Boris Johnson's ruinous ambition

Boris Johnson was widely expected to become Britain’s next prime minister after leading the campaign to leave the EU. But his candidacy was doomed by his own hubris and lack of preparation.

What does Boris Johnson want?
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

One day in 2004, Boris Johnson was interrupted on his morning jog by a pack of tabloid reporters massed outside his house in north London. They asked about rumors that Johnson, then editor of The Spectator magazine and a member of Parliament, had once had an extramarital affair, gotten his lover pregnant, and paid for her abortion.

The chronically disheveled Johnson, wearing voluminous shorts and a bandanna decorated with skulls and crossbones, responded with his usual cocktail of charm, bluster, and obfuscation. Having already dismissed the story as "a completely untrue and ludicrous conjecture" and "an inverted pyramid of piffle," he cheerily advised the reporters to "go for a run, get some exercise, and have a beautiful day."

He was lying. The reports were correct, and he was fired from his parliamentary job as the Conservative Party's arts spokesman. But it didn't seem to bother him too much. Johnson has always had a knack for recasting disaster as farce, and he devoted his weekly newspaper column to the virtues of being fired.

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"Nothing excites compassion, in friend and foe alike," he wrote, "as much as the sight of you kersplonked on the tarmac with your propeller buried six feet under."

Johnson, 52, has had a singularly charmed life, always wafting upward on a Teflon cloud of charm and guile even as people have questioned his integrity, seriousness, and competence. But not anymore. Having gambled his political future on the chance to lead his party and country through the aftermath of the Brexit referendum on whether to exit the European Union, Johnson found last month that his luck had run out. He withdrew from the race to be Conservative Party leader.

In the end, he was done in as much by his own hubris, lack of preparation, and bewilderment in the face of the Brexit result as he was by the treachery and dwindling support of his colleagues. As he abandoned his campaign to be leader — and with it, probably, his chances of ever being prime minister — he seemed almost relieved to be spared the burden of running the country he had done so much to destabilize.

For a student of Shakespeare, which Johnson is (he is writing a biography), the situation was replete with ironies. A man who had spent his life behaving like Falstaff and making merry in the pub had failed to convince his party, and perhaps himself, that he had somehow suddenly turned into Prince Hal, poised to lead the country through its crisis in Europe.

After Johnson announced he wouldn't seek the Conservative leadership, the anger at him was palpable, replacing the initial anger at Prime Minister David Cameron for calling the referendum in the first place. The sense that Johnson had presided over the Brexit campaign without any plan for what to do if it won — and then walked away without clearing up his mess — was particularly enraging.

"He's like a general who marches his army to the sound of guns and the moment he sees the battleground abandons it," Michael Heseltine, a Tory politician, told the BBC. "I have never seen anything like it. He ripped the Tory party apart. He has created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life."

Just a few days earlier, Johnson, the former mayor of London, had seemed poised to coast into position as prime minister when Cameron steps down in the fall. Outside London, at least before the referendum, he was the Conservative Party's star candidate, a populist maverick for the times. With his air of disarrayed befuddlement, his crazy coiffure, his idiosyncratically imaginative P.G. Wodehousian locution, his habit of slipping into Latin and Greek, his foot-in-the-mouth self-deprecation, and his obvious delight in himself, he oozes a charm rarely seen in politicians.

He cycles to work and carries his things in a backpack. He looks as if he's slept in his clothes and just gotten out of bed. He has the privileged demeanor of an old Etonian (he went to school there), but a Bill Clinton–esque way with crowds and an appeal that transcends class. In headlines he is "BoJo"; to most Britons he is simply "Boris."

But his surface success has always carried along with it a reputation for lies, evasions, and exaggerations; a lack of seriousness and discipline; a tendency to wade blindly into situations without thinking through their ramifications; and a perception that he puts his own ambitions first. He has a habit of deflecting tough questions and affecting an amused insouciance about his mistakes, which have included fathering a child with a woman other than his wife (he and his wife, a lawyer, have four children).

He is better on the big picture than he is on the details.

Take the June 27 column by Johnson in The Daily Telegraph, the first substantive statement anyone from the Brexit side had made since the vote. As chaos swirled outside and Britain waited nervously for a sign that someone had a plan, Johnson produced a shoddily prepared article that seemed uncertain of its facts and backtracked on a number of key Brexit promises.

Supporters of Johnson said at the time that the article had been written hastily and turned in late, and should be treated more as a first draft than as a definitive statement.

It was as a journalist who played around with the facts that Johnson first made his name. He was fired from his first reporting job, at The Times of London, for inventing a quote and attributing it to an Oxford professor (who happened to be his godfather). But he was hired anyway by The Daily Telegraph and sent to Brussels in 1989 to cover the European Union.

It was a boring assignment, but Johnson found a way of enlivening it: He made things up. His great talent was to take tiny grains of information in reports and proposals, repackage them as official European policy, and present them as part of a broad narrative about Brussels' risibility. His stories were full of wrong-size condoms, fishermen forced to wear hairnets, and international disputes over cheese policy.

While his stories became increasingly influential in the Euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party, and in many ways set the tone for the British papers' coverage of Europe ever since, Johnson tends to treat his approach as great fun.

"I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall and listening to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England," he told an interviewer.

"Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power."

After Brussels, Johnson became editor of The Spectator, which functions as a kind of house organ for conventional Conservative Party wisdom, and began writing a popular weekly column in The Daily Telegraph. In 2001 he won a seat in Parliament.

I was in London at the time and wrote a profile of Johnson. He boasted to me in the humble-brag way peculiar to British upper-class men that, trying to juggle three jobs, he was unable to do any of them properly. "Because I have no time to do it, I do it in no time," he said, of his Telegraph column. "You just whack it out."

Johnson seemed constitutionally incapable of taking anything truly seriously. Deciding he did not feel like being photographed for The New York Times article, for instance, he got another man in the Spectator office to impersonate him in the photo session. The photographer duly snapped away, until the magazine's publisher found out what was going on and made Johnson sit for the portrait. (He was 37 at the time.)

Around then, Johnson also became a bona fide celebrity, honing his trademark persona as a hyperarticulate upper-class twit for the masses in a string of highly amusing appearances on the current events quiz show Have I Got News for You. Viewers adored him.

"His charming, bumbling buffoon image was neatly done and went down very well with audiences," said Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine and a panelist on the show.

In 2008, Johnson unexpectedly ran for mayor of London, and even more unexpectedly for a Conservative in a Labour city, he won. The same complaints that had dogged him in the past dogged him in office, along with criticisms that he had failed to address serious issues like air quality and affordable housing.

"We had eight frustrating years where we'd ask detailed policy questions, and what we'd get back in response was bluster and grandiose claims," said Joanne McCartney, a Labour Assembly member who is now deputy mayor. "If he didn't know the answer to the question, which was a regular occurrence, he'd use bluster and wit to avoid answering."

Johnson all along denied that he wanted to be prime minister, saying it was about as likely as his being "reincarnated as an olive." But he has always been wittier, quicker, and more charismatic than Cameron. The 2012 London Olympics proved the perfect showcase for his off-the-cuff anarchic wit. Filmed stranded haplessly on a malfunctioning zip line, Johnson took an incident that would have humiliated most other politicians and somehow used it to burnish his appeal. (A photograph of him dangling was used to quite different effect last month on the cover of the French newspaper Libération.)

Cameron has always been threatened by Johnson; his efforts to slough off the mayor as a kind of amusing Tory mascot never worked. But it wasn't until Johnson betrayed the prime minister by throwing his support behind the Brexit campaign that the party saw the extent of BoJo's ambition.

Before now, Johnson has rarely been confronted by a situation he could not maneuver his way through. But a harbinger came in March, when he was summoned before a House of Commons committee and forensically interrogated by its Javert-like Tory chairman, Andrew Tyrie, about a series of statements he had made over the years about Europe.

Johnson tried his normal humorous approach. Asked, for instance, about his assertion that the European Union has a law saying that balloons cannot be blown up by children under 8 (it doesn't), he deflected the question, saying, "In my household, only children under 8 are allowed to blow up balloons."

He continued in this vein throughout the session, as Tyrie peered unsmilingly at him, acid in his voice.

"This is all very interesting, Boris," Tyrie said at one point. "Except none of it is really true, is it?"

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.

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