Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to be the UK’s next prime minister, explained

Share This Story
Then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech on day three of the annual Conservative Party conference on October 3, 2017, in Manchester, England.

Johnson, the former London mayor and Brexiteer member of Parliament, is the favorite in the Conservative leadership contest that begins this week.

Boris Johnson’s day has finally come. Maybe.

The 54-year-old Conservative member of Parliament, former foreign minister, and former mayor of London is the presumed frontrunner in the crowded contest to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, who was forced to step aside after failing to deliver a Brexit deal.

An ardent backer of Brexit, Johnson has a reputation for brashness, bombast, bending the truth, and really bad hair, which has earned him more than a few comparisons to President Donald Trump (who also happens to be a fan of his).

Johnson can be a cringeworthy character (see: that time he got stuck dangling from a zipline), but that’s also somehow part of his charm, and why he’s among the most popular Conservative politicians in a party that isn’t too popular right now. He’s also been a vocal opponent of May’s Brexit deal.

But Johnson’s critics see him as a calculating self-aggrandizer, someone who’d do or say just about anything to get ahead. Or, as one prominent Conservative politician once put it: Johnson “waits to see the way the crowd is running and then dashes in front.”

Johnson is now one of 10 candidates vying for the prime ministership, and though he’s the presumed favorite right now, there’s always a chance that his candidacy implodes. But his is a name you’ll be hearing a lot of now that May has officially stepped down as Conservative leader as of last week and the contest to replace her has begun.

So here’s what you need to know about Johnson and the leadership contest that may or may not make him the British prime minister — and the next in line to solve Brexit, a crisis that’s also partly of Johnson’s own making.

“An ability to generate laughter and a mood of upbeat bonhomie”

Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator magazine at the time, sits in his London office reading the anniversary issue of the magazine to mark 175 years of publication, on September 25, 2003.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator magazine at the time, sits in his London office reading the anniversary issue of the magazine to mark 175 years of publication, on September 25, 2003.

Johnson’s populist persona is somewhat at odds with his background. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York City (he apparently gave up his US citizenship in 2016), and was educated at the prestigious English prep school Eton, and later at Oxford University.

Johnson began his career as a journalist. He worked at the Times of London until he was fired in 1988 for fabricating quotes. He also served as the Brussels correspondent covering the European Union for the Telegraph (where he still has a column) from 1989 to 1994.

One critic said he tried to “debunk the EU at every opportunity” during his time as a reporter in Brussels, helping fuel euroskeptic sentiment in Britain that would arrive in force during the 2016 referendum. He later held editor jobs at the Telegraph and the Spectator. He’s also written several books, from fiction to a biography of Winston Churchill.

Johnson became a Conservative member of Parliament in 2001. In 2008, he mounted a bid to become the mayor of London — and won in a stunning upset, defeating the Labour candidate and incumbent Ken Livingstone.

Johnson’s victory was seen as a major breakthrough for the Conservative Party, which had been out of power in Parliament for more than a decade at that point. And in a pro-Labour Party town like London, it helped turn Johnson into a candidate with cross-party appeal.

Johnson’s record as mayor was mixed, but he was a booster for London and loved publicity stunts and branding exercises — for better or worse. For example, he presided over a bike share program that became known as “Boris bikes,” though his predecessor also got credit. Johnson also had a penchant for grand infrastructure projects, some of which became high-profile boondoggles.

Notably, Johnson presided over the London Olympics, where, as the Guardian put it, he demonstrated “his greatest strength as mayor — an ability to generate laughter and a mood of upbeat bonhomie,” mostly because of that zipline incident.

Then-Prime Minister David Cameron aptly summed up Johnson’s odd appeal: “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph.”

Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson hanging in midair after he got stuck on a zipwire at an Olympic event at Victoria Park in London on January 8, 2012.
Ben Kendall/PA Images via Getty Images
Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson hanging in midair after he got stuck on a zipline at an Olympic event at Victoria Park in London on January 8, 2012.

Johnson ultimately served two terms as London mayor, declining to run again in 2016, just as the 2016 Brexit referendum was getting underway. By then, he had also returned to Parliament, winning a seat as an MP in 2015. It’s the seat he still holds today.

And over the years, Johnson has managed to generate a considerable amount of controversy for making comments that critics have dubbed racist, sexist, Islamophobic, or some combination of the three. In 2002, while criticizing the UK’s Africa policy, he referred to Africans as “piccaninnies.” In 2007, he likened Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”

In 2016, Johnson suggested that President Obama opposed Brexit because of his “ancestral dislike” of Britain, owing to his “part-Kenyan heritage” (Kenya was formerly a British colony). In a 2018 column, Johnson described Muslim women who wear burqas as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”

Johnson’s gaffes come across as toxic to some but as unfiltered honesty and authenticity to his supporters.

“I think a lot of it is similar to what Trump’s been able to do,” Amy P. Smith, who teaches British politics and public policy at the University of Sheffield, told me. Both leaders have managed to convince people they’re really looking out for the interests of the common man.

“[Johnson] had quite a privileged upbringing, but it doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “It’s almost like it doesn’t matter to people because he’s one of us — he’s funny, he makes mistakes, and he says what he thinks.”

Some of Johnson’s more controversial comments likely appeal to a subset of his supporters, too — especially when it comes to Brexit.

Boris and the Brexit bus sold UK voters on leaving the EU

Boris Johnson boards the Vote Leave Brexit Battle Bus on May 17, 2016, in Stafford, England. Johnson and the Vote Leave campaign toured the UK in their Brexit Battle Bus hoping to persuade voters to back leaving the European Union in the referendum that J
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Boris Johnson boards the Vote Leave Brexit Battle Bus on May 17, 2016, in Stafford, England. Johnson and the Vote Leave campaign toured the UK in the bus hoping to persuade voters to back leaving the European Union in the referendum that June.

In 2013, then-PM Cameron promised that if his Conservative Party won the next general election, he would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. Cameron won, and kept his promise. The UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. There were two choices: Leave (the EU) or Remain.

Johnson embraced the Leave campaign in February 2016, after a dramatic will-he-or-won’t-he that played out in public view. “I will be advocating Vote Leave … because I want a better deal for the people of this country, to save them money and to take control,” Johnson said at the time.

As an extremely popular Conservative politician, Johnson added legitimacy to the Leave campaign. He also publicly broke with Cameron, who advocated for Remain. (A poll from the time even looked at the “Boris effect” on Leave/Remain if Johnson backed or bucked Cameron.)

It was embarrassing for the prime minister, and many critics saw Johnson’s break with Cameron as an obvious political ploy — if a risky one at the time. Hitching himself to the Leave campaign meant that if it prevailed, Johnson could position himself to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. That would be harder to do if he got in line behind Cameron, whatever the referendum outcome.

“Before [Brexit], he never made his colors clear,” Simon Griffiths, a politics professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, told me. “It was widely thought that he doesn’t have strong views on it but saw it as a chance to get his name known and a chance to lead a group of people.”

Johnson effectively became the unofficial leader of the “Vote Leave” campaign — and though he wasn’t the only prominent politician backing the UK’s exit from the EU, he was probably the most memorable. (Another prominent pro-Brexit figure, Nigel Farage, led a parallel but unofficial campaign, Leave.EU).

Johnson, along with other leaders in the Brexit campaign, made a lot of questionable assertions about the EU-UK relationship, including a disputed claim that £350 million a week was going to the EU, which Brexiteers claimed could instead be used to fund Britain’s popular National Health Service.

Johnson wasn’t the first person to make this claim, but he peddled it and went on a Brexit Battle Bus tour with the claim plastered on its side. (£350 million is the gross figure, which doesn’t account for a £74 million rebate and that a lot of that money is reinvested in farm subsidies, including in Britain. The Guardian puts the net figure at about £160 million.)

Another big talking point for Brexiteers centered on immigration. Boris and some of his pro-Brexit campaigners argued that the EU’s freedom of movement rules made the UK less safe and said Brexit would allow the UK to take back control of its borders.

Johnson and others specifically pointed to Turkey’s potential membership in the EU, suggesting that once it joined, its citizens (the majority of whom are Muslim) would then be able to migrate to the UK. Turkey’s EU membership was actually years away then (and is now completely stalled), and critics interpreted this line of argument as nothing more than a dog whistle for Islamophobia.

Johnson has since denied saying anything about Turkish membership during the referendum, though the record is pretty clear. And in many ways, it sums up Johnson’s malleable politics and penchant for political expediency that his critics deride.

Johnson “is seen as somebody who is far more focused on Boris Johnson than the country,” Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, told me.

Boris’s post-Brexit play for prime minister fails

Boris Johnson listens to then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove speak following the results of the EU referendum at Westminster Tower on June 24, 2016, in London, England.
Mary Turner/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Boris Johnson listens to then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove speak following the results of the EU referendum at Westminster Tower on June 24, 2016, in London.

After the Brexit result broke in favor of Leave — 52 to 48 percent — Cameron resigned, leaving the party to chose a new leader and the next prime minister. Johnson, fresh off his Brexit victory, was seen as his most obvious successor.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Johnson’s candidacy imploded after one of his political allies betrayed him.

The political treachery began with Michael Gove, the justice minister who was a Johnson ally and fellow pro-Brexit supporter. Gove, though was often considered to be a Brexit “true believer,” unlike the more malleable Johnson. Still, Gove had been chairing Johnson’s leadership campaign when he suddenly announced he was entering the race himself.

“I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future,” Gove said in a statement at the time. “But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”

Once Gove declared, other Conservative members of Parliament, who would ultimately choose the finalists for leader, defected. Johnson had lost his support and really had no choice but to drop out.

But Gove’s gambit failed, and he was eliminated from the contest. Instead, Theresa May, who was then the home secretary (the position covers immigration and citizenship, kind of like the US Department of Homeland Security), became the UK’s second female prime minister.

May had supported Remain (though not very enthusiastically), and she promised to deliver on Brexit as prime minister. In many ways, she was seen as the compromise candidate between the more moderate wing of the Conservative Party and the hardcore pro-Brexit supporters — a sort of prime minister of necessity, tasked with cleaning up the Brexit mess.

Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers helped scuttled May’s deal — and her premiership

Johnson ultimately had to settle for the job of foreign secretary in May’s cabinet.

As foreign secretary, Boris was, well, Boris. There were the gaffes — such as his fight with an Italian minister over prosecco sales post-Brexit — which didn’t exactly help the UK in its tricky negotiations with the EU over Brexit, or with the rest of the world to foster future trading relationships.

Johnson ultimately quit in July 2018 in protest of May’s handling of Brexit. Several other prominent cabinet ministers also resigned with him. Johnson and the others saw May as pursuing a “soft Brexit” that would keep the UK closely tied to EU institutions, rather than the more decisive break they preferred.

Prime Minister Theresa May (L) sits with then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during the first Cabinet meeting of May’s new team at 10 Downing Street in London on June 12, 2017.
Leon Neal/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Theresa May sits with then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during the first cabinet meeting of May’s new team at 10 Downing Street in London on June 12, 2017.

Johnson was out front in his opposition to May’s deal even before it was officially agreed to. In his resignation letter, he said May’s Brexit plans would give the UK the “status of a colony.”

Johnson continued to protest May’s Brexit approach, and referred to her deal, which the EU-UK finalized in November, as “vassal state stuff” and a “humiliation.” Johnson, as an MP, had voted down the Brexit deal twice.

When it came up for a vote the third time at the end of March, though, the deal suddenly didn’t seem as humiliating to Johnson — mainly because May promised to resign if Parliament passed it that time around. “I feel very, very sorry and though it fills me with pain, I’m going to have to support this thing,” Johnson told the Telegraph.

“You can hang on and be pure, but in the end, the thing I fought for may never happen,” he added. “I genuinely think that unless this thing gets through, the House of Commons is going to steal Brexit.”

The deal didn’t end up passing that time either, undermining his sacrifice. But ultimately, the outcome was the same: May couldn’t break the Brexit deadlock, and she was forced to resign last month.

And Johnson was there, ready to try again.

Is Boris Johnson the man to save Brexit?

Johnson emerged almost instantly as the frontrunner in the leadership race to replace May. And unlike last time, he might actually become prime minister.

UK politics watchers and experts I talked to cautioned that these leadership contests can be unpredictable affairs, and just as Johnson’s bid got derailed last time, it could happen again.

But a lot has changed since 2016. For one, Johnson is in a different position than he was three years ago.

“He’s a very good mover behind the scenes,” Griffiths told me. “He’s very personable. He’s a good connector to other MPs, so he’s become better linked. He’s established himself as the frontrunner on the right of the party, in a way that he hadn’t done three or four years ago.”

But it might be what hasn’t changed since 2016 that will have the most influence on this race: the UK’s inability to decide how to break up with the European Union.

Brexit was initially scheduled for March 29, 2019 — that deadline passed, then another. Now it’s set for October 31, 2019. Parliament rejected May’s deal, but it also rejected leaving the EU without a deal in place, thus forcing the UK to seek more time.

The longer October extension also forced the UK to participate in the European parliamentary elections held in May, which turned into a referendum on Brexit. And the Conservatives got absolutely clobbered, ending up in a truly embarrassing fifth place.

To make matters worse, a newly formed Brexit Party led by Brexit provocateur Nigel Farage won the most seats in the European Parliament. And while Farage’s Brexit Party doesn’t quite fit neatly into a left-right spectrum (it also attracted pro-Brexit Labour supporters), the results were still startling for Conservatives, who were supposed to be the party that delivered on Brexit.

And the message that the Conservatives have taken from the one-issue Brexit Party is that the UK wants out of the EU by October, deal or no deal.

The results have basically put Conservatives in panic mode. The Brexit Party doesn’t have any seats in Parliament, but the fear is that it could sap support from Conservatives if they continue to dither and postpone on the EU-UK divorce.

And it’s pretty clear that if the party in power can only manage fifth place, voters in general are turned off. So maybe the solution is a hardcore Brexiteer who’s popular with the base and also happens to be charismatic and attention-grabbing.

Right now, Conservatives seem to think Johnson is the best man for the job — not just to deliver Brexit but also to rehabilitate the party and win back supporters.

The party “looks around at the rest of the field and doesn’t really see someone who has as much name recognition or as much record of winning over Labour voters or as much charisma as Boris Johnson does,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told me. “Now, that doesn’t mean he’s got enough of any of those quantities, but it does give him a big advantage over most of the other candidates in the field.”

That seems to be Johnson’s pitch to MPs. He’s said that he will deliver on Brexit by October 31 by both pushing for a deal and stepping up preparations to take the UK out of the EU without a deal if necessary. Johnson told MPs that unless Conservatives delivered on Brexit, the party would face “extinction.”

The pitch seems to be working, not just with Brexiteers but with more moderate Conservatives. Johnson is far from adored by his fellow MPs, many of whom see him as crass and self-serving, but their reservations seem a little less pronounced this time around.

Johnson has also done a lot of outreach, including to a group of moderate Conservative MPs. People present in those meetings suggest Johnson is winning over previous skeptics. So far, he’s won endorsements from across the party, with MPs tweeting, “I’m backing Boris.” (“Back Boris” is his official campaign slogan.)

Several moderates in the party have backed him so far, calling him the candidate who will “inspire the country and revitalise our party.” Former Defense Minister Gavin Williamson called him the “one man who can save the party.”

Still, winning over his more skeptical colleagues might be Johnson’s biggest hurdle. After all, that’s where he failed in 2016. But if he manages to secure their support, said Smith, the politics and public policy teacher at the University of Sheffield, his popularity with the rest of the Conservative Party will likely help him prevail.

Johnson isn’t the only one running to be the next Conservative leader, though. There are now 10 candidates. They include Gove, who sank Johnson last time and is making another attempt; and Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, a former Remainer who has criticized Johnson’s Brexit plan but said he’d back a no-deal Brexit, albeit with a “heavy heart.”

But Johnson is such polarizing figure in UK politics that there are some who think electing him could backfire with the rest of the public. And unlike a lot of the other candidates, Johnson’s name recognition and colorful history mean another subset of voters don’t just dislike Johnson but loathe him. It’s not unlike President Trump, who has a strong and nearly immovable base but is also deeply unpopular with a large section of the population.

A recent YouGov poll gave respondents in the UK a list of potential Conservative candidates and asked them to say whether each candidate would make a good prime minister or a bad one; 28 percent said Johnson would make a good prime minister — a higher percentage than any of the other (then-potential) candidates received. But he also got the most votes for who would make a bad prime minister, at 54 percent.

Even so, MPs might be willing to take the risk.

But putting Johnson in charge would do little to change the current Brexit impasse, as whoever takes over as prime minister will inherit the same conundrum that brought down Theresa May: The Brexit deal on offer is still extremely unpopular, and the European Union has insisted that it will renegotiate the current deal.

Johnson has intimated to MPs that he thinks May’s reluctance to entertain a no-deal Brexit gave too much leverage to the EU, and that being willing (and prepared) to actually leave without a deal will force the EU back to the negotiating table.

“The more determined we are to pursue No Deal, the less likely we will have to deploy it,” Johnson reportedly told MPs this week. “I do not want it. But to have an orderly exit from the EU, it is vital you prepare.”

A no-deal Brexit would be far more damaging to the UK than Europe — though both want to avoid such a scenario. But reopening the Brexit negotiations also requires buy-in from EU leaders, and it’s not clear it’s there, even with the threat of no deal. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has said that October 31 is the “final, final deadline” — which doesn’t exactly sound like he’s open to renegotiation.

But Johnson might be a far better salesperson (or spin doctor) for the deal than May. The Brexit wing of the party never fully trusted May; if one of their own is prime minister, they may be more likely to relent.

Right now, Johnson is running a disciplined campaign for Conservative leader on the promise that he can deliver Brexit and fend off challenges to the party’s hold on power. Then again, Johnson has been known to make promises he can’t keep — and his test as prime minister, if he gets there, may finally make him accountable to them.

Leave a Reply