Glasgow, UK – He has been left hanging in mid-air while attempting to ride a zip-wire at an event to mark the London 2012 Olympics. He has also fallen chest-deep into a South London river in front of British TV cameras and the press. And he has even been forced to apologise to the entire English city of Liverpool when, as then-editor of The Spectator magazine, he ran an editorial criticising the city-wide grief that followed the death of local man, Ken Bigley, in Iraq in 2004.
Boris Johnson, who was Conservative Party mayor of London from 2008 to May this year, has rarely left the headlines since he first took to the political stage as a Westminster MP in 2001. After the 51-year-old gave up his seat to become London mayor for eight years, he sought and won re-election to Britain’s House of Commons at last year’s UK general election as his mayoralty came to a close.
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Today, however, the man who has often been vaunted as the ultimate Teflon politician is arguably facing his toughest test as the effective head of the Leave campaign in the UK’s June 23 in/out European Union (EU) referendum, with many observers speculating on his apparent ambition to secure the highest political prize in the land – the office of prime minister.
After the date of the referendum was announced, great media hubbub centred on Johnson – or, Boris, as he is more commonly known across Britain – and which side he would back. Seen by many as an effective political campaigner – with more colour and pizazz than his many grey-suited and more politically cautious contemporaries – Johnson delighted the Leave camp when, on February 21, he threw his weight behind the drive to take the UK out of the EU.
“He is immensely popular with people – he’s an incredible vote-catcher, he won London twice [as mayor] when traditionally it has always been Labour,” said Sonia Purnell, the author of Boris Johnson’s biography, Just Boris – A Tale of Blond Ambition. “People thought of him as an election winner – and I saw some suggestions that he might be able to add 10 percentage points to the Leave campaign.”
Purnell told Al Jazeera that Johnson’s “populist” appeal and uncanny ability to “cut through class, cut through age and cut through party barriers to reach people” was widely seen as a potentially game-changing asset to either campaign. That was certainly the view of Brexit backer Janice Atkinson who initially saw Johnson’s commitment to join the Leave cause as a “coup” – but who has since felt let down by his conduct on the campaign trail.
Hearts and minds … or bananas?
“I think in the past few weeks he’s just acting the fool – and I don’t like it,” said Atkinson, who is an independent UK Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in Brussels. Johnson invited ridicule last month when he brought the EU’s directives on the sale of bananas into the referendum debate. “The messages are not coming out. A great leader – at this point – would have won over the people’s hearts and minds …. You need a figurehead leading you out the door … but when you’ve got to win over the hearts and minds of people, Boris isn’t doing it.”
Indeed, for a man who has based his reputation on being able to say or do things that if said or done by other British politicians might have ruined their careers, Johnson has recently found himself in hot water. After the US President, Barack Obama, joined forces with Conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in April to call on Britain to vote to remain in the EU, Johnson caused controversy when he lambasted the outgoing American leader in a newspaper article claiming that he had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain on account of his “part-Kenyan heritage”. And last month, Johnson came under attack when he claimed that the EU was pursuing a similar aim to that of Hitler in attempting to fashion a single European superstate.
Yet, London’s former mayor, who was born in the US and has multinational heritage, has found his true Brexit credentials questioned – with many speculating about his real motives for joining the Leave campaign. In a 2006 documentary, The Dream of Rome, Johnson, who is also an author and popular historian, espoused the case for Turkey to be admitted into the EU and talked up the “great moment” when the two halves of the Roman Empire “are at last reunited in an expanded European Union”.
Eye on the prize … of the premiership?
For political commentator Mark Thompson, Johnson’s lack of “consistency” over the EU question “has started to become quite painfully obvious”.
Purnell, who worked alongside the MP during his stint as a Daily Telegraph journalist in Brussels before his political career, said that Johnson has always had his eyes firmly fixed on securing the British premiership. And the EU referendum has now provided the means to potentially realise that dream.
“What was the most likely way for him to become prime minister – to back Remain? Well, there is a Remain prime minister, so there’s no job vacancy there,” said Purnell. Johnson’s long-standing rival Cameron, who said before his second election victory last year that he would not serve a third term as prime minister, has vowed to see his job through regardless of the referendum result, which polls say is too close to call. “This is his best and probably his last chance of Downing Street, so he’s throwing everything he’s got at it,” she continued.
But does Johnson need the Leave campaign to triumph in order to push his case for the premiership? Thompson thinks not.
“I don’t think he even believes he needs to win in order to use the fact that he was effectively the head of the Leave campaign to leverage the situation and succeed Cameron,” he said. Thompson contends that should Leave lose by a whisker, it would still “appear to the [many] Conservative Party Euro-sceptics that they would still be within striking distance of leaving the EU if a few things go their way over the next few years.
“The fact that Johnson is now the most prominent Conservative associated with the Leave camp means that he is in prime position to take over from Cameron – and of that I am certain, despite his protestations,” he added.
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi