitments made in 2019’s EU Withdrawal Agreement had damaged the nation’s status as a voice of reason.

“We have an excellent diplomatic network, a strong military, and enviable soft power,” May wrote in the Daily Mail. “Outside the EU, we are a player again in the World Trade Organisation – as well as a leading member of Nato, the Commonwealth and the UN Security Council.

“But to lead we must live up to our values. Threatening to break international law by going back on a treaty we had just signed and abandoning our position of global moral leadership as the only major economy to meet both the 2% defence spending target and the 0.7% international aid target were not actions which, in my view, raised our credibility in the eyes of the world.

“Other countries listen to what we say not simply because of who we are, but because of what we do. The world does not owe us a prominent place on its stage. Whatever the rhetoric we deploy, it is our actions which count. So, we should do nothing which signals a retreat from our global commitments.”

May's comments on the Internal Market Bill furore echo former Government Legal Department head Sir Jonathan Jones' reflections to Civil Service World last month. He said the fact that the UK had even threatened to break international law in relation to the Witdrawal Agreement meant that the "damage" had been done. Jones resigned from his job in September over the threat.

May added that 2021 could be a year when Britain leads on the world stage, as it hosted the G7 and the COP26 climate summit. But she said that for the events’ full potential to be realised, there would need to be a change away from a trend towards absolutism in world affairs.

May said the inauguration of Joe Biden provided “a golden opportunity” for the UK and US that was “recommitted to international leadership” to “galvanise the other great democracies which share our belief in freedom under the rule of law”.

“We can lead the world in action to tackle climate change,” she said.

“Strong leadership knows when to compromise to achieve a greater good. If the world is to work together to 'build back better' then we must all be willing to compromise.” 

May said she had never known what to expect from Donald Trump, and predicted Biden would be a more “predictable and reliable partner” for the UK.

“When a British prime minister walks out for a joint press conference with the world's media unsure if the United States president standing next to her will agree that Nato is a bulwark of our collective defence, you know you are living in extraordinary times,” she said.

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