Politics & Policy

The Rise of Boris Johnson

The brightening future of a British character

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.

People evolve and their views of major issues can change. But Boris’s evolution appears to have been driven wholly by electoral selection. It does not take a psephologist to confirm that one does not simultaneously gain over a million votes in London as a conservative and maintain strong views on anything of import. Evidently, in the small cabal of those who did not consider risible the prospect of Johnson’s one day ascending to the premiership was Boris himself. Thus, despite maintaining in 2003 that he had “as much as chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a frisbee,” he has built himself a strong launch pad for a leadership challenge. Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported that Johnson

has snatched the spotlight away from the Prime Minister and used the Games as a launch pad for his leadership ambitions. Westminster is divided between those who now believe him to be unstoppable, and those who can’t stop laughing at the idea that he is being taken seriously as an alternative prime minister. . . . Conservative donors have had enough, and are lining up behind the London Mayor. In City terms, the money men are shorting the Tory leadership.

The money men are not alone. The Telegraph also related that Johnson “met Rupert Murdoch recently to discuss how his candidacy might be promoted, and has invited the media tycoon to join him at the Olympics.” Murdoch is no fan of David Cameron and is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the British government, particularly its weak record on tax and regulatory reform.

All good actors and politicians know their strengths, and play to them mercilessly. Boris Johnson is aware that his particular brand of Britishness is en vogue, and his faux humility currently has the side effect of inuring him from criticism, even if he espouses free-market policies that the British claim to abhor. (Who else, after all, could rugby tackle a German football player in a charity match and get away with it?) “Do you like the way we’re not deliberately winning all the medals?” he quipped to the Irish Times this week in the heart of the Olympic village. “We’re lulling them. It’s our national politeness.” If this innate understanding of the British psyche were added to the waning-but-still-potent powers of the Murdoch media empire, who knows where it might lead. He has already been given a celebrity-esque portmanteau nickname: “BoJo.”

Like other portmanteau’d personalities, Johnson carries with him ample baggage. Nonetheless, he appears set to prove a walking example that, in our age at least, there are second chapters in English life — and perhaps third and fourth chapters, too. He appears to have learned nothing from his four-year affair with Petronella Wyatt, the details of which were published in every newspaper in England and cost him his job in the cabinet. Since that time he has allegedly fathered a child with art consultant Helen Macintyre, and was more recently thrown out of his house “as if he was a tom cat” by his barrister wife, Marina, after more of his infidelity was discovered. (The memorable “tom cat” phrase is from one of Marina’s friends.) But, for him at least, the British appear to have taken a turn after the French and established a wall of separation between the private and public lives of their representatives. Not only did Johnson win reelection to the mayoralty in 2012, but he was returned with the largest personal mandate of any elected official in British history.

Perhaps it is time to start looking out for frisbees?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.

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