Gendering Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Exit 

Boris Johnson’s resignation letter from his position as foreign secretary is a document ripe for analysis. Columba Achilleos-Sarll looks at his peculiar references to women.

Boris Johnson’s resignation from his role as foreign secretary in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet was a protest against what he considered a ‘softening’ on Brexit. In his resignation letter, Johnson described May’s strategy as capitulation to “needless self-doubt”, implying both indecision and ineffectiveness. It further developed a narrative steeped in gendered references highlighting campaigns to protect female cyclists and girls’ education. It portrayed women as passive victims in need of protection—in this case from EU bureaucracy—to justify his calls for a ‘hard’ Brexit. 

Interspersed with military metaphors, colonial references, deal-making discourses, and narratives of protection, the language used in Johnson’s resignation letter speaks to a wider problem: the extent to which British politics and the negotiations continue to be dominated by a racialised and gendered linguistic register. 

The Protection of Female Cyclists & Girls Education

In his resignation letter, Johnson explained that one of his primary concerns about the direction that Brexit negotiations were going was that May’s ‘softer’ negotiating strategy was starting from an ‘opening bid’ that effectively ceded control over lawmaking. Further elucidating this concern, he highlighted the “frustrations” he felt when he was the mayor of London trying to “protect cyclists from juggernauts” after “a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists”. He explained,

“We had wanted to lower the cabin windows to improve visibility; and even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists, we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter.” 

Johnson’s specific reference to “female cyclists” adheres to a protection narrative reinforcing the stereotype of women as victims who need to be saved, reproducing power structures. This narrative links the safety and survival of female cyclists to the imperative of securing a ‘hard’ Brexit, or preparing for a no-deal scenario. Johnson claimed this imperative will afford the UK its “independence” and thus the ability to make the legal changes it sees fit to protect the vulnerable, unhampered by EU bureaucracy.  

Johnson’s call to protect female cyclists as a justification for pursuing a ‘hard’ Brexit is interesting not least because discussions about women, and minority rights remained firmly off the table during the referendum campaign, and have continued to be sidelined in Brexit negotiations. When discussions have taken place its usually been highlighted by women, and reduced to issues of maternity rights, equal pay, and women’s’ human rights. This problematically confines women’s interests to gender equality policies of particular interest to their sex, yet considered ‘low’ politics.  

In his concluding remarks, and reflecting on his time in government, Johnson also made reference to what was intended as his legacy project, girls’ education, which he launched a campaign for in April 2018. Indeed, Johnson praised the diplomatic service for securing “record international support for this government’s campaign for 12 years of quality education for every girl”. Presenting the UK as a leading gender advocate, championing women’s rights abroad, appears intentional, legitimising his concern with the protection of female cyclists at home. However, we should not forget that in launching this campaign he compared girls’ education to a “Swiss Army knife”. While this programme is focused on empowering women, the opposing discourses of ‘saving’ and ‘empowering’ domestic and international subjects instrumentalises women in service of a ‘hard’ Brexit.  

Although Johnson appealed to the protection of women and girls in his argument for a ‘hard’ Brexit, he overlooked the potential harm that a no-deal scenario would unleash on the most vulnerable in society. Although it has been argued that gender equality norms were “originally instrumentalised for the pursuit of higher economic priorities” in the EU, feminist activists within the institutions harnessed those norms and opportunities to advance the position of women across Europe. As Guerrina and Murphy argue, “enduring tensions between the way member states pursue national interest at the European level” manifested, for example, in the UK’s opposition to the original Pregnant Workers Directive (1992). Brexit, they warn, will therefore “[increase] the vulnerability of marginal groups and interests as layers of representation are taken away”, which safeguard women’s rights. 

Global Britain

Johnson juxtaposed the foregoing narrative of making concessions with taking what he describes as a “more nimble and dynamic” approach in order to get what he believes is a better deal for the UK. He asserted that, “at the previous Chequers session we thrashed out an elaborate procedure for divergence from EU rules. Yet, if Brexit is to mean anything, it must surely give Parliament the chance to do things differently to protect the public”. This creates an illusion that we are presented with a bifurcation: a deal or a no deal, which is reinforced by the use of military metaphors to highlight May’s ‘soft’ strategy: “It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them”.  

Even more problematic are the racialised sentiments, which compare the trajectory of Brexit negotiations with the inequities heaped on the colonies. This scaremongering simultaneously reflects a longing for the British Empire and an inverted disdain for the colonies it established: “We are truly headed for the status of colony—and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement”.  

The language Johnson used to describe the current state of negotiations implicitly valorises traits associated with masculinity: strength, power, rationality, autonomy, competence, and resilience. At the same time, he dismissed traits associated with femininity—and with May’s approach—as undesirable: dialogue, indecision, equality, empathy, and care. This discursively reinforces the existing male dominance of politics and Brexit by male ‘experts’. Dominated by toxic masculinity that emphasises military metaphors, global Britain, and colonial relations,  Johnson’s letter is an attempt to present the road not taken as utopian. 

A Warning 

The rhetoric in Johnson’s resignation letter is not unique. It is littered throughout the Brexit negotiations and can be traced back to a bygone era of politics dominated by elite, white, British policymakers, whose failure to self-censor sexist and racist remarks make for uncomfortable reading. More worrying, the language Johnson uses in his resignation letter invokes a racialised and gendered linguistic register, which is thus normalised into British politics This particular choice of language demonstrates more than just nostalgia, and we have a collective responsibility to call it out.  

Columba Achilleos-Sarll is an ESRC funded PhD student at the University of Warwick in the Politics and International Studies department.

Photo by Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.