Boris Johnson, who resigned as Britain’s foreign secretary over the terms of Brexit in July, is a “politics genius,” “a future prime minister,” “a devil,” and “essentially a pagan,” according to those who know him well in Westminster and Washington, D.C. But when I asked him at the American Enterprise Institute dinner last month what the most noteworthy thing about him was, he answered with a wry — perhaps Churchillian? — smile, “I’m immensely physically strong.”
Less than 24 hours before the dinner at which Johnson was being honored by several thousand guests, I was in London, in Kentish Town, taking a break from Fleet Street gossip and enjoying some quality tea with Johnson’s former Telegraph editor, and loyal “Borisologist,” Harry Mount. Mount is a big-time Boris fan. As well as having published a book entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson,” he has, framed in his downstairs bathroom, a picture of a joker card with Johnson’s face. “When you look at photographs with Boris, you see that everyone around him is laughing,” Mount told me, smiling fondly.
Mount explained that when he would call Johnson on behalf of the Telegraph to ask why his copy was still missing hours after the deadline, he often heard him frantically typing as he mumbled an excuse — “Wi-Fi’s down, old chap.” Mount would politely tell Johnson that he could hear him typing. He’d reply, “Oh. Right you are, boss. Right you are.” Mount tells me that Johnson’s most powerful and underestimated weapon is his charisma, which enamors and endears.
In pursuit of Britain’s top political job, however, Johnson will need more than mere charm. At the Conservative-party conference earlier this month, one Tory speaker dismissed him as “offensive and irrelevant.” Other notable critics have called him “fake,” an “egomaniac,” “maniacally disorganized,” and totally unfit to be prime minister. Johnson’s own daughter called him a “selfish bastard” this summer while inadvertently breaking the news that he and his wife of 25 years were divorcing.
Politically, Johnson now faces an uphill struggle. In a Tory leadership contest, candidates are knocked out in rounds. To make it to the final, Johnson would need the backing of 106 members of Parliament. It is difficult, at this point, to see where such support would come from. Indeed, MPs who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum hate him for more than just his style. Johnson gave Brexit metropolitan respectability, rescuing it from the UKIP brand. This is his mess, they think, and he cannot be forgiven for it.
Other criticisms are lazier; they roll off the tongue. For instance, comparisons with Donald Trump, the epithets “populist” and “nationalist,” despite his being consistently liberal on immigration. The most pathetic accusation of all came earlier this summer when, after arguing in his column in the Telegraph that women should be able to wear burkas even though they look ridiculous (i.e., like “letterboxes”), Johnson was attacked as “Islamophobic” and “pandering to the far right.” To anyone who had bothered to read the thing, Johnson’s was a blatantly liberal argument. The real objection to his quip, of course, ought to have been its lack of originality. Stephen Fry made the same joke on the TV show Have I Got News for You in 1999.
His enemies have rightly noticed, though, that Johnson is a skilled opportunist. And what better opportunity for personal advancement than Brexit, that ongoing scramble for the soul of the party, and of the country? Johnson offered himself as the lead in the “collective pencil” at the Tory conference. “Unlike the prime minister, I campaigned for Brexit,” he had told the Times. “Unlike the prime minister, I fought for this, I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is alas not what people were promised in 2016.”
One Tory MP close to Johnson told me that the Tory consensus is that “Britain needs to be led, not managed.” Theresa May’s fate is now inexorably tied to Brexit. According to the Brexit plan that she unveiled at a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, Britain would remain closely tied to the EU, with a “common rulebook” for trade. But at home, Chequers almost united the country in opposition. Abroad, everyone from Donald Trump to Donald Tusk, president of the European Commission, blew his nose on the blueprint. Trump dismissed Chequers on his trip to the U.K. earlier this summer when he told the Sun that it would ruin trade with the U.S. Tusk kiboshed the deal last month, displaying, to those still in doubt, the EU’s bureaucratic belligerence.
Now a growing number of Conservative MPs think May is done after Brexit goes into effect on March 29, 2019, while an undetermined number, some reports say around 50, think she should go sooner. Johnson seems to belong to the latter category. This summer he accused her of strapping a “suicide vest” round the British constitution and championed the slogan “Chuck Chequers,” which is just a short step from “chuck May.”
It’s hard to imagine how two politicians could be more different. May is weak and painfully boring; Johnson is bold and happy-go-lucky. At the AEI dinner, I asked Johnson whether he was charming consciously (as such performers are often more calculating than they let on). He paused. “It is a great English vice to be charming,” he told me (didn’t Evelyn Waugh say something similar?), and, with characteristic evasiveness, launched into a long-winded story about a duke.
Similarly, Lord Charles Fitzroy, Johnson’s cousin, once shared an anecdote about a charity gala that Johnson was asked to speak at. He arrived disheveled and late, immediately sat down, and began asking frantic questions about the event, writing notes on a napkin. He then delivered a speech that “bore almost no relation to all the information he had just been given.” The host was confounded, but the audience loved it.
Even before he was mayor of London, Johnson managed to galvanize grassroots support. Vote Leave could not have won without this. And it was riding this wave of popularity that Johnson planned his 2016 leadership bid. He might have won it, too, had Michael Gove, his ally at the time, not made a last-minute announcement that he also was running — a move that ultimately dashed both men’s chances.
“I wouldn’t bring up Boris with Michael,” one journalist at a Spectator party whispered in my ear, having just introduced us. “Bit of a touchy subject.” Which is an understatement, of course. Gove is widely considered to have stabbed Johnson “front and back.” Now environment secretary and a regular defender of May (and of Chequers), Gove is, some say, a dark horse for a 2019 leadership contest should May survive that long.
Gove disputes accusations of treachery and maintains that he lost faith in Johnson’s suitability. A “dirty dossier,” cataloguing Johnson’s many misdemeanors, was recently leaked to the London press. It includes the allegation, for example, that as editor of The Spectator he took a columnist out to lunch to fire her but slept with her instead, and that on a separate occasion he paid for his mistress’s abortion.
Social conservatives, were there any left in Britain, might find this behavior off-putting. But the pragmatist quickly realizes that the qualities Johnson lacks in his personal life — fidelity, constancy, and staying on task — do not translate directly into his political life. He is flawed, certainly. But it is often those closest to Johnson, those who have most reason to resent his “gross failure of responsibility” (as one of his schoolteachers put it), who most believe in his ability to lead. One thing those close to him note is his political courage.
Is he a genius? I ask one of his closest advisers. “He has characteristics of genius, certainly.” I ask another: Would he be a good prime minister? “With certain caveats,” such as a strong cabinet, “yes.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory, a committed Catholic, a frequent endorser of “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and chairman of the European Research Group, has also said he’d back Johnson.
Ultimately, Johnson’s critics underestimate him. Which seems to work to his advantage. At the Conservative-party conference earlier this month, he did not make the Brexit battle cry many were anticipating but laid out a comprehensive domestic agenda, from housing to fiscal policy. It was an audition for the top job, clearly — proof of his more “serious” side. There are brains behind the bluster, too. Johnson is a “one-nation Tory,” drawing from a philosophy of conservatism conceived by the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
On June 23, 2016, 17.4 million Brits voted to leave the European Union. On March 29, 2019, they will leave, according to the current schedule. The transition will not be easy. As for who should lead the way, the Conservative party provides a rich and varied cast of characters. There is the kingmaker, Gove; the “Queen of Scots,” Ruth Davidson; and steady-eddies such as Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, and Jeremy Hunt. Then there’s Boris, as he’s known — the wild card. The joker.
In the Palace of Westminster, next to the bomb-damaged Churchill’s arch in Members’ Lobby, are four bronze statues that tower over some smaller busts of lesser-known prime ministers. The looming figures are David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher. Pointing to the latter two, a trusted Johnson aide told me, “We are living in as decisive times as these. And we need a prime minister of such stature.” Not Boris, surely! some will protest, knowing full well that Britain could do much worse. And already has.