Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: James Landale

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: James Landale

Article excerpt

Boris Johnson is inspecting the guard of honour and we are doing our best not to giggle. The Foreign Secretary is walking down a line of soldiers from the Libyan National Army. The red carpets are blowing over in the breeze. One of the senior officers looks uncannily like Colonel Gaddafi. And the band is playing the worst version of the national anthem I have ever heard. Yet Mr Johnson manages to control his features. Just. For this is the headquarters of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control large swaths of eastern Libya. A thought strikes me. Mr Johnson's critics accuse him of upsetting allies, lacking foreign policy vision and speaking with forked tongue over Brexit. Yet here he is, clutching his red Foreign Office folder, sweating in the baking North African sun, paying court to a military strongman whose support will be needed if Libya is ever to have a democratic future. For two days, Mr Johnson will immerse himself in the minutiae of this country's confusing tribal politics, going to places no western politician has been for years. The Foreign Secretary may not yet be another Castlereagh or Kissinger -- but he is getting on with the job.

En route to Libya, we drop briefly into Tunis. The ambassador's residence here is a glorious white palace, tiled from floor to ceiling in the Tunisian style, a few acres of cool calm in a bustling city. The building was given to Britain by a Turkish bey in 1850 and it briefly served as the headquarters of General Alexander during the second world war. On one wall there is a framed telegram, dated 13 May 1943 and marked 'personal for the Prime Minister'. It reads: 'Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores. Signed H.R. Alexander.' No wonder he was known as Churchill's favourite general.

A diplomatic incident is narrowly averted. The Foreign Secretary is keen to avail himself of the fine swimming pool at the Tunis residence. Trunks are donned and a towel found before Mr Johnson is told that the new United Nations special representative to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, is on his way and perhaps a suit might be more appropriate. …

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