Boris Johnson's improbable rise from Brussels to Brexit

Boris Johnson is almost certain to become Britian’s Conservative Party leader and prime minister next week, an unlikely rise for a politician whose career has survived numerous gaffes, missteps and public scandals.

Pundits predict controversial politician to be crowned next U.K. prime minister by governing Conservatives

Unless all the pundits, polls and predictions are wrong, Boris Johnson seems all but certain to become the next leader of Britain's Conservative Party and the country's prime minister. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)


That was the subject line of a recent email from a Finnish colleague who used to cover the European Union from Brussels back in the early 1990s. 

"Boris Johnson as Prime Minister!" the note continued. "Certainly the end of Britain as all the old Brussels correspondents can witness."

It is true that few of us Euro-hacks as we called ourselves back then would ever have imagined that Johnson, Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph from 1989 to 1994, would one day be poised to don the mantle of Britain's premiership. 

He seemed far too busy playing the part of a clown. He was easy to spot in the European Commission media briefings with his shock of messy blond hair and a dishevelled appearance at odds with his tony British accent. 

A blimp depicting Boris Johnson was launched in Parliament Square on Saturday, July 20, ahead of a pro-European Union march in London. The blimp wore 'Nigel' pants, named after Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's Brexit Party. The 350 million pounds refers to the weekly savings Brexiteers promised once the country leaves the European Union. (Aaron Chown/Press Association via Associated Press)

But he was also unforgettable. And unless all the pundits, polls and predictions combined are wrong, that is what will happen next week after the results of an internal leadership contest being decided by 160,000 Conservative Party members in a postal ballot are announced on July 23.

What's more, he'll have done it by relying on the Euro-skeptic roots he managed to give life to as a journalist all those years ago in Brussels, whether he believed in them or not. 

Remarkably, that's still an open question, as is Johnson himself.

To some he is a chancer who has managed to harness a surface charm in order to sell whatever tale might be convenient in the pursuit of personal ambition. 

To others, he is a refreshing and charismatic politician who manages to connect to both the man on the street and the upper echelons of society like few others.

'Not a very ideological figure'

"He's not a very ideological figure. He never really thought the European Union was this terrible imposition," said the British journalist and writer Simon Kuper, who started at Oxford University a year after Johnson graduated with a degree in classics in 1988. 

Kuper believes Johnson thought EU membership was "probably good for the British economy" but decided in the leadup to the 2016 Brexit referendum that his best chance of becoming prime minister would be to capitalize on splits within the Conservative Party by backing the Leave campaign. 

"And he expected Leave to lose by a small margin, but then in the turmoil afterwards he would be rewarded for leading the Leave campaign by a political boost," Kuper said.

Johnson has never been shy about using a few theatrics, and he had a smoked fish on hand as he hit the final hustings of the Conservative leadership campaign on July 17, 2019, in London. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In other words, it was calculation, rather than conviction, that motivated him, according to Kuper. 

"He pretends to be a very jovial, bumbling figure but in fact he's a very cold-hearted, ambitious person who always wanted statues of himself built and in each situation seeks personal advantage. He's not this vague figure that he presents himself as." 

In Brussels, Johnson became a great purveyor of the "Euro-myth," penning stories about EU regulations that were long on hyperbole and for the most part short on truth.

That the commission was planning to regulate one-size-fits-all condoms was a particular favourite. Another was that the EU planned to ban the prawn-flavoured crisp or potato chip.

Good-humoured exchanges

Johnson clearly enjoyed sparring with Jacques Delors, the European Commission president at the time and anathema to Euro-skeptics as an ardent Euro-federalist.

But they were usually good-humoured exchanges, Johnson adopting a kind of Columbo-like form of interrogation, scratching his head and asking the inscrutable Delors if he could just help him out on one point or another. 

More poisonous stuff was reserved for his newspaper articles and columns in the Daily Telegraph, which has been drip-feeding the British public anti-Brussels sentiment for decades now.

Johnson was a central figure in the Leave campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. (Mary Turner/AFP/Getty Images)

While Johnson's writings were often outlandish, they were also amusing, a key point in a country that values both humour and rhetoric, according to Kuper, who calls him "the most entertaining writer of our time in British journalism."

And while many in the continental media corps were dismissing him as a buffoon, members of the anti-EU crowd already taking up more and more room in British Prime Minister John Major's governing Conservative Party at the time were not, taking up his words as weapons. 

"He will never be a reflective, cautious kind of Obama intellectual figure," British historian Anthony Seldon said in a recent CBC interview. 

"He will always be an outspoken, jovial presence, so in that sense he'll never be grown up if by that we mean being deadly serious and rather dull." 

Turning heads like a rock star

There's no denying the pull of Johnson's personality, at least the face he presents to the public. 

His career has included two stints as a Conservative MP, with eight years as the mayor of London sandwiched in between. 

Out campaigning, he has a rock-star like ability to turn heads. People will shout his name, calling him over for a chat and he'll usually amble over, seemingly capable of pulling out a warm, easy charm at the drop of the hat.   

Johnson started to think about politics more seriously after Brussels, apparently even considering standing as a member of the European Parliament. His own father, Stanley Johnson, had been an MEP and a European Commission employee.

Johnson, seen here in his London office in 2003 while editor of The Spectator magazine, spent several years as a journalist before moving into politics. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

It is, perhaps, another reason why his decision to jump on the Leave bandwagon so wholeheartedly still remained a surprise to some.

But that's what he did in the end, handing the Leave campaign a valuable strategic asset as he boarded the Brexit bus, quite literally. 

Who can forget the big red double-decker emblazoned with the erroneous campaign claim that Britain sent 350 million pounds to the European Union coffers every week. 

Johnson is a keen cyclist and as mayor often rode his bike through central London. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

Of all the contemporary actors on the public stage in the United Kingdom, it's hard to think of one who has managed to survive so many gaffes, missteps and public scandals and still emerge as unscathed as Johnson has over his career.   

He was fired from his first job as a journalist at the Times newspaper for fabricating a quote and from a shadow cabinet position by his party leader at the time for lying about an extramarital affair. 

Johnson has been married twice and has, it's believed, six children: four with his ex-wife and two more with other women. 

No comments on personal life

Last month, police were called to the home of his current girlfriend after neighbours reported a loud argument and a women shouting at someone to "get off me." 

Johnson has historically refused to comment on his personal life.

Female assembly members complained of a dismissive and patronising attitude towards them while Johnson was mayor. And critics accused him of misspending large sums of public money on vanity projects, including plans for a Thames garden bridge that never came to fruition.

Johnson addresses members of the public in York during the Brexit Battle Bus tour of the U.K. on May 23, 2016, in York. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In 2002, Johnson wrote a newspaper article in which he described black people as "piccaninnies," later saying his words were taken out of context.

More recently, he said women wearing burkas looked like letter boxes.  And in 2016, he suggested that former U.S. president Barack Obama had an "ancestral dislike of the British empire" based on his "part-Kenyan" heritage. 

When Johnson was appointed foreign secretary by Prime Minister Theresa May after the Brexit referendum in 2016, Jean Quatremer, a former correspondent for the French journal Libération who overlapped with Johnson in Brussels, wrote a scathing article for the Guardian newspaper.

Foreign Secretary Johnson has his tie straightened by his Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London on Feb. 23, 2017. (Jack Taylor/The Associated Press)

"It's not every day that a country appoints as its global representative a known liar, a character for whom gross exaggeration, insult and racist innuendo seem utterly untroubling, a man apparently devoid of deep conviction about anything other than his own importance." 

Johnson was widely criticized for an off-the-cuff remark about a British-Iranian woman jailed in Tehran on spying charges during his tenure as foreign minister. 

Comments that she was "teaching people journalism" were seized upon by the regime as proof that allegations against her were true even though her relatives insist she was merely visiting her family.

 "A demagogue not a statesman," was the verdict of the Economist magazine in an article at the end of 2018, saying Johnson had "failed miserably" in the job as foreign secretary. "He is the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years," it wrote.

Extraordinary circumstances

So how then to explain his current position? Certainly in part through the extraordinary circumstances Britain finds itself in because of the implosion within the Conservative Party over Brexit. 

May's failure to sell her negotiated exit agreement with the EU to either Parliament or her own party spelled her own demise and paved the way for the current leadership contest that will see the Conservative Party alone choose Britain's next prime minister.

Many of those Conservative voters also happen to be Daily Telegraph readers.

"As a columnist, you build up a personal relationship with readers. They come to feel they know you and voters feel they know Johnson personally," said Kuper. "They read him at breakfast most days." 

Kuper insists the real roots of Johnson's trajectory lie not in Brussels, but at Oxford and at the private boys school Eton before that. Six of the seven candidates who made it through the first round of voting in the party leadership race went to Oxford. 

Johnson, as president of the Oxford Union, speaks with Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri in 1986. (Brian Smith/Reuters)

"I think Brexit was sold to voters by politicians with deceits and that includes this generation of politicians who were at Oxford in the 1980s more or less at the same time as me," said Kuper, "Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt." 

Hunt, the current foreign secretary, is the last man standing against Johnson in the race for the crown while Gove, the environment secretary, was knocked out in an earlier round. 

Whether Johnson or Hunt wins the leadership contest next week, it will bring to 11 the number of post-war prime ministers educated at Oxford.  

'More entertaining than Jeremy'

"Populism rewards the bounder," said Kuper, who assumes like everyone else that Johnson will beat Hunt. 

"Because you know this is an age where also the most entertaining politician wins, as in the Trump-versus-Hilary election. And he's just a lot more entertaining than Jeremy Hunt." 

For many Conservatives, Johnson is also the only one they feel will be able to keep Tory voters from abandoning ship in favour of another populist on the scene: Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party. 

The Conservative MP Esther McVey, who was eliminated from the Tory leadership contest after the first ballot, threw her support behind Johnson, she said, because she believed him to be "a dynamic leader." 

Jeremy Hunt addresses the final Conservative Party leadership election hustings in London on July 17, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

"Our country is crying out for strong, optimistic leadership and Boris is the man best equipped to take us out of the EU, transform our country into an outward-looking, confident, self-governing nation and to bring back the voters we have lost," she wrote in an editorial for the Sunday Telegraph.         

A recent YouGov survey found that in terms of the general population, more Britons think Hunt would make a good prime minister than Johnson. But a majority also found Johnson to have the more likable personality

The historian Anthony Seldon says Britain is now entering the age of identity politics. 

"The biggest polarizing force in Britain at the moment is 'Are you in favour of leaving the European Union or not?' People identify as a Leaver or a Remainer."

Loudest warning of all

Aside from Farage, perhaps, there is not another politician in the United Kingdom so associated with the decision to break away from the European Union. 

And there lies the loudest warning of all for Johnson, who insists he can unite not only his own party, but the rest of the country as well. 

The deep divisions unleashed by the Brexit referendum and its narrow result have grown even deeper during this leadership contest, as those who voted to remain watch helplessly on the sidelines while a single party chooses the next prime minister, and so the manner of Britain's exit from the European Union.

Johnson has said he'll take Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31 whether it means crashing out without an agreement or not. 

Johnson greets supporters on July 5, 2019, in Perth, Scotland. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

There's even been talk of proroguing Parliament so it couldn't block a no-deal Brexit. 

That is not the stuff of healing. 

And once outside the bubble of Britain's Conservative Party, Johnson will have an entire country to deal with, one polarized like never before in its modern history.

No surprise, then, that opinion remains deeply divided on whether or not Johnson has enough reserves left in the charm bank to win over the rest of the country.