He’s known simply as “Boris” and to some he’s a gaffe-prone buffoon who’s unfit for high office, while others see him as a charismatic leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union.
Whatever people think about Boris Johnson, he’s on track to becoming the next British Prime Minister, a remarkable feat for someone who once said his chances at the top post were about as good as "finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” The ex-journalist, ex-mayor of London and ardent Brexiter is miles ahead in the Conservative Party leadership race, thanks to a lively mix of Brexit boosterism and a “do or die” commitment to pull Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, no matter what.
“We need to get Brexit done and there are no buts about it,” he told a rally of 4,000 party faithful this week. “We can do it. Of course we can.”
Party members have until Monday to mail their ballots, but opinion polls and interviews with dozens of members show Mr. Johnson should easily defeat his only rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The result will be announced Tuesday and the winner will take over as Prime Minister from Theresa May the next day.
Mr. Johnson’s enthusiasm for Brexit and his willingness to leave the EU without an agreement – although he has been short on details and said the cost of a no-deal divorce would be “vanishingly inexpensive” – have invigorated party members who grew tired of Ms. May’s plodding. She spent two years negotiating a 600-page withdrawal agreement with the EU only to see it rejected by Parliament three times. The party pushed her out as leader in May and many Tories doubt she was ever committed to Brexit, since she voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. In Mr. Johnson, who co-chaired the Vote Leave campaign, many members see a true believer who will stand up to the EU.
“You’ve got to have a prime minister who really believes in Brexit and backs it,” said Guy Watts, an account manager and a party member from London who supports Mr. Johnson. “… I really think he’s the only one who can do it.”
Fiona Henderson, a teacher and party member from Peterborough, is so eager for Brexit she’s disregarding Mr. Johnson’s many foibles, like his messy personal life – one divorce, one separation, several affairs and at least one child out of wedlock – and his jarring and sometimes bigoted comments, such as calling African children “piccaninnies.”
“There’s been a lot of negative stuff said about him and whether that’s true or not I don’t know. I just believe he means what he says on Brexit,” said Ms. Henderson.
There are plenty of people worried about Mr. Johnson’s stance on Brexit. EU officials have expressed dismay and economists say he doesn’t appreciate the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Last week the Office for Budget Responsibility, a U.K. government agency, said a disorderly Brexit would send the economy into immediate recession. A growing number of Tory MPs oppose Mr. Johnson’s strategy and last week 17 Conservatives joined opposition MPs to support a move that will curtail the next prime minister’s ability to pursue a no-deal departure.
For now Mr. Johnson enjoys overwhelming support among Tories, and victory next week would mark a stunning political comeback. He’d been all but written off three years ago when he quit the race to succeed then prime minister David Cameron, who resigned in the wake of the Brexit referendum, which saw 52 per cent of voters back leaving the EU. Ms. May won by acclamation and she named Mr. Johnson Foreign Secretary, but he stepped down last year in a dispute over Brexit.
Mr. Johnson has an uncanny ability to surprise people, said journalist Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson. “I think he’s underestimated by quite a lot of his critics,” Mr. Gimson said. “His whole style of government will be quite different from Theresa May, where she worked out what she thought was the best course of action and stuck to it with a sort of counterproductive stubbornness. I think he’ll be … less risk-averse and more audacious in his approach to the whole thing.”
Mr. Johnson, 55, has certainly shown plenty of audaciousness over the years. He was born to British parents in New York as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and spent much of his youth in Brussels where his father, Stanley, worked for the European Commission. After a privileged education at Eton and Oxford, he joined The Times as a trainee reporter in 1987, only to be fired for making up a quote. He landed a job with Britain’s Daily Telegraph in Brussels, where he made a name for himself by writing stories that mocked EU bureaucracy. “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same,” read the headline on one.
He went on to become editor of The Spectator magazine under the ownership of Conrad Black. “I’ve never understood the terrible antagonism to him in some circles, although I am not blind to his limitations as his former boss,” Mr. Black told The Times. “Boris lied to me, but that’s Boris." Mr. Black was referring to Mr. Johnson’s promise that if he became editor he would drop plans to run for Parliament. “But it wasn’t two weeks before we found that he had thrown his hat in the ring as candidate,” Mr. Black recalled. Mr. Johnson won a seat in 2001 and tried to remain editor of the magazine, famously telling a colleague; ”I want to have my cake and eat it.”
His political career has included two terms as mayor of London and a return to Westminster in 2015. Through it all, he has relied on humour, self-deprecation and more than a little exaggeration. During a rally in London this week he brandished a packaged kipper and claimed the Isle of Man producer had to mail the fish to customers with a small packet of ice to conform with EU regulations. He called the rule “pointless" and “expensive,” but EU officials said there was no such regulation and that transportation of smoked fish was a U.K. matter. And they noted that the Isle of Man, a British Crown dependency, isn’t part of the EU.
Mr. Johnson is impossible to categorize. He’s befriended U.S. President Donald Trump, but calls himself a feminist and is pro-choice on abortion. He wants more control over immigration, but supports an amnesty for illegals. He’s proud of his Turkish great-grandfather, but has raised fears about Turkey joining the EU. He champions free enterprise, but wants to tax online retailers like Amazon to help high street merchants.
His inconsistency and irreverence can be divisive, even among some Tories who roll their eyes at the prospect of him as prime minister. “Boris is just an entertainer," said Lynne Faulkner, a retired human-resources manager and party member who backs Mr. Hunt for leader. “Three years ago I said if Boris became prime minister I’d leave the country. I’m too old now. All I can do is pray.”