The Rise of Boris Johnson
The brightening future of a British character

Boris Johnson


Had someone suggested 15 years ago that Boris Johnson might become the prime minister of Great Britain, the likely reaction in almost every quarter would have been untrammeled hysteria quickly followed by blithe accusations of wishful thinking. Then, as is the British predilection, someone might well mischievously have added that “actually that could be rather fun” — albeit in the same sort of way that it would be rather fun to have Bertie Wooster or Eric Idle installed as the head of the British government or to have Yogi Berra appointed as the White House press secretary.

Supremely talented as he is — he was appointed editor of the Spectator at 35, won election to parliament at 37, and juggled the two roles happily until he entered the shadow cabinet in 2005 — so preposterous was the notion of a Johnson premiership that one of my Oxford lecturers had a habit of using it as an Example of Unlikely Things. “Remember,” he told us, “that nothing in history is inevitable. To his parliamentary colleagues in 1930, the submission that Winston Churchill would eventually play a pivotal role in British history would have been as unthinkable as . . . as Boris Johnson becoming prime minister!” At this, we all laughed, and then somebody remarked that “actually, that could be rather fun . . .”

What a difference a decade makes. The Boris Johnson who stood in Hyde Park last week as the mayor of London did so with his trademark disheveled aristocratic mien intact — his boisterous description of the scene before him boasted the word “zoink,” natch — but he had lost the previously attendant air of the dilettante. Appearing on the satirical television show Have I Got News for You in 1998, Johnson was caught off guard by a news item that implicated him in a minor scandal and, as he put it, “walked straight into a massive elephant trap.” But nowadays, one feels that he would effortlessly skirt the ambush and make sure to cash in the plaudits for having done so. Sure, he may still get stuck on zip wires, but now the people are laughing with not at him when he calls for a ladder, and in Britain that makes all the difference.

Johnson’s transformation is in part the product of the passage of time and in part the product of a concerted effort. Witness his mutation from the second coming of Harry Paget Flashman into the Rorschach-doyen of the multicultural zeitgeist. After the July 7 London bombings, Johnson called Islam “the most vicious sectarian of all religions,” and posed the question: “When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s medieval ass?” Islam, not Britain, he wrote, “is the problem.” Now, he maintains, Islam is a “religion of peace,” a conclusion he reached having “studied the Koran.” Likewise, Johnson once questioned why gay marriage would not inexorably lead to polygamy; now, he conspicuously bans bus advertisements placed by religious groups that question the practice. With the help of the Olympics, he has appropriated Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia,” and it appears to be paying off.