A defiant Boris Johnson told friends he had no intention of apologising for his outspoken comments about Saudi Arabia during a trip to the Gulf and hit out at party critics who said he might be better suited to another job in government.
The foreign secretary delivered a carefully crafted speech in Bahrain on Friday evening, playing up the economic and strategic links between London and the Gulf States, while allies said he would be “open, honest and moral in his approach” regarding political issues in the region.
On Thursday, Johnson was rebuked by Downing Street after it emerged he had accused Saudi Arabia of being among countries engaged in fighting “proxy wars” in the Middle East, breaking the Foreign Office’s convention of not criticising a key UK ally in the region.
One ally of Johnson was scathing about Rifkind’s intervention, saying: Mr Rifkind wasn’t exactly the best foreign secretary this country has ever had and should go back to whatever he is doing these days and stop sniping from the sidelines.
While Johnson set off with intentions of striking a diplomatic note on his visit to the Manama Dialogue event in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia this weekend, his backers hit out at Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who had suggested the gaffe-prone foreign secretary should shift ministerial jobs.
Rifkind said Johnson should not speak out publicly against official government policy. In an interview with the BBC, the former minister added that Johnson “might end up being more comfortable in another senior cabinet position”.
Johnson’s stance softened somewhat on Friday, while the prime minister’s spokeswoman said that Theresa May had “full confidence in the foreign secretary” but gave little in the way of overt support for him as he prepared for some potentially tricky talks with Saudi leaders.
Asked if Johnson would apologise for his comments while in the country, May’s spokeswoman said: “He will have the opportunity there, in his discussions with senior Saudi representatives, to talk about the government’s policy and the government’s approach.”
It emerged that Johnson met May in Downing Street after the Guardian revealed what he had said about Saudi Arabia. The conversation between the two was described as amicable.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is expected to use a speech on Saturday to step up the pressure on the government to do more to tackle human rights. He will back Johnson’s assessment, while also saying it is hypocritical for the government to continue with arms sales to the region.
A draft of Corbyn’s speech says Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are “known for their abysmal human rights records”, silencing critical media and torturing protesters, and he criticises May for her visit to Bahrain earlier in the week.
“This week in Bahrain, we have seen the prime minister sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade, while Britain’s chief diplomat Boris Johnson blurts out the reality of the Saudi role in fuelling Middle Eastern proxy wars before heading back to the Gulf once again to apologise,” he is due to say.
May’s tough initial stance against Johnson prompted disquiet among some Conservative MPs and others close to the foreign secretary.
Some who know both Johnson and May well have questioned whether her approach could ultimately backfire. “Boris needs – craves – people telling him that he’s doing a good job; he needs validation,” said one person who worked closely with him on the Brexit campaign.
One Conservative MP with an interest in foreign policy said: “One of the problems we have at the moment is we always play the man and not the ball. This is interesting here because, for once, the man, not the ball, is shining a light on a really rather interesting and important issue.”
In a speech in Rome, Johnson bemoaned both Saudi Arabia and Iran for “twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives”.
Johnson said: That’s one of the biggest political problems in the whole region. And the tragedy for me – and that’s why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area – is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.”
Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said it had been useful for Johnson to publicly raise the “incredible degree of tension and hostility” between Saudi Arabia and Iran being played out via the opposing forces they support in Syria and Yemen.
“In a way, the foreign secretary, by raising this, is completely correct,” said Kawczynski. “But the way in which he’s done it could have been handled better. At the end of the day, both entities feel very sensitive and very vulnerable towards one another, and blame one another.”
Kawczynski, who chairs the all-party group on Saudi Arabia and is a regular visitor to the country, said the Saudis would probably welcome a genuine attempt to ease the tensions and, while Johnson had “exposed a running sore”, his tone was misjudged.
He said: “On the one hand, I’m very appreciative of him doing this and I think he and others have a responsibility to work towards getting the two parties round the table. But clearly he has to be very careful with the language that he uses. There’s a lot of sensitivity here.”
Johnson received strong support from Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who said she understood the convention of “not panning your allies in public” but still felt he had been correct.
“I think Boris Johnson was absolutely right about what he said about proxy wars, and about Saudi and about Iran,” she said. “And I agree with his analysis. Now, that might not be the position of the UK government, but guess what? I am not in the UK government and I think he was right.”
Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris on Saturday for an international meeting about the crisis in the Syrian city of Aleppo, before heading to the Saudi capital, Riyadh.