Politics & Policy

Boris Johnson’s Trumpian Path to No. 10

Then-British foreign secretary Boris Johnson at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 15, 2018. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
The former London mayor has more in common with our 45th president than you might think.

When members of your own political party invent a slogan to block your rise to power, it’s likely that you pose a threat to the status quo.

In America three years ago, that slogan was #NeverTrump — establishment conservatives’ call to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination. In Britain now, it’s “Anyone but Boris,” establishment Tories’ rallying cry as they try to stop Boris Johnson from becoming the next prime minister. And like the #NeverTrump movement, their efforts look destined to fail.

The two men share several obvious qualities. Both make an art out of chaos, packaging dishevelment and disarray into box-office entertainment. Both hold a strange outsider status, as men born to wealth railing against the very establishments in which they’ve spent their lives. And both have remarkable heads of hair. (The most frequently seen comment on Johnson’s YouTube appearances is that he looks like Trump’s English cousin.)

Trump and Johnson are proof that voters warm to a politician who speaks his mind — even if he does not always understand what he is saying. The former’s well-documented Twitter account is a mixture of hilarious outbursts and incoherent ramblings. Politicalspeak is replaced by spontaneous thought, leaving critics and followers enraged and enthralled. Johnson’s eloquence is a match for any British swot, but he too can be made to look remarkably inept. A 2017 policy interview with the BBC saw the charming campaigner reduced to a bumbling mess. Though he is not yet active on Twitter, his penchant for politically incorrect blunders suggests the platform would suit him well.

A stream of similar gaffes have led many to write Johnson off as a harmless, innocuous fool, more concerned with publicity stunts than with the nuts and bolts of political reform. He has a reputation for being terrifically late, he once bulldozed a ten-year-old Japanese boy in a game of rugby, and he’s the only London mayor to have fallen into a river in spectacularly public fashion. Amid the Brexit campaign, Remainer Amber Rudd, the former Home secretary, offered a live television audience the following character assessment: “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but you wouldn’t want him driving you home.”

Yet somehow, “BoJo” comes out of these events with his reputation enhanced. After flattening the young boy, he offered him a rugby ball and a pat on the back. After the embarrassing unplanned swim, he emerged to crack a joke about the refreshing nature of the water. And after he found himself stranded on a zipline over London park, then prime minister David Cameron joked that only Boris’s career could benefit from his getting stuck on a wire.

Perhaps the wire is an appropriate metaphor, for Boris is an expert at balancing acts. He’s a patriot but a proud immigrant, vociferously humble but unashamedly competitive. His desire to ride two horses at once led him to balance life as an MP with an editorship of the Spectator magazine — until the revelation of an extra-marital affair led him to lose his posts in Tory leadership.

This is a man who walked through Myanmar’s temples as foreign secretary while quoting Kipling’s musings on the white man’s burden; a man who stood in front of a poster warning against the perils of Turkish EU membership after praising his own Turkish ancestry. He chanted sweet nothings about London’s diversity atop an Olympic stage and then became the leading voice against freedom of movement. Trump announces his egotism; Johnson cloaks his with bluster. Trump builds walls; Johnson wants to walk through them.

The balancing act has led some to believe Johnson would pivot to the party line if he assumed the helm, a puppet who wants to be loved even by those who disregard him. Others see it as a sign of his unpredictability: Since he’s always straddling two positions, one can never be sure where he might land.

Both readings fall short, for a politician cannot achieve anything tangible without taking stands — and Johnson is nothing if not hungry for achievement. When the government proposed police cuts after the 2011 London Riots, he turned his back on his party and called for a rethink. Four years later, after realizing that his cabinet hopes depended upon sitting in Parliament, he ignored his colleagues’ protestations to launch a campaign for the Uxbridge & South Ruislip seat midway through his mayoral term. His idols are Churchill, Disraeli, and Lincoln — figures of tremendous personal vision. Trump ran on a campaign of American isolationism before leaving his foreign-policy decisions to interventionist Republicans; Johnson has never shied away from supporting an active role for Britain and America on the world stage.

But if Johnson had been stranded on a wire since birth, it was Brexit that forced him to finally pick a side. He became one of the faces of the Leave campaign, delivering the same witty quips that he’d penned as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent 30 years earlier. This time, however, his words had greater consequences, earning him plenty of adoration but an equal amount of resentment. When his side won, his attempt to become PM was unceremoniously cut short by fellow Brexiteer and friend Michael Gove. According to those closest to him, the events forced him to develop a spine — he learned that a real changemaker cannot hope to please everyone.

Clearly, the Conservative party is close to falling from a wire of its own. Clearly, its attempted balancing act has ended in failure. If the Tories seek to be forgiven for their mishandling of Brexit, a leader who has already made a habit of acquiring forgiveness may help them get it. Grassroots Tories members may support Johnson because he is fun, but his entertainment value should not obscure the substance beneath the surface.

In his biography of Churchill, Johnson declared that the famous statesman was not “a man of principle” but “a glory-chasing, goal-mouth-hanging opportunist.” Johnson’s family members say that he’s always fancied himself as a Churchill — that he spent his childhood years believing he was set up to be a “world king.” Glory-chasing and opportunism are not qualities that lend themselves to compromise. Such men believe so much in their own capacities that they are willing to ditch a position when it suits them.

Johnson is not the most qualified person to be the next British prime minister, nor is he the most suitable. But he may soon find, like Trump before him, that the dire state of his party makes it ripe for his picking. He is certainly the life and soul of the night’s festivities, and past events do not suggest he’ll be pressing the brakes on the way home. What remains to be seen is whether or not he’ll be driving drunk.

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