It was February 21st and time was running out for Boris Johnson. The outgoing Conservative mayor of London had promised the Daily Telegraph an exclusive column in which he would declare his position in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. One Westminster rumour had it that he had written two versions, one for and one against (“I wrote all sorts of things,” he prevaricates when I put this to him). In the final hours, Europhile friends and family members called to urge him to back Remain. One recalls an ominous feeling: “Boris had become very Eurosceptic in our conversations.” Crowds of cameramen, journalists and passers-by gathered in his north London street; neighbours peered down from upstairs windows. At 4.40pm the mayor texted his – now incandescent – former schoolmate, David Cameron, to inform him he would break ranks. Nine minutes later he left his house, clutched his hair and, in a round-about way, delivered the news to the throng. The Telegraph had been scooped by its own columnist.
The brouhaha surrounding Johnson’s decision is revealing. His support for Brexit will not decide the referendum, but he can influence its result more than any British politician but Cameron. And in the eyes of his party’s overwhelmingly Eurosceptic base it gives him the edge over George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Theresa May, the home secretary, and thus makes him the front-runner to take over from Cameron as leader and prime minister. If, as the polls narrowly suggest, Cameron wins the referendum on June 23rd that vacancy should emerge in a couple of years, as the prime minister has pledged not to contest the next election. If he loses, he will probably have to resign within weeks.
Johnson has compared his chances of entering 10 Downing Street to those of being “decapitated by a frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a fridge or reincarnated as an olive”. The achievement would indeed be remarkable, for he is unlike other politicians. He breaks all the rules by which they are supposed to live: he is inconsistent; gaffe-prone; a wealthy, posh, priapic and well-read man unabashed by any of those things; an approval junkie who nonetheless has a track record of breaking his word and veers from saying exactly what his audience wants to hear to being deliberately outrageous.
On paper, then, his political prospects should be Lilliputian. But in an age when voters are either turning away from established parties to Trumps, Le Pens and Wilderses, or voting for the former only while holding their noses, he combines two things that rarely coincide: a broadly conventional political outlook (like Cameron he is pro-market, socially liberal and moderately Eurosceptic) and enormous popularity. He frequently tops polls of Britain’s most liked and trusted politicians.
This I witnessed when I joined him on April 19th in Trafalgar Square for the unveiling of a 3d replica of the arch of the Temple of Bel in Syria, destroyed by Islamic State. “He’s something different, isn’t he?” observed Ron, a Scot holidaying in London, his wife tapping her head and adding: “He’s clever, he’s got a lot up there.” Characteristically, the bicycling mayor was running late. Perhaps his bike had a puncture, they concluded. Then there he was, to murmurs of recognition, the thatch of blond hair bobbing through the crowd. Brandishing a wrinkled sheaf of notes the mayor praised the “digital archaeologists” for the replica and asked the hundreds before him: “How many digits do Daesh deserve? I think two digits!” A giant laugh went up. As he lumbered across to the National Gallery for our interview – hair atangle, suit rumpled and baggy – he was mobbed by well-wishers giving him thumbs-ups and diving in front of him, selfie arms outstretched.
How does he do it? And what lessons, if any, does this curious phenomenon have to offer unloved moderates – the Clintons, Hollandes and Osbornes – the world over?
To understand how it works, consider how politicians have adapted to a world of relentless spin, 24-hour news, social media and hyper-professionalised elections. In such a ruthless environment, 99% of them perceive little room for weaknesses and thus separate the frank, flawed individuals they are with friends or after a couple of glasses of wine from the polished, on-message, cautious personae they project in public. That does not make them phoneys. But it does make them look inauthentic, curiously plastic even – paving the way for, say, Trump (like Johnson, a New York-born hair icon), whose hardline politics makes him look straight-talking, however inaccurate that impression may be.
To his critics, Johnson is less, not more, authentic than his conventional rivals. They regard his demeanour – bumbling, stuttering and posh, a charming mix of Billy Bunter and Hugh Grant – as an affectation. That isn’t quite fair. It is more like the opposite, an extreme form of authenticity. This works on two levels. First, he is enthusiastically open about his flaws: in 2001, for example, he claimed his decision to enter politics was “at least 40% sheer egomania”. Second, instead of playing down his private personality, he exaggerates it to such an extent that voters feel in on the joke. The Wodehousian, hair-grasping yahs, gahs and bahs are Johnson, but they are also knowing: they invite his public to roll their eyes with him at his own preposterous, but ultimately forgivable, foibles. They know that he is hamming it up and they know that he knows they know. Where other politicians separate actor and role, he entices his public by blurring the two with a nod and a wink. It is post-modern – and highly disarming.
Johnson’s unusual approach to politics is born not of calculation, or at least not primarily, but of necessity. He genuinely is an unfashionably crumpled Englishman. He had what was in many respects a very traditional upbringing: in a cold house on Exmoor where everyone quoted Churchill, had holes in their socks and was in permanent sporting and academic competition. Johnson (Al to his three siblings) once broke his toe kicking a wall after his sister beat him at ping pong (many years later it fell to her to deliver the “terrible news” that their younger brother, Jo, today the minister for higher education, had obtained a first-class degree at Oxford). At university (Oxford, of course), Johnson had a reputation for being genuinely fogeyish – he loathes modern poetry and can quote the ancient Greek sort at length – unlike the trendy dandies who, having watched too many episodes of “Brideshead Revisited”, put it on. Like Cameron, two years his junior, he was a member of the loutishly aristocratic Bullingdon Club. One anecdote sees Boris’s “skinny legs” disappear over Magdalen Bridge and to safety after the gang had thrown a pot plant through a restaurant window.
Moreover, he truly is as scatty as his public image suggests. According to his warts-and-all biographer, Andrew Gimson, he lost his ring, trousers and marriage certificate on his wedding day; when asked on a campaign visit to Cheltenham last year whom he was there to support, he replied not with the name of the local Tory candidate but that of an estate agent who had been advertising his services on billboards around the town. Outside the National Gallery, seemingly unfussed about his schedule, he told me a rambling anecdote about an internship at The Economist – he wrote an article on Turkey that had to be extensively corrected – as his diary-conscious aides chivvied him to belt up and pose for the camera.
Perhaps most riskily, he seems incapable of resisting the urge to provoke. Katie Perrior, his former spin doctor, recalls his knack for following his script for the majority of a given visit, then at the very end saying something inflammatory that had just popped into his head, once somehow turning an entire room of Londoners against her by claiming she was anti-pigeon. On other occasions this has been more damaging: in 2001, for example, he made bad jokes about mad-cow disease in a room full of farmers in Henley, where he was running for Parliament. His support for Brexit bears traces of his urge to stir things up. Though he admits he hesitated “for a long time because I genuinely love Europe”, he adds, mischievously, that the conclusive factor was the “European policy on...caprine animals”. The whole thing gets his goat, geddit?
So Johnson’s refusal to play by the rules is also convenient: acting the organised, hyper-modern smoothie would demand more from him than it would from some of his more polished colleagues. But what gives him licence to be himself and play up his esoteric traits is his belief in his own otherness, a trait he finds tellingly attractive in Churchill, the subject of his most recent book: “He was always thought to be a bit over the top until events themselves became a bit over the top.”
This too has its origins in his background. Like Churchill, who was half-American, Johnson has foreign roots. The bleached-blond Johnson hair hails from Kalfat, a village north of Ankara, and the Johnson clan has a collective sense of standing outside English society, looking in. The isolating experience of childhood grommets followed by the trauma of his parents’ marriage collapsing when he was 14 further contributed to Johnson’s exceptionalism. His response was to deploy his humour as his sword and shield. The resulting feeling of impunity was evident even during his days at Eton: acting in a performance of “Richard III”, he pasted his script behind pillars, darting between them to read off his lines. Such antics made him popular: he was elected Captain of the School and then, at university, president of the Oxford Union.
Johnson’s “policy on cake” (“pro having it and pro eating it”) means he routinely pushes his luck. He has long juggled several careers at once – twice, in 2000 and 2014, going back on commitments not to run for Parliament – and in October 2004 almost lost his job as shadow arts minister when the Spectator, the magazine he was editing at the same time as climbing the political ladder, ran an editorial accusing Liverpudlians of “sentimentality” about the murder of a Briton in Iraq. (Johnson’s love life has been similarly multi-curricular: the following month he was sacked when it transpired he had lied about an affair.) When we met he was pondering, on top of his commitments as mayor, MP, columnist, author, broadcaster and chief Brexiteer, creating some mayoral artwork for public display. What is the secret to doing so much? “Argh, it’s entirely genetic…I’ll tell you what, I just like work,” he insists, before extolling the benefits of painting to relax. Later in our conversation he claims that writing a column is “essentially the same” as producing a campaign speech.
In other words, he does not believe himself bound by the rules constraining others. Of this, his spell as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the 1990s is the best example. A former colleague describes his genius for extrapolation: taking a casual comment or partial detail and whipping it up into a great (and misleading) story – the union wanted to standardise European manure, say, or designate snails as fish – confirming his Eurosceptic editors’ and readers’ suspicions about the meddlesome EU. Several such stories rippled across the continent. His typically exaggerated tale of the coming federalisation of the European institutions (“Delors plan to rule Europe”) probably contributed to the Danes’ shock rejection of the Maastricht treaty in a referendum in 1992.
If Johnson’s chaotic fogeyishness creates the need for his brand of extreme authenticity and his exceptionalism gives him the licence, the humour and charm that his yearning to please have generated over the years is the means. To be sure, this comes with disadvantages by the bucketload. The corollary of his desire to gratify is his habit of telling his interlocutors what they want to hear even when he should not and of saying yes when he should say no. This weakness can lead him to behave unethically: in 1995 a recording emerged of his phone call with Darius Guppy, an old friend, in which Johnson agreed to provide the address of a journalist that Guppy proposed to beat up. In other words, he struggles with confrontation, with doing unpopular things. When, in an interview, he responds to a tricky question with a pun or a funny word or a slapstick bah-err-gah monologue and it falls flat, he can look completely helpless, his face crinkling in an awful grimace. “He doesn’t like not being liked,” observes Perrior.
But the quest to gladden his audience also brings advantages. His articles and speeches are original, self-deprecating and full of the sort of humour, sometimes intelligent, sometimes silly, that often enables him to wriggle out of tight spots. In his speech at the Conservative Party conference last year he had even his critics clasping their sides as he riffed on a misspelled entry in “Who’s Who”, the establishment’s bible, for John McDonnell, the hard-left shadow chancellor, whose hobbies included “fermenting” revolution. “We tried fermenting that brew in Britain in the 1970s”, Johnson proclaimed, “and the result has been the kind of toxic moonshine that makes you blind. Folks! Give. That. Hooch. A. Miss.” He is characteristically upfront to me about the uses of humour: “So much of politics is really about explaining, and engaging, and showing that you understand…you’ve got to take people with you.”
This presents other politicians looking to learn from Johnson’s post-modern example with a difficulty. He possesses not just the need for being, and the grounds to be, oddly confessional about his weaknesses and character, but also the wit that allows him to forge a compact with voters in which the two sides both knowingly indulge “Boris”, the exaggerated version of Johnson. It is hard to imagine Hillary Clinton or George Osborne blithely admitting on a panel show, as Johnson did in 2008, that they had taken cocaine, and turning it into a joke about accidentally sneezing the powder into the faces of those nearby. But what they lack in Johnson’s humorous immunity to disapproval, they make up for in credibility and governing experience. And therein lies the second wrinkle: it is unclear whether his post-modernism is compatible with real power.
It is true that Johnson has held London’s mayoralty for the past eight years and kept the capital’s wheels whirring. He thrived as merrymaker-in-chief during the Olympics, when he stole Cameron’s limelight at a victory parade, delivered cheerful speeches and memorably got caught on a zip-wire, fluttering two tiny Union Jacks at delighted onlookers below. That sort of thing matters. Political leadership is about more than taking decisions and managing teams. It is also about articulating the popular mood, being visible and thus accountable to the crowd, applying what Johnson calls the “morale pump” to keep staffers and voters cheerful and loyal. His unique skill in this area cannot be gainsaid. Perrior describes how “some people try to touch him on escalators, women want him to sign their breasts,” and recalls a stump speech in Romford, east London, when a man in the crowd simply yelled: “Boris Johnson! You’re a cunt, but I love ya!”
Yet Johnson’s spell in City Hall has been richer in charisma than achievements. Mostly he has overseen projects, like the 2012 Olympics and a municipal cycle-renting scheme, put in train by his predecessor, and he has taken credit for things, like a recovering economy and falling crime, for which his leadership rivals in the cabinet are ultimately responsible. At times he has seemed unserious (making ill-judged jokes in the aftermath of the 2011 riots) and more focused on gimmicks (like restoring the old-fashioned Routemaster design of London buses) than on boring things such as making trains run on time and tackling the crippling cost of London housing. His big scheme, a new airport in the Thames estuary, is not going to happen. Asked about his legacy in the capital, Steve Hilton, an architect of Cameronism, replied: “I struggle to really think of one.”
It is still far from clear whether Johnson’s post-modern style could bear the pressures of serious executive responsibility. The best test of this to date has been the Europe question, the first time the mayor has wielded real influence over an important matter affecting the whole country. It’s a complicated and sprawling debate demanding conviction, discipline and organisation. At the time of writing, he is failing it.
His initial decision to support Brexit looked strange. For all his lurid Euro-missives from Brussels in the 1990s, Johnson had previously backed remaining in the club and kept his distance from the Conservative right. Even old friends (and Cameron) believe his announcement on February 21st insincere – a bid to woo Eurosceptic Tories ahead of any leadership contest. Roland Rudd, a pro-European businessman who has known Johnson since university, has said there was “not any shade of doubt” in his mind that the mayor supported membership and that he must have “changed his mind over a weekend”. In our conversation Johnson seemed suddenly half-hearted when we turned to the case to – in his words – “come out and go global”. “I did worry”, he confesses of his endorsement for the Leave campaign, “about sending a negative signal to friends and partners in other countries.”
This volte-face has undoubtedly cost Johnson allies in his natural base, on the liberal wing of the Conservative Party and in the unaligned centre of British politics. One Conservative insider offers this judgment: “He’s a loner. He has no friends in the tearoom [among MPS]. His people [staff] run circles around him. It would be a fucking disaster [if he became prime minister].” In a recent column Matthew Parris, a respected Tory commentator, was even more brutal: “Creeping ambition in a jester’s cap is not funny. Vacuity posing as merriment, cynicism posing as savviness, a wink and a smile covering for betrayal…these things are not funny.” Even among fellow Eurosceptics, the mayor’s performance in the campaign has crystallised doubts. He has twice delivered under-prepared, poorly briefed and awkward performances when grilled in public on his arguments – on both occasions trying and failing to deploy his usual leavening dose of humour. It is all very well winging it as a columnist-cum-transport commissioner; not when the country’s future is at stake.
His response to Barack Obama’s visit to Britain on April 22nd – during which the president voiced his opposition to Brexit – encapsulated better than any previous incident the case against a Johnson premiership. The moment demanded restraint and sensitivity from the Brexiteer-in-chief. He provided no such qualities: in a column for the Sun he ascribed the “half Kenyan” president’s views to his “ancestral dislike” of Britain and reheated a long-debunked claim that Obama had ejected a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office. Sir Nicholas Soames, the great prime minister’s grandson and a Tory MP formerly close to Johnson, spoke for many when he called the insinuations “appalling” and urged him to “grow up and get real”. Suddenly “Boris”, with his ribald inconsistencies, his carelessness and his pro-cake-eating, pro-cake-having self-parody, looked ill-suited to a major office of state: imagine this sort of demagoguery at the helm of the immigration system, let alone in Downing Street.
In the coming weeks, as Johnson attempts more of the heavy political lifting of the pro-Brexit campaign, and certainly if Cameron gives him a big department in a conciliatory, post-Remain-victory reshuffle, we will see whether Johnson’s raw popularity – the knack he has for making his audience complicit – can survive under a degree of pressure to which it has not yet been exposed. Winding up his rumination on his great Euro-gamble, Johnson suddenly straightens his back and declares: “Now we go forward, hearts aglow, to Independence Day on June 24th. And it will be glorious!” It will certainly be revealing. “Glorious” is more questionable.