From punchline to political star: the rise of Boris Johnson
LONDON – Boris Johnson's many critics have often dismissed him as a political clown. He's having the last laugh now.
Results Friday confirmed that Johnson's Conservative Party has won a thumping majority in Britain's general election. He looks set to take more seats in Parliament than any Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
A majority government gives Johnson the power to fulfill his promise to take Britain out of the European Union next month.
It's a triumph for a 55-year-old politician who has been written off more than once.
Johnson has built a career playing the rumpled, Latin-spouting clown who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He once said he had as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being “reincarnated as an olive.”
"He doesn’t seem like an ordinary politician," said Jonathan Hopkin, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. “He has managed to create this aura around himself of being a personality, an eccentric, somebody who is funny and can kind of appeal to people beyond the usual party divides.”
That bumbling exterior masks a steel core of ambition.
As a child, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson's goal was to become “world king.” At the elite private school Eton he was clever, though not diligent; one teacher complained to Johnson’s parents about his ”disgracefully cavalier attitude.”
At Oxford University, Johnson was president of the Oxford Union debating society, and a member of the Bullingdon Club, a posh, raucous drinking-and-dining society notorious for drunken vandalism.
As a young journalist for The Daily Telegraph in Brussels, he delighted his editors with exaggerated stories of European Union waste and ridiculous red tape — tales that had an enduring political impact in Britain.
Johnson spent the following decades juggling journalism and politics, downplaying his personal ambition while becoming steadily more famous. He was a magazine editor, a backbench lawmaker, a self-satirizing guest on TV comedy quiz shows. In 2008, he was elected mayor of London, serving until 2016.
His path wasn’t smooth. Johnson was fired from The Times for fabricating a quote. He was recorded promising to give a friend the address of a journalist that the friend wanted beaten up. He was fired from a senior Conservative post for lying about an extramarital affair. He always bounced back.
His words often landed him in trouble. Johnson has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, called the children of single mothers “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” and compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."
Confronted with past language, Johnson has claimed he was joking, or accused journalists of distorting his words and raking up long-ago articles. Critics allege that his quips are not gaffes, but deliberate dog-whistles to bigots — a populist tactic straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.
Enemies and allies alike have long wondered what Johnson really believes. Before Britain’s 2016 referendum he wrote two newspaper columns — one in favor of quitting the EU, one for remaining — before throwing himself behind the "leave" campaign.
His energy and popular appeal helped the “leave” side win. Critics say the campaign was built on lies, such as the false claim, emblazoned on the side of a bus, that Britain sends 350 million pounds ($460 million) a week to the EU, money that could instead be spent on the U.K.'s health service.
After the referendum, Johnson was made foreign secretary by Prime Minister Theresa May, one of the top jobs in government. Two years later he quit in opposition to her Brexit blueprint, then won a Conservative leadership contest in July 2019 when May resigned in defeat after Parliament stymied her plan.
To get the top job, Johnson promised Conservatives that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit beyond Oct. 31.
But his first three months in office were studded with defeats: He suspended Parliament to sideline troublesome lawmakers, but the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the move illegal. Parliament rejected his attempt to push through this Brexit bill and forced him to ask the EU for more time. The “do or die” date of Oct. 31 came and went, and Johnson gambled on an election in hopes of securing a majority and a mandate.
It was risky, but it paid off.
Despite his reputation as a shambolic politician, the Conservative campaign was disciplined and focused, hammering home the “Get Brexit done” message. Johnson was criticized for avoiding tough interviews as the party tried to steer clear of potential gaffes.
The strategy worked. Johnson is now on course to take the U.K. out of the bloc by Jan. 31.
Yet “Get Brexit Done” is a misleading slogan. Leaving the EU will only kick-start months of negotiations on future trade relations with the bloc, with the current deadline set for the end of 2020.
“Brexit will happen on Jan. 31,” said Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics. “And then the question is: Can some kind of trade deal be done with the EU by Dec. 31, 2020?"
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