back to top

Forget Mugwumps, Here’s What Boris Johnson Said About Syria And North Korea

The foreign secretary said the British government could bomb Syria without parliamentary approval, and stuck to the Leave campaign promise of an extra £350 million per week of funding for the NHS.

Posted on
Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP / Getty Images

Boris Johnson caused a small media storm on Thursday by calling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a "mutton-headed old mugwump" in a column for the Sun newspaper, with a debate about the exact meaning of the word "mugwump" the lead item on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme. But here's what else the foreign secretary had to say:

1. He suggested the UK could bomb Syria without parliamentary approval.

Johnson condemned the sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month, and said that were the US to come to the UK for help in bombing Assad regime targets in Syria, it would be “very difficult” to say no.

More than 70 people – including women and children – died in a chemical attack on the town. The strike caused international condemnation and saw the US launch a retaliatory strike against Assad positions in Syria.

Johnson said: “I think it would be very difficult if the United States has a proposal to have some sort of action in response to a chemical weapons attack, and if they come to us and ask for our support, whether it is with submarine-based cruise missiles in the Med or whatever it happens to be, as was the case back in 2013, it is my view, and I know this is also the case of the prime minister, it would very difficult for us to say no.”

Asked by presenter John Humphrys whether the government would need to seek parliamentary approval, Johnson responded that it would “need to be tested”.

“It would be very difficult to say no,” he said. “How exactly we were able to implement that would be for the government and the prime minister to decide.”

Boris Johnson suggesting bypassing Parliament for UK participation in new military action in Syria.

“But if the Americans were to be once again forced by the actions of the Assad regime, who don’t forget it was Assad who unleashed murder upon his own citizens with weapons that were banned almost a hundred years ago, if the Americans choose to act again and they ask us to help, as I said, I think it would be very difficult to say no.”

Johnson has indicated his support for potential strikes before, speaking in the Commons last week, he also said it would be "very difficult to say no".

2. He defended the Leave campaign "£350 million for the NHS" claim, again.

"The £350 million expressed the total that we do not control every week," Johnson said, repeating the thoroughly debunked claim that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week for the NHS, which was emblazoned on the side of a bus during the EU referendum. He ignored Humphrys' interjection that approximately half that total comes back to the UK in the form of EU investment, making the total nearer £175 million.

"When we take back control it will of course be possible for the government of the day to use that cash on the priorities of this country, which, as I said during the campaign, could include the NHS."

Foreign Sec @borisjohnson says people will be "burying their head in sand" about questions over £350m a week promise which is "correct"

3. He discussed foreign students in the UK and immigration.

Johnson refused to discuss exact figures, stating that the UK should “have control” over immigration numbers but that Britain’s higher education was of “immense value”.

“I am in favour of talented people, including students, being able to come here. But I am also in favour of us as a country being able to decide our own priorities,” Johnson, who also praised the Erasmus scheme and the scientific university community, said.

Amid all the headlines from this am Boris Johnson didn't commit to 100,000 on net migration and said EU trade deal unlikely by 2019

“I believe that the higher education economy is of immense value to the UK and we should be very proud of our universities, and their capabilities to attract the brightest and the best from around the world.”

Prime minister Theresa May has refused to bow to some Conservative MPs' wishes to exclude foreign students from the net overall immigration figures. Approximately 134,000 arrived in the UK in the 12 months to September.

4. He skirted around the EU deal and withdrawal.

Johnson said the British government had approached the EU about a trade deal ahead of Christmas, but said that offer “had been turned down” by Germany.

"There is no reason at all why the UK should be applying huge sums of money for trading," he said, adding that when the negotiations began it would be his "strong recommendation" for a tougher stance.

Boris: "Money before substantive talks that is obviously not going to happen.." Which substantive talks? On trade or on withdrawal?

5. He denied he was concerned about a trade deal with the US.

Johnson was careful to play down concerns over president Donald Trump's top trade negotiator Wilbur Ross's recent comments to the Wall Street Journal that a trade deal with the UK was a "low priority".

He said there would be “all kinds of opportunities” from a free trade deal with the US, but said now was not the time for "detail", and instead said lawmakers should "pencil it in" for the future. He also launched into a discussion about the US not accepting either Scottish haggis or British beef.

Finally, Johnson said he would be "very surprised" if the US managed to achieve a deal with the EU before 2019, attempting to scotch suggestions the Trump administration would pick the EU over the UK.

6. He also (briefly) mentioned North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.

Prompted by Humphrys to elaborate over his "mugwump" comments on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson urged the public not to back a man who was in favour of nuclear disarmament during a time of instability – and when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was upping his country's nuclear capabilities.

In the past 12 hours the US has said it will impose tighter sanctions on North Korea, following the regime stepping up its nuclear and military operations.

Speaking on later morning shows, the foreign secretary commended the Trump administration's decision on sanctions, and said military action was not a solution.

Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Rose Troup Buchanan at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.