Former NZ-UK High Commissioner Sir Lockwood Smith lauds Boris Johnson

The AM Show 24/07/2019

New Zealand's former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom is lauding newly elected Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson and the benefits his election may bring Aotearoa.

On Tuesday evening (NZ time), Johnson was elected Conservative Party leader, replacing Theresa May and lining himself up for appointment as Prime Minister on Wednesday.

Johnson's bombast and clownish style has seen him both ridiculed and praised. While some suggest his gaffes show a clumsiness, a lack of self-awareness and acts as a masquerade to his elitism, others say it highlights Johnson as a common-man, not concerned with his appearance.

Sir Lockwood Smith, the former New Zealand High Commissioner to the UK and Kiwi Speaker of the House, knows Johnson well and says he deserves praise.

"He is a smart guy. People underrate him at their own expense. The guy is probably one of the finest minds that I have across in politics, yet he has this real kinda of folksy touch about him," Sir Lockwood told The AM Show.

"I was involved with him as High Commissioner, but since then with the International Trade Commission… I have been involved with briefing him on trade stuff.

"When you talk to him you just see him getting his mind around the issues. Perhaps more than anyone else, he gets his mind right around the issues and I am most impressed."

Suggesting that his style helps him connect with the public, Sir Lockwood said Johnson is a pro at getting his message across.

"I have seen him speak to a couple of thousand people at the Conservative Party conference over there and he just gets them eating out of his hand.

"He has got that ability to distil issues down to a really simple concept."

But he says Johnson is different to US President Donald Trump - who he is regularly compared to.

"The difference is that Boris is a serious intellect, he's folksy, he's got a common touch, a bit like Trump I guess, but Boris is a classic scholar."

Sir Lockwood says he believes Johnson will be able to get the European Union back to the negotiating table to draw up a new Withdrawal Agreement. He says Johnson has allies working on an alternative to the current deal and its much-criticised arrangement on the Irish backstop.

May's deal has been voted down by the UK Parliament on several occasions and, even as Johnson was being elected, the EU has said it doesn't intend to renegotiate. 

"He has been smart. When he resigned as foreign secretary, he did it on principle because he could not support where Thersa May was taking the UK on Brexit.

"He knew where she was heading was not going to work… so Boris withdrew, bided his time and did quite a lot of work in the background."

Sir Lockwood says Johnson is very fond of New Zealand and there could be benefits for Aotearoa with him being in charge.

"In my view, yeah. He actually is very fond of New Zealand. I will never forget the day I was chatting with him, it was in fact Remembrance day... I was chatting to Boris and talking about the problem New Zealanders have in getting visas to work in the UK and Boris said, and Theresa May was the Home Secretary at the time, 'Let's go and get Theresa right now and sort it out right now. This is crazy'."

Britain is extremely important to New Zealand for trade and Sir Lockwood says we are a priority for the United Kingdom to create a trade agreement with after Brexit.

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor