Who is Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister?

Johnson cultivated a reputation as a charming upper-class womaniser, cheat and liar – and some Britons love him for it.

Boris John pint - reuters
Boris Johnson has built his appeal on an unconventional, affable, self-deprecating persona [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

London – There won’t be many who tuned into Have I Got News For You, BBC’s flagship news satire show, on the evening of April 24, 1998, that could possibly have predicted one bumbling upper-class panellist would one day be the new prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

On the show, Boris Johnson was grilled over a leaked recording of a phone call between himself and Darius Guppy, a schoolfriend convicted for fraud.

In the conversation, Guppy – in Johnson’s own words “a great chap” – had complained a journalist was investigating his criminal activities, and told Johnson, then a newspaper columnist, that he wanted to have the man beaten up. Johnson agreed to give Guppy the journalist’s home address.

Stories of this sort of mendacity criss-cross Johnson’s past like creases in a well-worn linen suit.

This is a man who Lord Conrad Black, another well-known fraud convict, described as “ineffably duplicitous”.

“Boris Johnson is in love with the idea of being prime minister, but will almost certainly hate the job,” Mark Shanahan, head of the politics department at Reading University, told Al Jazeera.

“The thought of being lauded as the most powerful politician in the UK, a significant figure on the world stage and the shaper of our future destiny appeals to his highly attuned sense of elite entitlement. But the reality of the limitations of the job and the near-impossibility of making it work in these unique political times will be a swift and sobering downer and a massive kick between the big toes.”

We now have a prime minister with few morals and no principles

by Steve Wardlaw, LGBT rights activist

Lord Chris Patten, a former Conservative MP and the last governor of Hong Kong, was a European commissioner during Johnson’s time as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph – a position he had acquired after being sacked from The Times for allegedly making up a quote in a published story.

He described Johnson as “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism” for concocting stories that bashed the European Union, but played well with his readers.

Johnson has also used outright bigotry in his writing, using the words “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” when referring to Africans. He has referred to gay men as “tank-topped bum boys” and insinuated former US President Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain because of his being “part-Kenyan”. As Britain’s foreign minister, he said the Libyan town of Sirte could be a popular tourist destination – “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”.

Steve Wardlaw is a prominent LGBT rights activist in the United Kingdom and an ambassador for Stonewall.

 Advice from a human rights lawyer to Boris Johnson:

1. Don’t scrap the Human Rights Act. It’s embedded in English history and is the shield of the powerless. It shines a light on injustice. It chimes with your key policy objective – freedom.

2. Europe is drowning under a wave of nationalism and xenophobia. Fascism is knocking on the door. Be a prime minister for the whole country and not just for your ‘base’. 

3. Attend to the crisis in the justice system – legal aid is severely underfunded; our prisons are a powder keg about to explode. Strengthen access to justice, which is a pillar of democracy.

4. A moral and leadership vacuum has been left by Washington’s gradual withdrawal from the international stage. The UK should step in and provide leadership on climate change, the International Criminal Court, the Rohingya crisis, the Uighurs etc.

5. As our planet heats up, millions of people will be displaced by famine and floods – you should provide moral leadership on migration.

– Sailesh Mehta is a barrister practising in human rights and environmental law

“We are at a time when LGBT+ rights are under threat and we need to look to our leader for support when the country is becoming less tolerant than it was 10 years ago,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This is deeply troubling and the leader of this country needs to take a firm stance on LGBT+ policy and protection. We are living in a time with a marked increase in nationalism and the easiest way to define yourself as a true conservative is to showcase right-wing social policies.

“We now have a prime minister with few morals and no principles, who is happy to tack right to appease the populists. He will throw the LGBT+ community and other minorities under the bus without a moment’s hesitation.”

Politics and loyalty

Having failed to secure a Conservative candidacy for the 1994 European Parliament polls, and then failing to win a Westminster seat in the 1997 election, he became MP for Henley – among the most solid Conservative constituencies in the country – in 2001.

His public profile – that first Have I Got News For You appearance doing nothing to put him off media work – ensured a level of name recognition elusive to most Conservative politicians, and he was soon appointed to the front benches of the opposition, in 2004 becoming the shadow arts minister.


He was sacked six months later after lying to then-party leader Michael Howard about an extra-marital affair he had been pursuing with a journalist named Petronella Wyatt, a columnist for The Spectator – a magazine edited by Johnson. The four-year affair reportedly overlapped with another extra-marital dalliance with Anna Fazackerley, another journalist.

In 2013, a judge ruled it was in the public interest to reveal Johnson had fathered a child during yet another affair, this time with art consultant Helen Macintyre. Earlier this year, it was announced he and barrister Marina Wheeler, his wife for 25 years, were divorcing because of his relationship with former Conservative Party PR chief Carrie Symonds, with whom he now lives. Wheeler and Johnson married days after Johnson’s divorce to first wife Allegra Mostyn-Owen had been formalised.

Despite the misogyny and bigotry – or possibly because of it – Johnson has no shortage of fans. He served two full terms as the mayor of London, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, though that did not stop him last summer from writing that Muslim women covering their faces “look like letterboxes”.

“Boris proved in his time as mayor of London that he represented all people – whatever their religion, ethnicity or sexuality,” George Robinson, a former Conservative Party staffer, told Al Jazeera.


“Indeed, he was one of the first Tories to back gay marriage, famously wearing a pink Stetson hat at London Pride parade in 2008. And though his comments on women wearing the niqab were misjudged, he was actually making the case against them being banned – a highly liberal argument. In short, to portray him as racist is wholly incorrect and unfair; he is one of the most forward-thinking Tories in the country.”

A recent poll found 56 percent of respondents among Conservative Party members said Islam was “generally a threat to the British way of life”, with 42 percent feeling British society had been “damaged” by the inclusion of people from a wide variety of racial and cultural backgrounds.

London Mayor Boris Johnson wears a pink stetson hat at the Gay Pride parade on July 5, 2008 in London, England. The parade consists of celebrities, floats, and performers celebrating the UK's largest
As mayor of London in 2008, Boris Johnson wore a pink Stetson as he led the annual Pride parade, the UK’s largest gay and lesbian festival – but minority groups remain concerned about his rhetoric [File: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]

‘A stronger US-UK alliance’

Ahead of the EU Brexit referendum, he famously had not made up his mind on which side he would fight until the night before deciding to lead the “leave” campaign. He even wrote two opposing newspaper columns – one vociferously arguing the benefits of EU membership, and the other lambasting the 28-nation bloc – with a view to publishing one or the other when he had decided.

While he has leaned to the right since the Brexit campaign, his policy positions do tend to align with the “one nation” Conservative faction, slightly more socially liberal than the rest of the party. Also, having been born in New York, Johnson has long been more transatlantic than many of his peers, and maybe, with his personal history, character and demeanour, he might be well-placed to bolster relations with the world’s number-one populist.

“He and Donald Trump symbolise a personality-first politics that could work incredibly well in tandem, and I believe that bodes well for a stronger alliance,” said Tim Kane, a Republican economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“Boris Johnson’s remarks encouraging more talent-based immigration to Great Britain as opposed to Cameron and May’s restrictive ‘Little England’ approach are a refreshing surprise,” he told Al Jazeera.

“From the American perspective, there is a deep adoration and respect for Britain, so the potential to strengthen the alliance here is unending, regardless if a petulant EU wants to cause needless economic damage as the price of divorce.


“My prediction is that US-UK will forge a new kind of unconditional trade area that might set a vital precedent for the 21st century.”

‘Celebrity politics’

Johnson has cultivated a media-friendly persona as a highly educated, plum-voiced yet dishevelled intellect who struggles over words, doesn’t take himself too seriously and makes jokes at his own expense – often in Latin. His appeal lies in his personality, said Professor Scott Lucas of the University of Birmingham.

“What you have in the Conservative Party is the rise of celebrity politics,” he told Al Jazeera. “When you don’t have issue engagement, you put on a show. People are turning to Boris not because they engage with any of his issues, but because of his personality.”

Reading’s Shanahan agrees.

“The carefully cultivated Brand-Boris has maximised the opportunities to make himself the centre of the story; to build public recognition and to make his jokes and japes speak rather louder than his deeds,” he said.

“As foreign secretary, he was described to me as ‘Minister for Flag Waving and Carousing’: kept as far as possible, as often as possible, from the serious business of diplomacy.”

It was as foreign secretary that Johnson made one of his worst mistakes. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother, had been jailed in Iran on charges of trying to topple the government by way of training journalists to spread propaganda on behalf of British intelligence.

She is a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charity arm of the famous news agency, but was visiting Iran on holiday, seeing family for the Persian New Year.

Johnson decided to step in, and with characteristic bullishness made the whole situation worse. “She was simply teaching people journalism,” he erroneously said. She was reportedly hauled back before a court in Tehran where his remarks were used as “proof” she had been engaged in “propaganda against the regime”. Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in jail.

Skating on thin ice

With the announcement of his leadership win on Tuesday, Theresa May will formally step down, handing her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday. Johnson – if there is no sudden slew of MPs defecting from the party – will then be invited by Buckingham Palace to form a government.

The House of Commons breaks up for summer holidays on Friday, leaving Johnson with one crucial day of parliamentary business before the recess. It is possible he may face a vote of no-confidence on his first full day on the job. With the Tories having only a razor-thin working majority in parliament, he is skating on thin ice.

If he survives the week, he will have just months before the Brexit deadline in order to either secure a new withdrawal deal from the EU, and win parliamentary support for it, or to change parliament’s collective mind on approving a “no-deal” Brexit.

Several high-profile Conservatives have already threatened to bring down his administration if he forces through an EU withdrawal without a deal – a situation most economists agree would be disastrous for Britain.

“Johnson’s premiership, likely to be short and turbulent, will be less about the national interest and more about swiftly nailing his personal legacy,” said Shanahan.

“There is the merest sliver of a chance that he can unite the country wrapped in a flag of patriotic optimism. But he’s far more likely to break the Tory party, shatter the union and plunge the UK into social and economic chaos. His appointment as prime minister is a significant step backwards for the nation – a triumph only for the simplistic bombast of populism.”

Source: Al Jazeera