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The inside story of how James Cleverly's Olympian efforts have made him a hero in Japan

NewsThe inside story of how James Cleverly's Olympian efforts have made him a hero in Japan

The untold story of Cleverly’s love affair with Japan started on a quiet Friday afternoon when he was one of Boris Johnson’s deputy mayors for London not long after the 2012 Olympics. In a world where Britain is redefining its role and place in the world following Brexit, the tale has become an important factor in how Cleverly’s past relations are now paying dividends for his country today.

The story began late in 2010 when a delegation from Japan turned up to get advice for the Tokyo Olympic bid for the 2020 games and Cleverly, whose responsibility at the time was young people, was the most senior politician available in City Hall.

With the weekend fast approaching and Boris Johnson out of town, officials collared Cleverly before he headed off home to ask him to meet the delegation.

Soon the Japanese team came in armed with pens and notepads and sat in a line in front of him at a table in the Mayor’s offices.

They wanted to know about the Olympics and how London had won the bid.

At the time Tokyo was competing to be Japan’s nomination for the 2020 Olympics.

“You want to ask me about the Olympics?” Cleverly is understood to have responded slightly surprised. “Go ahead!”

They started off asking him about what made London’s bid for the games such a success.

Cleverly told them it was not just about sport but “communities, legacy and facilities”.

Then they went on to push for advice for what at the time was Tokyo’s fledgling bid.

“Well Japan is a blend of the ancient and very modern, it’s unique,” Cleverly is understood to have told them.

And then for the next half hour started blurting out different ideas which popped into his head.

The delegation nodded intently and took copious notes before leaving with their thanks.

Cleverly thought little else about it until three years later when Tokyo was awarded the 2020 games – which because of Covid eventually took place in 2021 – on September 7, 2013.

Within a few days of the announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a letter arrived from the Japanese Embassy.

The then deputy mayor went along to a high-class Japanese restaurant in St James expecting it to be part of a larger party.

Instead, he was ushered to a private dining area where he and the Japanese ambassador had a one-to-one lunch.

It turned out that his advice had been pivotal for the bid’s success.

Cleverly thought it would end at a nice meal but to his amazement the ambassador then invited him to Japan by way of thanks and to get his views on the Olympic preparations.

That resulted in his first trip to Japan with his second on a much sadder occasion last year for the funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who died after being shot.

Within two years, Cleverly was elected the MP Braintree at the 2015 election and a lowly backbencher making his way in Westminster.

But years later the memory of Cleverly’s first contact with Japan has not been forgotten in either country and is now paying dividends today.

Abe was one of the world leaders persuaded by David Cameron to encourage British voters to back Remain in 2016.

Yet now Japan is one of the biggest investors in Brexit Britain in places like Sunderland where Nissan has a now expanded car factory (which at the time was told would lose the plant).

Japan was one of the cheerleaders for the UK to join the massive trans Pacific trade partnership (CPTPP), a major Brexit boon.

While Cleverly can’t take credit for all those successes, he has played a role and his Olympic experience has been a model used in rebuilding and redefining other relationships with countries around the world.

This approach is one of the reasons the Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland was able to happen and has seen the UK strike a much improved partnership with France.

Part of it is the Foreign Secretary’s natural bon ami but it also reflects a rigorous process of small gestures which build relationships over time.

An FCDO source said: “It’s coins in the pot for the moment when you might need somebody.”

As Japan welcomes Cleverly today for the G7 summit, it has not forgotten his afternoon of kindness a decade ago and that is to Britain’s benefit.

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