This week, British Conservative Party politician and Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson saw his chances of becoming the UK prime minister torpedoed when his ally Michael Gove announced he would also run for the seat. Boris quickly ducked out of the campaign, possibly ending his political career forever. But what a political career it was.
Readers looking for a detailed look back at the man sometimes known as bumbling Boris might take a look at a brutal article published today in the New York Times, which traces his follies from his days as a fabulist newspaper reporter to his current betrayal at the hands of Gove. Here, we’ll take a capsule approach to his colorful biography, recounting a few of the greatest hits.
Today, Boris is best known to Americans as the man with the silly haircut who led the charge for Brexit. He and his allies wasted no time bungling their own unexpected victory, walking back key campaign promises, and in Johnson’s case, penning a vague, uninformed column about the UK’s path forward. When Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation following the Brexit vote, Johnson was the easy favorite to replace his old schoolmate. The two of them went to Eton and Oxford together, and at the latter both were members of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive society of hard-partying upper-crust frat boys. Their relationship only soured when Boris took up the Leave cause, driving a stake between himself and the pro-Remain prime minster and setting himself up for a coup.
And it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for Gove, the secretary of state for Justice and generally a more serious and capable-seeming politician than his counterpart, who threw his hat into the ring yesterday. “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” Gove said during the announcement.
It’s not for nothing that American papers keep comparing Boris to Donald Trump. In his home country, he’s been a longtime right-wing populist court jester whose charm and uncanny feel for the media far outpaces his policy knowhow. Like Trump, his common-man appeal conceals an old-fashioned upper-class upbringing, and as Tina Brown pointed out in her great Boris deconstruction at the Daily Beast, that upbringing carries with it an an old-fashioned amorality—the ruthlessness that allowed him to turn on his buddy Cameron after reportedly assuring him he’d throw his support behind Remain.
Here are a few of key moments in the rise and fall of Boris Johnson.
The racist, homophobic, fictionalizing newspaper writer
Boris got his start in 1987 as a reporter with the Times of London, where he was quickly fired for making up a quote and attributing it to his own godfather, a renowned historian, as the Times of New York notes. No matter, he was quickly hired again by the Daily Telegraph, where he covered the European Union. It was there that he started broadcasting the Euroskepticism on which he built his name, as well as the hateful pigheadedness on which he also built his name. Here’s Boris himself reminiscing about his early Telegraph work in a more recent column:
When I went to Brussels in 1989, I found well-meaning officials (many of them British) trying to break down barriers to trade with a new procedure – agreed by Margaret Thatcher – called Qualified Majority Voting. The efforts at harmonisation were occasionally comical, and I informed readers about euro-condoms and the great war against the British prawn cocktail flavour crisp.
“Euro-condoms” is a reference to Johnson’s crusade against contraception standardization initiatives supposedly pushed by the EU in the ‘90s, in hopes of combatting AIDS. The idea was that the European bureaucrats were so obsessed with standards that they’d have everyone using one-size-fits-all condoms. Similarly, “the great war against the British prawn cocktail flavour crisp” was about the EU not adding prawn cocktail to an official list of snack flavors and sweeteners, which frankly seems fine by me because that sounds like a pretty gross flavor.
However, both of these claims stretched the truth significantly. Other Boris classics, like the idea that children under the age of eight were not allowed to blow up balloons under EU rules, are outright lies.
The myths Boris pushed as a reporter are transparently silly, but their specter continues to hang over the UK, where plenty of people still believe the EU is intent on regulating or outright eradicating every aspect of British life, down to the most banal detail. Just this spring, Boris himself exclaimed that it is “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us...what shape our bananas have got to be.” They’re not really doing that.
No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.
If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.
The mayor of London
Boris’s outspokenness and considerable charisma landed him the editorship of the conservative magazine Spectator in 1999 and a seat in Parliament in 2001, and in the scheme of things, it was only a minor setback when his extramarital affair was revealed and he was fired from his parliamentary job as shadow arts minister a few years later.
He parlayed this notoriety into an unlikely London mayoral run in 2008, and after winning, he continued his approach of saying things people want to hear while doing very little to back them up. Here’s now-deputy mayor Joanne McCartney talking to the New York Times about his mayoralty:
“We had eight frustrating years where we’d ask detailed policy questions, and what we’d get back in response was bluster and grandiose claims,” said Joanne McCartney, a Labour Assembly member who is now deputy mayor. “If he didn’t know the answer to the question, which was a regular occurrence, he’d use bluster and wit to avoid answering.”
Also as mayor, he once got into a public spat with the descendants of the inventors of ping-pong, because he claimed that it was invented in England and originally called “whiff-whaff.” Here he is talking about it.
Some silly pictures of Boris Johnson
To fully understand Boris’s appeal, you must immerse yourself in his Borisness, bearing witness to the everyman appeal, the constantly rumpled clothes, the bike he always seems to be riding, the hay bale he seems to think is a hairstyle. To that end, here are some silly pictures of Boris Johnson:
Isn’t he a little charming?
What happens next
The Brexit campaign and the confoundedness with which Boris greeted the result may have turned the tide of public opinion against him for good. Maybe he’ll go back to ranting and raving in the pages of some newspaper, or on TV. Believe it or not, he’s a pretty well-educated guy, and he has a book on Shakespeare coming out, so there’s that to look forward to.
Before Brexit turned him into a legitimate contender for prime minister, he was steadfast that he would never do the job. As the Times notes, a few years ago, he told reporters he’d be just as likely to be “reincarnated as an olive” as lead the United Kingdom. But as Brexit led to Boris Johnson’s rise, so did it lead to his fall, and now that he’s withdrawn from the running, he will almost certainly never be prime minster. Meaning that if his own prediction holds true, he won’t be unexpectedly surfacing in your dirty martini any time soon, either.