Who Is Boris Johnson?

Boris Johnson in central London, Britain, July 19, 2019. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
Prizing wit, Britons are dismissing an unusually broad panoply of shortcomings in their likely next leader.

By next week at this time, Boris Johnson will be prime minister of the United Kingdom. Not since Margaret Thatcher has such an outsized personality resided in Number 10 Downing Street. Not since Winston Churchill has such a wit presided over Her Majesty’s Government. Wit is actually the chief reason for Johnson’s apotheosis, and it tells us something about Britain’s self-image that it prizes wit so highly that the country is dismissing an unusually broad panoply of shortcomings in its next leader.

Johnson’s wit is irresistibly British: self-deprecating. For years, he had a series of jokes lined up for any interviewers who asked him about someday becoming PM. Even as he was maneuvering for exactly that outcome, he would flutter his eyelids and cast his gaze downward and chuckle at the absurdity. Oh, he’d say, “It’s more likely that I’ll be reincarnated as an olive.” Or locked in a refrigerator. Or decapitated by a flying frisbee. Or blinded by a champagne cork. Johnson’s signature achievement is getting stuck on a zip wire a few feet above the ground while promoting the London Olympics in 2012. There he is, the mayor of the capital, strung up in a safety harness suggesting a toddler in a pram and wearing a ridiculous-looking helmet, waving a Union Jack in each hand: priceless. Any American caught in that situation would have been flummoxed, then mortified, then angry. Johnson made a virtue out of buffoonery. Going back to “Milksnatcher Maggie” and beyond, the Conservative party has been portrayed by the press as scary and heartless. Who could be scared of a big blond baby waiting for Mummy to come and rescue him?

Around that time, Johnson became strongly associated with pedaling delightfully around London on a bicycle like an eccentric Oxbridge don. Who can be scared of a bike bloke? Every time Johnson appeared in the media on his bike, which was every ten minutes, it was like a campaign advertisement for him. Though his job as mayor was essentially ceremonial — London isn’t a unified political entity like New York City but rather a concatenation of local governments, and didn’t even have a mayor until 2000 — he can claim credit for the biking revolution in London, where swarms of cheery commuters participate in the bike-renting scheme through the ever-present drizzle. The two-wheelers, sponsored by a bank, are popularly known as Boris Bikes, and bring about all sorts of pleasing connotations to the British mind — they’re environmentalist, they’re a bit lovably daft, they’re both excitingly new and a throwback to pleasing stories of comic romps on country estates in Waugh or Wodehouse.

Johnson aligns beautifully with Britain’s diffident, retiring character, its aversion to chest-thumpers like Donald Trump. If America is Tom Cruise, Johnson is Hugh Grant. Yet Johnson’s rise is akin to Trump’s: People in the political class don’t like, or even trust, him. Yet he found a path around them. He spent youth and early middle age in a profession that isn’t a natural route to political power: journalism. He reported for the Times of London and the Telegraph and became editor of the leading right-of-center political magazine, The Spectator. Like Trump, though, he owes all to a TV show. Johnson’s TV personality is as quintessentially British as Trump’s was quintessentially American: Whereas The Apprentice took place in a boardroom landscape of ruthless competition and the pursuit of immense wealth, Johnson made his name as a regular guest on the comedy panel show Have I Got News for You, whose success highlighted the British fascination with quiz shows and sparkling banter.

Even those who set out to tear him apart (as in the 2013 BBC documentary Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise, which shamefully evoked the title of a 1941 Bertolt Brecht play about Hitlerism) can’t avoid including footage of Johnson, say, riding a motor scooter around the office or playing tennis in a wooly cap with a warped wooden racket. All attempts at warning the nation about this alleged Tory terror inevitably dissolve in laughter. The usual playbook about cruel Conservatives does not work. You just can’t convince people that this delightful chap from the telly is Babyface Adolf. Sitting around a metropolitan dinner party with Very Worried Progressives who would never vote for any other Conservative under any circumstances, one is likely to hear some vegan Save the Whales poetess in chunky jewelry exclaim something like, “Oh, but Boris is different. He does make me laugh.” Even the man’s name is a giggle: “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.”

As with Americans, who claim to despise elites while elevating plutocrats and Ivy Leaguers to the White House, Johnson’s toffee-nosed name and background (Eton, Oxford, and even the latter’s notorious, despised “Bullingdon Club,” which is portrayed in the media as Animal House meets Skull and Bones) quietly works to his advantage. Britain doesn’t actually want to be run by working-class grinds. Secretly, it thrills to the idea of a Bertie Wooster type in Number 10, and Boris has relentlessly cultivated a position as the clueless, sunny Bertie of politics. (Though it bears noting that Eton has two distinct populations, the scholarship winners and the privileged kids, and, like Orwell, Johnson was in the former group). Observers used to spot him carefully disheveling his (incurably straight) blond hair for extra daffiness.

All of this explains how Boris will win the premiership despite his inexplicable blunders in 2016, when after the resignation of David Cameron he was in excellent position to take power but instead responded with a combination of passivity and error that created an opening for the otherwise implausible ascent of the implacably mediocre Teresa May. Yet it creates no sense of confidence whatsoever that Johnson will succeed in the post. Brexit, to recycle a favorite word of the British political class in the Cameron era, is an omnishambles. It will require a leader of determination and might to realize it in anything like the form Britons thought they were demanding in the 2016 referendum. Johnson, who first attracted public notice when, as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, he reported on example after stunning example (some of which later proved exaggerated) of EU overreach, and who resigned his position as foreign secretary of May’s government rather than be a party to her attempt to give away the store on Brexit, has the bona fides on Brexit. But Johnson is well into his sixth decade and has at no point shown the character, the stamina, the Thatcherite steel core that will be needed to make Brexit happen. Before agreeing to become one of the public faces of the Brexit campaign before the referendum, he dithered about which side to be on.

Johnson’s tenure as PM might be the most amusing interlude in Number 10 since Hugh Grant danced to the Pointer Sisters in Love, Actually. But Brexit has proved to be a kind of political Passchendaele. Only resolution and resourcefulness, not diffidence and jokes, will secure victory. When men are pinned down in the muck, Bertie Wooster is not the man to ask to drive your tank.