Jul 21, 2019

It's Boris Johnson time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Barring a surprise of historic proportions, Boris Johnson will be announced on Tuesday morning as leader of the U.K.’s Conservative Party, and the country’s next prime minister.

Why it matters: The face of the campaign to leave the EU in 2016, Johnson will be tasked with solving the Brexit puzzle that stymied Theresa May and plunged the U.K. into a political crisis. He’ll also attempt to steady the so-called “special relationship” with the U.S. — and he’s just the man President Trump wanted in the job.

  • Johnson has a Trump-like ability to flit from controversy to controversy while maintaining enthusiastic support; although unlike Trump, his political positions (Brexit aside, perhaps) are solidly center-right.
  • His rise to the pinnacle of British politics has been fueled by sheer force of personality and made possible in part by the fact that no one, least of all Johnson, takes him entirely seriously.

How he got here: Johnson was born into privilege and a sense that he was destined for great things.

  • After Eton and Oxford, he went into journalism. Johnson lost one job for inventing quotes before setting up shop in Brussels, where his dispatches about the EU bureaucracy delighted euroskeptic conservatives and solidified his reputation for never letting facts get in the way of a good story.
  • Elected to Parliament in 2001, he served two terms as mayor of London (2008–2016) during which, he often notes, crime fell and incomes rose. He thrived in the public-facing role while delegating most day-to-day responsibility. 

Then came the referendum. Johnson initially wavered over whether to back Brexit, but supporters and detractors alike say that without his enthusiastic campaigning, the result might have been different.

  • During his subsequent tenure as May's foreign secretary (2016–2018), Johnson was accused of spurning briefings and relying on charm to conduct diplomacy, with mixed results.
  • Johnson resigned over May’s Brexit plan, lamenting the prime minister's lack of faith in the promise of Brexit. He has no patience for pessimism, even when grounded in political or economic reality.

During the current leadership campaign, Johnson has vowed to deliver Brexit by Halloween, come what may, and bring the millions of voters who have abandoned the party back into the fold.

  • Polls suggest roughly three-quarters of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who’ll pick the next prime minister prefer him to Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary and Johnson’s lone remaining rival.

Zoom in: On Wednesday, during the final public forum of the campaign, Johnson waved around a smoked herring (or kipper) and declared that at the insistence of “Brussels bureaucrats,” the fish had to be shipped with an “ice pillow.”

  • "We will bring the Liberal voters back, we will bring the Brexit Party voters back and we will bring the kippers back as well,” he declared, with characteristic half-serious bravado.
  • It soon emerged that the unfortunate fish’s icy journey was mandated by a British regulation. That will hardly trouble Johnson's supporters.
  • When he concluded his speech, many in the audience were clapping, some were standing, others were shaking their heads — all were smiling. 

The bottom line: Where May emitted sobriety and, eventually, desperation, Johnson makes his supporters feel that they’re all in on a joke. Starting on Tuesday, though, things get serious.

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