Britain’s unlikely prime minister
Boris Johnson has finally achieved his dream of moving into 10 Downing Street. How did he get there?
Who is Boris Johnson?
Husky and blond, he’s a larger-than-life character who spouts Shakespeare and Latin but can’t seem to comb his unruly hair or arrive anywhere on time. An Eton- and Oxford-educated Tory, Johnson, 55, is hardly the stereotype of a buttoned-up conservative: Twice divorced, with four kids by the wife he left last year, he has another child out of wedlock, and at least one of his mistresses had an abortion. When he moved into 10 Downing Street last week, he brought his current flame, the PR agent Carrie Symonds, 31, and the two became the first unmarried couple ever to live in the prime minister’s residence. A brilliant and wildly entertaining writer and speaker, Johnson has been a columnist, member of Parliament, mayor of London, and foreign minister, yet his policy achievements are thin. The British regard him either as a buffoon or as a refreshing rebel against political correctness. He has written of African “pickaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and said Muslim women in burqas look “like letterboxes.” Yet no matter his sins, he always manages to get a pass.
What are his origins?
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York City into a competitive, intellectual English family of five siblings. His part-Turkish father was a European Commission bureaucrat and novelist who moved the family to Brussels, where the bright young Al Johnson spent a largely unhappy childhood. Always ambitious, he once told his sister that he intended to become “king of the world.” At Eton, Al reinvented himself as Boris and began to develop his clownish persona of a bumbling yet lovable rogue, witty and self-deprecating. By his university years at Oxford, where he was a member of the raucous, hard-drinking Bullingdon Club and head of the Oxford Union debating society, he had developed a worshipful obsession with Winston Churchill, the journalist turned prime minister he believes he is destined to emulate.
How did he get his start?
Family connections placed Johnson at the prestigious Times in 1987, but he was fired after just a few months for inventing a quote. The conservative Daily Telegraph, though, made him its European Union correspondent in Brussels at age 24. Johnson livened up the dull post by making up outrageous stories about EU bureaucracy, taking obscure memos and presenting them as actual EU policy. He claimed that snails would be classified as fish, that too-curvy bananas would be banned, and that condom size would be standardized (and the Italians wanted smaller ones). His first wife said he would file stories with foreign datelines when he hadn’t left their flat. “Boris is very charming, very plausible, but cuts fast and loose with the facts,” says the Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard. His hilarious reports stirred up resentment of the EU across the U.K.
When did he turn to politics?
In the late ’90s, he became a national celebrity as a panelist on the comedy show Have I Got News for You, charming audiences with droll self-mockery. In 2001, while serving as editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine, Johnson was elected to Parliament. In 2008 and 2012, the Conservative was twice elected mayor of liberal London, largely on charisma. He was an effective cheerleader for the global city, particularly during the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, when he memorably got stuck dangling from a zip line, waving little Union Jacks.
Why did he champion Brexit?
During the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, Johnson recognized that many Britons felt deep resentment over the erosion of national identity and unimpeded influx of foreign labor. So he abandoned his pro-Europe, pro-immigration mayoral persona and broke with his party leader, then–Prime Minister David Cameron, to become the face of Vote Leave. “Johnson’s a political chameleon,” says his biographer, Sonia Purnell. “There are no core beliefs, no values, just instincts.” He toured the country in a bus emblazoned with the lie that the U.K. would save 350 million pounds (then $525 million) a week, all going to shore up the National Health Service. But when Leave won and Cameron resigned, Johnson appeared shocked and paralyzed. He withdrew from the running for prime minister, and compromise candidate Theresa May won. May surprised many by appointing him foreign minister, and Johnson made a mess of it.
What did he do wrong?
He was a bull in the diplomatic china shop. Johnson offended the French by comparing then–President François Hollande to a Nazi prison guard and the Burmese by reciting a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem. He constantly criticized May’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels, and when she presented a deal that would keep the U.K. closely bound to the EU, he resigned in protest. That stance positioned him as the hard-Brexit favorite to succeed May when she resigned without an agreement last month. With his Brexit advocacy, Johnson “created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life,” said Tory politician Michael Heseltine. Now it is up to him to resolve it.
Boris’ Brexit promises
Irrepressibly confident, Johnson insists that he will renegotiate a deal with Brussels that gets rid of the dreaded “Irish backstop.” This is the provision that requires the U.K. to stay in the EU customs union as long as necessary to avoid a hard border between EU-member Ireland and the U.K. region Northern Ireland. The EU says May’s deal can’t be changed. But Johnson has always refused hard choices: “My policy on cake,” he once said, “is pro having it and pro eating it.” If there is no better deal, Johnson says he will crash the U.K. out of the union with no deal by the Oct. 31 deadline—an option many warn would cause economic chaos and a British recession. Political analysts, however, expect Johnson to renege and accept some alternative. With his “record of double-talk, about-turn, and mendacity,” says The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, Johnson can be relied upon only to deliver something other than what he promised. ■