Known for his platinum blond hair, dishevelled style and frequent gaffes, even Boris Johnson’s detractors cannot deny that he is a political star.
The former foreign secretary has been chosen to replace Theresa May by Tory grassroots members and is expected to enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister tomorrow - where he will cut a very different figure from his predecessor.
“May, the staid daughter of a vicar, has a presentational style that is in many ways the polar opposite of Johnson’s swashbuckling on-stage persona,” notes Reuters.
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While May was seen as unshowy and diligent, Johnson has been described as a “personality politician”, which The Guardian says has “been both a political strength and weakness”.
“For all his popularity, doubts over his temperament and judgment have long dogged him. Those questions are rightly becoming more pointed as he approaches No 10,” says the newspaper.
So what kind of PM will Johnson make? His previous experience gives us some clues...
“After a career as a journalist, Mr. Johnson was elected to Parliament in 2001, where he was enmeshed in some controversy, and was fired from the opposition leadership team, after falsely denying reports of an extramarital affair,” report Benjamin Mueller and Stephen Castle, UK correspondents for The New York Times.
He remained as MP for Henley until 2008, when he became London mayor. This eight-year reign at City Hall offers some examples of his leadership style.
Few Londoners are likely to have forgotten the grand launch of his self-service “Boris bikes”, his campaign for a new airport in the Thames estuary - dubbed “Boris Island” - or the image of Johnson stuck on a 20ft-high zipwire while celebrating Team GB’s first gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games.
“Johnson delegated detail to others and allowed a series of very able deputies to do the ‘running’ of London while he did the photo ops,” write politics lecturers Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister in a review of his two terms.
He pursued “showy” ideas, from cable cars to buildings, and “constantly chased spontaneous events and opportunities and made headlines”, they add.
The Daily Telegraph’s Asa Bennett says the Tory MP’s “charisma meant he served as an excellent ambassador for the capital”, though Johnson spent much of his time at City Hall “badgering ministers for more powers” in a struggle to fulfil his mandate of building more homes, keeping taxes low and approving new academies.
Johnson returned to the House of Commons as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015. After campaigning for Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, he had a stab at succeeding David Cameron, but was instead stabbed in the back by his colleague Michael Gove, and pulled out of the race.
May moved into No. 10 and appointed him foreign secretary, after siphoning off the responsibilities of Brexit and international trade to new departments.
“There was hope that his charm and intelligence could turn into statesmanship” and, at first, “diplomats warmed to this multilingual maverick”, says the BBC’s James Landale.
But Johnson’s “repeated gaffes and inappropriate remarks” frequently set him back, Landale continues. These diplomatic disasters included reciting a colonial-era Kipling poem at a Myanmar temple and mistakenly suggesting that detained Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran. Johnson also faced an angry backlash after reportedly dismissing corporate fears over Brexit by saying: “F*** business.”
Private sector growth
After two years as foreign secretary, Johnson resigned in protest at May’s Chequers plan and returned to the backbenches, where he has been able to speak more freely - not only in the Commons but also in his Daily Telegraph column and on the fringes of the Conservative Party Conference last year, where he laid out his vision for the country.
He suggested he would prioritise home ownership and fiscal devolution for local councils, giving them incentives to build more houses and encourage more small private builders. He also called for more stop and search powers for policing, a “properly funded NHS” and a celebration of business.
“We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector economy that can pay for superb public services,” Johnson said. “We should set our taxes at the optimum rate to stimulate investment and growth, and we should be constantly aiming not to increase but to cut taxes.”
In addition, he has shown support for the values of One Nation Conservatism, which along with unlocking free enterprise, include defending human rights, active global leadership and conserving the environment.
And what of Brexit?
Johnson has said he is “not aiming for a no-deal outcome” for Brexit. However, he has refused to take it off the table, calling it a “vital” negotiation tool for securing a better withdrawal agreement with the European Union.
He has promised to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October “do or die”, leaving many doubting that he can secure a deal in time.
“Johnson has adapted his old habits - the theatrics, the polysyllabic put-downs, the outlandish plans - for the Brexit era,” say Mueller and Castle in The New York Times. But they warn that Brexit - “perhaps Britain’s greatest peacetime crisis” - turns on the “sort of labyrinthine details that Mr. Johnson so avoids”.
Meanwhile, The Times’ Rachel Sylvester warns: “This is a man who wears his beliefs so lightly that he wrote two articles ahead of the EU referendum, one supporting Leave and the other Remain. There is every reason to assume he will pivot away from the hard Brexit position if it suits him politically.”
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