'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson

Jul 4, 2019

Boris Johnson is a larger-than-life British politician who likes to project the image of a bumbling, fun-loving man of the people.

His many supporters in Britain's Conservative Party find him charismatic, entertaining and — to their minds — refreshingly politically incorrect.

Many critics, however, see him as unprincipled, offensive and driven wholly by ambition.

This increasingly divisive figure in politics is now the favorite to become the United Kingdom's next prime minister. If he wins the Conservative Party leadership race — results are expected July 23 — he will inherit Brexit, a political Pandora's box that ended the career of the previous two prime ministers.

There are seemingly many sides to Boris Johnson. There is Johnson the public booster who slyly plays the buffoon, as he did at times during his two terms as mayor of London, from 2008 to 2016. One of the most enduring images of his tenure was Johnson riding on a zip line, waving a pair of Union Jacks to promote the 2012 London Olympics, only to be stranded 15 feet off the ground, the harness chafing against his groin.

"Get me a ladder!" he pleaded to the crowd below as he laughed at his own predicament.

There is Johnson the philanderer, who has gone through two marriages and had a daughter with an art consultant who had worked for him unpaid. Now 55, the U.K.'s former foreign secretary recently had an altercation with his 31-year-old girlfriend that resulted in a visit from police. No charges were filed.

Some of Johnson's critics have called him "racist." In 2016, after President Obama moved the bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office, Johnson attributed the decision to Obama's supposed "ancestral dislike of the British Empire." Obama's father was from Kenya, a former British colony. In columns in The Daily Telegraph, Johnson used offensive language to describe Africans and Muslim women wearing burqas. Johnson has said the remarks were "satirical."

But there is also Johnson, the feel-good politician and superb orator — he was president of the Oxford Union, the famed university debating society — who can inspire, as he did at the Conservative Party's convention last year with a call to arms. He urged party members "to feel a realistic and justified confidence in what we can do."

This weekend, ballots begin going out to the party's approximately 160,000 members, who will vote for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who is stepping down. Johnson faces current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the acknowledged underdog.

They know that he is problematic. They know that he's a flawed character and they do not care. If anything, they love him more for it. - Nicholas Allen, lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway, University of London

Nicholas Allen, who teaches politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that — like President Trump — Johnson has a way of connecting with grassroots party members, which helps make him the clear favorite in the race.

"Lots of people are just awed by his charisma," Allen says. "They know that he is problematic. They know that he's a flawed character and they do not care. If anything, they love him more for it."

Johnson has promised to take the U.K. out of the European Union "do or die" — meaning the country could walk away from the massive free trade bloc and political union without a withdrawal deal. That pledge resonates with many disillusioned Brexit voters, who are angry that the U.K. still hasn't left the EU more than three years after a majority of voters cast ballots to do so in a referendum.

"I think he's the only person who's going to get us out of Europe," says John Mays, who drives a taxi in London. "He's committed to it."

But Mays, 65, added that if Johnson fails to keep his promise to pull the U.K. out by the Oct. 31 deadline, "he's doomed."

Many who have dealt with Johnson find him charming, including Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant who met the politician several times when Johnson served as foreign secretary. Ratcliffe was seeking Johnson's help to free his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national jailed in Iran since 2016 on spying charges, which she denies. But Johnson, who is not known for attention to detail, made the situation worse in 2017 when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee she had been teaching journalism in Iran, which her husband says is false. Iranian state TV seized on the foreign secretary's statement as evidence Zaghari-Ratcliffe was indeed a spy and Johnson later apologized.

"Do I mind him winging things?" says Richard Ratcliffe. "I think there are consequences for it. One of the things they often say with foreign secretaries is they're either dull or they're dangerous, and he wasn't dull."

Ratcliffe is reluctant to be too critical of Johnson, whose office did not respond to a request to speak with NPR, but others who know Johnson well are less reticent.

"Actually I'm quite frightened about him becoming prime minister," says Sonia Purnell, author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition. "He has a very, very long track record of lying."

Purnell worked with Johnson in Brussels when both were journalists with London's Daily Telegraph in the 1990s. That was after The Times of London had fired Johnson for making up a quote he attributed to his own godfather.

That wasn't his only firing: In 2004, the Conservative Party sacked him from its leadership for lying about an affair.

Purnell doubts that Johnson — despite all that he says — ever really believed in Brexit.

"When I worked with him in the 1990s, he was writing excoriating copy about the European Union," Purnell recalls in an interview. "But in private, over a coffee or something, he would talk about the EU affectionately, sympathetically. And I think deep down he's a 'Remainer.' "

Days before going public in favor of Brexit in 2016, Johnson wrote an opinion piece supporting staying in the EU that was never published.

Purnell suspects Johnson made a political calculation, that favoring an exit would eventually better position him to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported staying in the EU and resigned after the surprise Brexit victory. Johnson's plan to succeed Cameron was torpedoed by his running mate.

Now, after surviving multiple controversies, Johnson is back and could win the top political job he has been gunning for.

If he does, Purnell says, he could face the hugely difficult task of executing a policy that he may not have really believed in in the first place.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Boris Johnson is the favorite to become the United Kingdom's next prime minister. If Johnson wins a leadership contest later this month, he will inherit Brexit. That's the issue that ended the careers of the two previous prime ministers. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt has this profile of Britain's most colorful and confounding politician.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There are many Boris Johnsons. There's the public booster who slyly plays the buffoon, as he did as mayor of London, riding backwards on a zip line, waving a pair of Union Jacks to promote the 2012 London Olympics, only to be stranded 15 feet off the ground, the harness chafing against his groin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS JOHNSON: Get me a ladder.

(LAUGHTER)

LANGFITT: There's Johnson the philanderer, who's gone through two marriages. Now 55, the former U.K. foreign secretary recently had a row with his 31-year-old girlfriend that resulted in a visit from police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On the front page of every major newspaper, reports of a domestic between Boris and his partner.

LANGFITT: But there's also Johnson the feel-good politician, who can inspire, as he did at the Conservative Party's convention last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: If I have a function here today, it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead into the collective pencil to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping-away of our self-belief and to invite you to feel a realistic and justified confidence in what we can do.

LANGFITT: This month, Conservative Party members will vote for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who's stepping down. Johnson faces the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the acknowledged underdog.

Nicholas Allen teaches politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He says, like President Trump, Johnson has a special connection with grassroots party members which helps make him such a favorite.

NICHOLAS ALLEN: Lots of people are just awed by his charisma. They know that he is problematic. They know that he's a flawed character, and they do not care. If anything, they love him more for it.

LANGFITT: Johnson has promised to take the United Kingdom out of the EU, do-or-die. That pledge resonates with many disillusioned Brexit voters who are angry that three years on, the U.K. still hasn't left, voters like John Mays, who drives a taxi in London.

JOHN MAYS: Well, often he's the only person that's going to get us out of Europe. He's committed to it. If he doesn't achieve it in the 31 of October, he's doomed.

LANGFITT: Many who've dealt with Johnson find him charming. Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant, met Johnson several times when Johnson served as foreign secretary.

RICHARD RATCLIFFE: He does inspire people, genuinely. He was quite kind, personally.

LANGFITT: Ratcliffe was seeking Johnson's help to free his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She's a British Iranian dual national who's been jailed in Iran on spying charges, which he denies. But Johnson, who's not known as a detail guy, made the situation worse when he told a parliamentary committee she'd been teaching journalism in Iran, which her husband says is false. Iranian state TV seized on Johnson's statement as evidence Zaghari-Ratcliffe was indeed a spy. Johnson later apologized.

Again, Richard Ratcliffe.

RATCLIFFE: Do I mind him winging things? I think there are consequences for it. You know, one of the things they often say with foreign secretaries is they're either dull or they're dangerous. And he wasn't dull.

LANGFITT: Ratcliffe is reluctant to be too critical of Johnson, whose office did not respond to a request to speak with NPR. Others who know Johnson better are less reticent.

SONIA PURNELL: I'm actually - I'm quite frightened about him becoming prime minister. He has a very, very long track record of lying.

LANGFITT: This is Sonia Purnell, author of "Just Boris: A Tale Of Blond Ambition." Purnell worked with Johnson when they were both journalists with London's Daily Telegraph, based in Brussels in the 1990s.

That was after The Times of London had fired Johnson for making up a quote from his own godfather and before Johnson became a politician and the Conservative Party sacked him from leadership for lying about an affair. In fact, Purnell doubts that Johnson, despite all he says, ever really believed in Brexit.

PURNELL: When I worked with him in the 1990s, he was writing excoriating copy about the European Union. But in private, you know, over a coffee or something, he would talk about the EU affectionately, sympathetically. And I think, deep down, he's a remainer.

LANGFITT: Days before going public in favor of Brexit in 2016, Johnson wrote a secret opinion piece supporting staying in the European Union.

PURNELL: Career comes first, always, with Boris Johnson, and he could see that we had a remain prime minister. We had David Cameron. There was only a market opportunity for a leave prime minister.

LANGFITT: Now, says Purnell, Johnson could face the hugely difficult task of executing a policy that he may never have really believed in in the first place. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKE INSPIRED'S "SWEET DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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