Johnson was ‘worst PM I ever worked with’, ex-Foreign Office chief says

Simon McDonald criticises “charismatic and chaotic” approach, but acknowledges ousted premier had time for his staff
Photo: REUTERS/John Sibley/Alamy Stock Photo

Simon McDonald, the former head of the Foreign Office, has said Boris Johnson was the worst prime minister he had ever worked under.

The ex-PM was “charming” and “charismatic”, but “chaotic”, said Lord McDonald, who as head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office worked closely with Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary.

In an interview with Sky’s Beth Rigby – in which he acknowledged his drastic public intervention in the row over disgraced MP Chris Pincher’s misconduct was “the final straw that made it onto the Johnson camel's back” – McDonald said Johnson "was the foreign secretary I worked with who had the most time for the people in his office".

"And this is a real mark of a character. But what you need to be an effective prime minister is different. Being prime minister is one of the toughest jobs in the world," he said.

But asked who were the best and worst of the prime ministers he had served during his nearly 40-year civil service and diplomatic career, McDonald said: "Thatcher was the best and Johnson was the worst."

He described Johnson as "always charming to deal with, he was humorous, he was kind, he was the foreign secretary I worked with who had the most time for the people in his office".

"He is charismatic but chaotic. He liked to have multiple opinions swirling around him, the people proposing those ideas never really knew whose was in the lead – sometimes the decision wasn't clear and sometimes the decision was reversed. There was too much swirl, and in the end, the system responds to clearer directions," the former civil servant said.

"One of the most disconcerting things was to see him arrive at a meeting, pretending to be less well briefed than he actually was. But that was part of his character."

McDonald was head of the Foreign Office for five years, leaving in September 2020, when it merged with the Department for International Development to form the FCDO.

But he told Rigby reports that he had opposed the move were false, saying: "I supported the merger very, very strongly."

Pincher scandal: 'Nobody was paying attention to the previous victims'

McDonald, who is now the master of Christ's College, Cambridge, also reflected on his his decision to publicly accuse No.10 of “not telling the truth” about allegations made against Chris Pincher.

Pincher, then a government deputy chief whip, resigned in June after it was revealed he had groped two men at the Carlton Club. But when previous sexual assault allegations came to light, No.10 said it was unaware of the MP’s track record.

McDonald took the extraordinary step in July of tweeting out a letter he had written to parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone saying the claims were inaccurate and urging No.10 to “come clean”.

He said that Johnson had been briefed on an investigation that found Pincher had behaved inappropriately to Foreign Office staff nearly three years prior.

He told Rigby that he felt compelled to speak out partly because he had been made a peer earlier this year after leaving the civil service. "I am part of the legislature, so I have additional duties," he said.

Another motivating factor, he said, was that, “as the story developed, it seemed that nobody was paying attention to the previous victims. And there were victims. And I thought they should not be airbrushed, but what they had endured should be remembered.”

 "I accept that mine was the final straw that made it onto the Johnson camel's back first," McDonald said of the letter.

Responding to an anonymous briefing from a former minister suggesting that McDonald had an ulterior motive for trying to oust Johnson because he was a remainer and the two “never saw eye to eye”, he said: "It was unpleasant but much less unpleasant than what the victims of the various Pincher scandals had undergone.

“And it was wrong. I knew it was wrong," he added.

He described overseeing the investigation when officials in the Foreign Office made “a very similar allegation” against Pincher, then a junior minister.

“They came to me personally, because it was very sensitive and very unusual. Because it was sensitive and unusual, it was also very memorable, so I remembered each of the steps,” he said.

“I knew I kept the Cabinet Office – at the highest level – informed and they kept me informed about what they were doing, including with the prime minister.”

Writing for CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome in July, McDonald said he had personally explained the consequences of the investigation to Pincher, after the complaint of inappropriate behaviour was confirmed.

“He agreed to apologise to those affected and undertook not to repeat the behaviour. He claimed to be mortified that anyone could misinterpret his actions so horribly, and that nothing like this had ever happened before. It was the most awkward meeting I had as permanent under-secretary,” McDonald wrote.

Sunak 'methodical and promising'

While he did not serve under Truss, McDonald said if he had to include the short-lived PM in his ranking, "she was a worse prime minister than Boris Johnson". He described Rishi Sunak as "methodical and promising".

He said each of the prime ministers he had worked with was "good at some things and weak at other things"  and that "nearly all look better in the rear view mirror".

In contrast to Johnson, McDonald said Margaret Thatcher "was a very difficult, prickly character for the system, but who had a clarity and a sense of purpose and a sense of galvanising the system which looks to have been one of our most effective prime ministers in 300 years."

John Major, "at the time looked rather beleaguered, but was one of the most methodical men I've ever seen where he went through the briefs", while Tony Blair was "the best at communicating but some of his biggest policy calls were just wrong".

He said Gordon Brown was "the best of finance but quite a difficult communicator", McDonald said, adding: "He bore his anxieties on his face. And when you're trying to lead people through very difficult times, to look as though you're burdened makes your task more difficult.

David Cameron, Sir Simon said, "ran a team [and] looked the most of ease in the job and was in some ways the easiest to work for"; while Theresa May – a remainer who was tasked with negotiating and pushing through a Brexit deal – was also a "methodical person but with a very difficult job that she didn't really sympathise with".

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