Boris Johnson—former mayor of London, gadfly of the British political establishment, and, most recently, Brexit’s cheerleader-in-chief—has a colorful range of rebuttals when asked about his evident desire to be prime minister. “As I never tire of saying, my chances of becoming prime minister are only slightly better than being decapitated by a frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a fridge, or being reincarnated as an olive,” he said in 2012. In the 2013 BBC documentary, Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise, he delivered another: “I think it’s a very tough job being prime minister, a very tough job,” he said. “I mean, obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum—which it won’t, of course—it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at. But it’s not going to happen.”
On June 24, 2016, the day after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the ball did come loose. David Cameron, prime minister since 2010, announced that, having campaigned for Britain to remain inside the EU, he was not the right leader for leaving it. Cameron knew that holding the referendum would threaten his leadership, since it would galvanize the Brexit wing of his Conservative Party. (“The only person this will help is Boris Johnson, who is clearly after my job,” he reportedly told a colleague in the build-up.) But the speed of Cameron’s resignation was still a surprise. Johnson never expected to win the referendum. And when he did, he did not expect Cameron to quit so quickly.
With the country in chaos, Johnson suddenly found himself exactly where he wanted to be. His Brexit-cum-leadership campaign had been, personally, a great success. He stood as the immediate and obvious favorite to replace Cameron. Theresa May, who backed staying in the EU but remained tactfully taciturn throughout, was a distant second. In the days that followed, Johnson assembled his Brexit “dream team,” with Conservative MP Michael Gove as manager and their fellow Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom alongside them. His fantasy had never felt so tangible: On the rugby pitch of British politics, Johnson could see the ball bumbling along the grass before him, all but within his grasp.
But then, as if to prove it really was only a dream—could only ever be a dream—Johnson’s leadership chances collapsed as quickly as they converged. First Leadsom withdrew her support—unconvinced by Johnson’s promises, she decided to run herself—and then Gove, incredibly, did the same. It remains one of the great betrayals of British politics, and perhaps the most brutal moment of Johnson’s career: Gove was supposed to be Johnson’s closest ally, the team behind the dream. Johnson withdrew from the race, aware his support no longer added up. Gove and Leadsome blundered, and May became prime minister, almost unopposed.
Shortly after, as May formed her cabinet, she took the surprise step of appointing Johnson as her foreign secretary. It was a calculated consolation, premised on what by now was ancient party wisdom: Johnson is far more of a threat outside the cabinet than inside. Two years later, however, as May’s Brexit plan seemed destined to split the party, Johnson stepped down from his post, putting himself outside the scrum once more, ready for another opportunity.
For Johnson, the foreign secretary’s office had been his most senior political position to date. But it paled next to what he had been preparing for his whole career. “I don’t believe this man is ready,” Gove had told the Spectator in July 2016, justifying his decision to ditch Johnson. Those words must have pricked Johnson’s pride. In his eyes, he was born ready. If anything, at the age of 54, he is running late.
When people speak of the
“rise” of Boris Johnson, they miss the defining
feature of his career. It is neither the ascent, nor the frequent falls—nor
even the rapid comebacks from the controversies. It is the remarkable
constancy. Since his education at Eton, the elite boarding-school that has
taught a third of Britain’s prime ministers, and then the University of Oxford,
which housed half of them, Johnson has always hovered near the peak of British
At Eton, which he joined at 13, he found a suitably regal setting for his ambition. He became secretary of the school debating society, editor of the school newspaper, and, at 17, joined the exclusive Eton Society, an elite-within-the-elite that permitted members to wear a special uniform of “spongebag trousers” alongside other quaint privileges.
At Oxford, Johnson pursued the same path. He co-edited the university’s satirical magazine and joined the notorious Bullingdon Club, another ultra-privileged group infamous for vandalizing restaurants, paying for the damage with parents’ credit cards, and burning £50 notes in front of homeless people. He became secretary of the Oxford Union, the university’s prestigious debating society, and then, on the second attempt, its president. Of all his youthful conquests, this final one was the most revealing. After Johnson initially lost the election in 1984, campaigning as a free-market conservative, he returned with a renewed brand: an unlikely sympathizer of the Social Democrat Party, broadening his appeal to victory.
It’s a strategy that he has replicated ever since. The result is that, even after so long in the public eye and even by the ignominious standards of a politician, Boris Johnson’s sincerity is never certain, his genuine political beliefs elusive. At a time when most British politicians seem bland and one-dimensional, Johnson has mastered the art of holding multiple identities at once—a man of so many masks that, one stacked upon the other, they have granted him a rare depth. He’s a conservative who believes in a small state and the sanctity of the market—in a 2013 lecture to honor Margaret Thatcher, he praised “greed” as “a valuable spur to economic activity”—but even this is easy to miss in the absence of any clear policy positions. While his stances on social issues can suggest he’s a liberal, the language he uses, the casual racism it contains, the causes he pursues, and the company he keeps often suggest that he is not.
Regardless of how emphatically Johnson holds a
position, there is always the possibility, even the inevitability, that he will
contradict it later down the line. While mayor of London, Johnson described Donald
Trump as “clearly out of his mind” and “betraying a quite stupefying ignorance
that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United
States.” As foreign secretary, he passionately defended the U.S. president. “I
am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson said, in comments leaked
ahead of Trump’s U.K. visit in July. “I have become more and more convinced
that there is method in his madness.”
Ideally, Johnson appeals to two opposing sides simultaneously. So when he recently described Muslim women who wear burqas as “looking like letter-boxes,” he did so in an article that actually defended their right to wear them—endearing himself with the far-right and affirming his supposed liberalism at once. In a 2007 interview with Pink News, as Johnson tried to court the gay vote in his campaign to be mayor of London, he appeared to acknowledge this as a deliberate tactic. He dismissed a range of offensive things he had previously written about the gay community, saying: “I am on record with loads of provocative articles about loads of things, but if you take the article as a whole, they always amount to robust common sense.” The incriminating claims included that, if gay marriage were legal, then you could have marital unions “consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.”
Johnson’s flakiness has always been there, co-existing with but never counteracting his ostensible charm. With an affability that most politicians lack, this unpredictability is passed off as eccentricity, the essence of his appeal. “Boris is Boris” is the unthinking tautology deployed by colleagues and sympathetic commentators to justify Johnson’s actions, however dubious. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Johnson was asked what his biggest mistake was. “My strategy is to litter my career with so many decoy mistakes, nobody knows which one to attack,” Johnson replied.
At the heart of his staying power is his sense of humor. Johnson has found that the truth matters less if you can make people laugh. Your words and your actions will be forgotten, but your name and your face will be remembered, smilingly. Johnson’s self-deprecating jests protect him from the usual charges laid against politicians, even—or especially—those he exhibits to a more extreme degree: evasiveness, selfishness, and hypocrisy. For Johnson, who can decide in reverse when he is or isn’t being serious, any incriminating example can be laughed off as a joke or, even better, with one.
In a fawning 2003 profile by The Observer, the Sunday edition of The Guardian, Johnson was described in effusive terms. “Five minutes in his company and I was totally charmed,” the interviewer, Lynn Barber, declared. “I am now a fully signed-up member of the Boris Johnson Fan Club.” But doubts still lingered as Barber wondered: “Johnson is so larky, so ready to retract an opinion, or agree with criticism, that it is very difficult to sort out what he really believes. ... What would he consider a resigning matter?” Johnson laughed off Barber’s question. “I’m a bit of an optimist so it doesn’t tend to occur to me to resign,” he said.
Of course, Johnson can now claim he has found his resigning matter: Brexit. He cited May’s Brexit proposal as the reason, declaring in his July 9 resignation letter that, by planning to keep Britain at the behest of the EU’s regulatory system but without the benefits of membership, it meant Britain was “truly headed for the status of colony.”
Johnson has a sixth sense, or at least a second stomach, for publicity, and so it was not enough to resign with such a provocative claim. He also arranged for a Daily Telegraph photographer to capture the moment he signed his resignation letter. In the photograph, he is sitting pensively at his office desk, an air of gravity about him, the stare of a statesman, posing with his paper and pen. A future prime minister, perhaps? He looked the part, at least. And for Johnson, a man of surfaces who sometimes seems imprisoned by his own jocular self-image, that would be enough for now.
For all the bluster about Britain becoming a colony, Johnson’s Brexit posturing may be the paradigmatic example of his own post-truth approach to politics—one that predated the current vogue. As a journalist in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, Johnson was known for filing far-fetched stories that stoked anti-EU sentiment in Britain: They were often false, but they consciously fed into a structure of feeling, now ubiquitous, that framed the EU as a bureaucratic beast, malignly meddling in British affairs. The spirit of those reports—either invented or exaggerated with a comic’s panache—infused some of his more infamous claims about the EU: that it wanted to introduce one-size-fits-all condoms, stop Brits dipping their bread in olive oil, ban prawn-and-cocktail flavored crisps (a British favorite), and swallow the nation in a federalizing frenzy.
What drives Johnson’s actions are not beliefs, however, but rather a desire, a demand, to be at the heart of things. These inflammatory reports were not ideologically motivated in opposition to the EU. They were a way of putting himself into the fray of the Conservative Party politics, where EU membership has always verged on an obsession. (When Cameron first became leader of the Conservatives in 2005, he told the party to stop “banging on about Europe.”) As Johnson explained in 2005, “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found I was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this rather weird sense of power.”
Though his true intentions can never be known, Johnson’s decision to cast his lot with the “Leave” campaign during the referendum was almost certainly made with his leadership ambitions in mind: backing Brexit gave Johnson an unprecedented publicity run and the chance to position himself as the unlikely opponent of the British establishment. Johnson can say that he fought for Brexit, that he believes in it more than anyone else, and, now, that he has resigned over it. But when David Cameron called the referendum, Johnson was one of the last to decide which way he would campaign.
Johnson’s declared his decision on a Sunday afternoon, February 21, 2016. Only two weeks earlier, he had written that leaving the EU would be an arduous task that diverted “energy from the real problems of this country—low skills, low social mobility, low investment, etc.—that have nothing to do with Europe.” Some senior colleagues were infuriated with his decision. Others, especially backbench Conservative MPs, were delighted. Nigel Farage, Britain’s infamous anti-immigration impresario, said he “jumped for joy.”
The following day, he published a column in the Daily Telegraph explaining his decision. The message was typically convoluted, suggesting that voting to leave the EU, rather than Britain actually leaving the EU, was the aim: “All EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No.” Over the course of the campaign, as he led the “Leave” side with his ally Michael Gove, Johnson maintained his double-act. In one moment he would declare that the EU was “born of the highest motives—to keep the peace in Europe”; in another he would compare it to Hitler’s plan to conquer Europe. He dismissed the idea that the Brexit campaign was inciting xenophobia by maintaining that he was personally very pro-immigration, at the same time as he implied that Turkey’s imminent (and imagined) membership of the EU was an existential threat. This lie, with its tacit warning of a sudden influx of millions of Turkish citizens, had clear racist undertones. The Leave campaign exploited it unashamedly: They put it up on billboards and, a week before the vote, Johnson and Gove wrote a public letter demanding that Cameron “guarantee” that Turkey would never join the European Union.
Johnson, whose great-grandfather was Turkish (as he made a point of noting while mayor of cosmopolitan London), was actually one of the biggest proponents for Turkey joining the EU before the referendum. “What are we saying if we perpetually keep Turkey out of the European Union just because it’s Muslim?” he said in 2006. “It sends out the worst possible signal to moderates in the Islamic world.” Since the referendum, he has once again expressed his support for Turkey’s membership.
On June 22, 2016, the eve of the vote, Johnson confirmed reports that, on the weekend that he wrote his article explaining why he was backing Leave, he also wrote a separate article, explaining why he was backing Remain. “Shut your eyes,” he wrote, in the article eventually leaked to The Sunday Times in October, later that year. “Hold your breath. Think of Britain. Think of the rest of the EU. Think of the future. Think of the desire of your children, and your grandchildren to live and work in other European countries; to sell things there, to make things there and perhaps to find partners there. Ask yourself: in spite of all the defects and disappointments of this exercise—do you really, truly, definitely want Britain to pull out of the European Union? Now?”
You can almost picture Johnson on that decisive, late-winter weekend with a mask in either hand, wondering to himself: Which one shall I wear? Perhaps he was aware that, whichever one he chose this time, he might not be able to take it off.
Two and a half years after the vote, Britain remains inside the EU. But at 11pm local time on March, 29, 2019—the default deadline for Brexit negotiations—either Britain leaves the European Union with a new relationship in place (and a 21-month “transition period” to adjust) or, more worryingly, the negotiations end unsuccessfully and Britain leaves the EU without one. This latter scenario is known as a “no deal,” whereby Britain is effectively ejected from the EU overnight: four decades of legal and institutional integration suddenly become void, jeopardizing the most basic functions of the British state.
According to almost every analysis, a “no deal” would be the worst outcome for both Britain and the EU, albeit far more so for the former. The consequences would be immediate and long-lasting. Supermarkets and pharmaceutical companies have started stockpiling essential supplies in anticipation of border chaos, GDP is forecasted to fall by several percentage points, and the value of the pound is expected to plummet.
But May’s most obstinate obstacle to the best possible deal is not her negotiating opponent, the EU, but rather her own divided side. Any deal needs to be ratified by Parliament, where May holds a slender working majority of 13 seats thanks to a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a small, hard-line party from Northern Ireland. The DUP have warned that they will not blindly back any Brexit deal. At the moment, however, May cannot even appease her own party.
Whereas May favors continuity and access to the Single Market, in line with the wishes of most British businesses, Brexiteers deem this “Brexit in name only” and demand a clean break from the EU. In their eyes, EU regulations—which include pro-labor policies and relatively high environmental standards—constrain the sanctity of the market. With as many as 80 MPs among their ranks, these Conservatives look set to vote down May’s deal in Parliament, threatening a leadership election. Their chosen candidate is clear, and Johnson is all too happy to fan their fury. In early November, amid reports that May was close to a deal with the EU, Johnson swiftly wrote a column denouncing it as a “national humiliation” that would result in “wholesale subjection.” He reiterated his claim that Britain would become “a vassal state—a colony.”
Johnson’s baseless bravado, coupled with his indifference to the details, may make him an ideal leader for Britain in the age of Brexit—a realm of fantasy where the details, with all their real-world consequences, are anathema. According to Johnson, Britain will do “very well” even in the case of no deal. His sense of entitlement is also fitting. Just as Johnson sees himself as above and beyond his own party—Boris is Boris before he is a Conservative—so too does Britain imagine itself to be superior to its neighbors: a nation simply too great to be subsumed within a supranational organization like the EU.
So even as one bleak forecast follows another, Johnson’s positivity regarding Brexit never wavers. “If I have a function here today,” he declared at the annual Conservative Party conference in October, “it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief.” When Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, he rued how the Brexit “dream is dying.”
The dream must end eventually. The emancipatory
promise of leaving will soon confront the laborious and costly process of
living alone. Johnson will do everything he can to resist and delay this
confrontation. The Brexit dream cannot be weighed down with details because it
is now bound up with another dream—the only one Johnson knows. His principled
resignation in protest of May’s plan thus belied a more pragmatic purpose: a
fear of being outflanked by rival Brexiteers, two of whom resigned the day
Now, having quit May’s cabinet, Johnson maintains that, despite all his attacks on May’s government and his clamor for attention, he does not want to take her place. He simply wants what’s best for Britain. “I am like a loyal and faithful labrador that is relentlessly returning to her an object that she has mistakenly chucked away in the form of her own first instincts about how to do this,” he said in a recent interview, alluding to an earlier vision of Brexit May laid out in vague speech in January 2017, which he reportedly helped to write.
For Johnson, questions about his intentions arrive like cues in a comedy routine, but his own dogged ambition is clear. “Unlike the prime minister, I campaigned for Brexit. Unlike the prime minister, I fought for this, I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing for our country,” he said in the same interview. But it is an empty ambition, devoid of vision and hungry only for the top prize. With no obvious ideal other than his own self-image, Johnson’s convictions are more like crutches, carrying him to the next career goal where they can be replaced with new ones.
The problem is that, as the trail of betrayal and
broken promises extends behind him, the foundations of his success—his
liquidity, his unseriousness, his contradictions—now inhibit him from going any
further. There are times when he seems to sense this himself, worrying that he
has been typecast as Parliament’s jester. Yet Johnson’s weakness is not that
people don’t take him seriously—that has always been his strength—it’s that now
they do and they don’t trust his
Johnson has become deeply unpopular within his own party, even as he is accepted as an important asset. One prominent Conservative MP, Dominic Grieve, has said he would leave the party if he became their leader. There are reportedly plans in place, when any new leadership election occurs, to thwart him. Such a plan was already getting into gear when May was elected, under the acronym ABB: Anyone But Boris. There are signs that this antipathy is seeping into Conservative voters as well: In October, YouGov’s favorability tracker on Johnson reached its lowest level since it was launched in 2016. On November 2, the Sun quoted close friends of Johnson saying that he had “given up” replacing May.
But if Johnson’s career has shown anything, it is that he is willing to wait. His decision to resign as foreign secretary re-ingratiated himself with the Conservative Party membership, dwindling as it may be. (Party membership has dropped so low that, in 2017, the Conservatives received more money from bequests from the dead than living members.) Johnson is adored by this shrinking faction both for his humor and enthusiasm. Whereas May pursues a more moderate Brexit position, constrained by the demands of practicality, Johnson presents himself as the Brexit Dream embodied, invoking fantasies of empire with an implausible optimism.
Besides, Johnson now enjoys friends outside the mainstream: beyond the party and even, occasionally, beyond the country. With his new appeals to the far right, Breitbart has become a loyal proponent. Arron Banks, one of the main financial backers of Brexit with ties to Trump (and currently under criminal investigation for his role in the referendum), has expressed his intention to run a new digital advertising campaign to elect Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party. Trump himself, on his latest trip to London, said Johnson would “make a great prime minister.” Steve Bannon, with whom Johnson is reportedly in regular contact, said the same: “Boris just needs to be Boris—true to his nature and his calling—and I think he has potential to be a great prime minister, not a good one.”
In a sense, this support sums up Johnson’s career: having been mayor of London for two terms—a city that voted overwhelmingly against Brexit—and having been, at best, personally torn on the issue of Brexit, Johnson has now made Brexit his true calling, presenting himself as its inveterate advocate. His new allies on the alt-right are a testament to how far he has drifted, and to how hollow his politics have always been.
In London, a city that sang his name during the 2012 Olympics, when he was the country’s most popular politician, a gym has started offering “Brexfit” classes that let gym-goers “unload their Brexit anger.” Alongside other politician-themed activities, there are now punching bags with Johnson’s face, one of the main attractions. They are a fitting monument to Johnson, not only to his transformation—from a beloved, deviant clown to a figure of hate—but also to his unshakeable staying power amidst it all. For all the punches thrown at him, the face of Boris Johnson keeps bouncing back.