Of the diplomatic missions Boris Johnson has undertaken since being appointed UK foreign secretary in July, arguably none was as delicate as the three-day visit to Turkey he concluded on Tuesday.
A Nato member and an important partner in trade, tourism, counter-terrorism and efforts to tackle the refugee crisis, Turkey is a vital ally for Britain.
And yet Mr Johnson’s efforts to charm his hosts were hindered by a particular obstacle: a poem he penned describing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “wankerer” from Ankara. The limerick was chosen in May as the winning entry in an offensive poetry competition launched by The Spectator magazine.
Asked about it at a press conference in the Turkish capital on Tuesday, the former mayor of London dismissed the poem as a “trivial” matter.
To his relief, Turkish ministers appeared willing to forget both the poem and Mr Johnson’s role as the figurehead of a campaign for Brexit that frequently used Turkey’s hopes for EU membership to warn of the dangers of remaining part of the bloc.
A 45-minute meeting with Mr Erdogan was described by a British diplomatic source as “positive” and “constructive”. The two men were pictured grinning as the president gave Mr Johnson a framed copy of a letter sent by the mayor of Manchester to the Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz in 1867.
The foreign secretary, meanwhile, attempted to appeal to his hosts with references to his Turkish ancestry and the fact that he was “the proud owner of a digital, very well functioning Turkish washing machine”.
Analysts said the warm welcome had as much to do with Britain’s response to a coup attempt against Mr Erdogan as it was a desire to forgive Mr Johnson.
While Turkish ministers have bristled at criticism from the EU at the vast purge unleashed in the wake of the failed putsch, which left more than 240 people dead, the UK has been forthright in its support for the Turkish government.
Mr Johnson on Tuesday made some of the strongest comments yet by a western minster about the Gulen movement, the Islamic group led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey accused of masterminding the coup attempt.
He said the movement “seems to me to have many aspects of a cult” and said Britain would be examining a list of alleged Gulenist institutions provided by Turkey to see “what action, if any, we need to take to make sure they are not involved in nefarious activities”. Mr Gulen strongly denies any role in the putsch attempt.
While Mr Johnson said he had raised “the importance of a measured and a proportionate response” to the attempt to overthrow the government, he emphasised that it was “overwhelmingly important that we support Turkish democracy”. He also vowed that the two countries would push ahead on efforts to strike a “jumbo free-trade deal” after Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
Ziya Meral, an expert on the foreign policies of Turkey and Middle East at the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, said Mr Johnson had been given a “warm welcome” because UK-Turkey relations were stronger than many people realised in the wake of the coup attempt.
“The UK has been steady in its outreach to Turkey,” he said. “From Syria to counter-terrorism to a resurgent Russia to trade, the UK and Turkey have substantial portfolios to work on beyond personalities. This also explains why actors in Ankara have chosen to not focus on personal issues.”
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