In the spring of 1989, the Daily Telegraph sent Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Brussels to cover what was then the European Economic Community. Johnson, who was twenty-four, knew the city well. His father, Stanley, had been one of the first British bureaucrats appointed to work at the European Commission after the United Kingdom joined the bloc, in 1973. Johnson, his parents, and his three younger siblings moved to Belgium when he was nine years old, joining a sleepy community of expats. Johnson was a clever boy. He learned to speak French without an accent.
When Johnson returned, his father invited an experienced Brussels correspondent, Geoff Meade, to lunch at the family’s large house near Waterloo. Meade and his wife, Sandra, were having drinks when a taxi pulled up. “We hadn’t been led to expect anyone else so it was a surprise to see this outstandingly blond chap jump out in the loudest pair of Bermuda shorts possible. I’ll never forget it,” Meade recounted in “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition,” Sonia Purnell’s haunting biography, from 2011, of the man expected to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. “But it became clear over lunch that I had been invited there as the established hand to meet and help Boris.”
Purnell served as Johnson’s deputy in the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, and her portrait of the politician as a young reporter makes an indelible impression. At first, Johnson was lost. He had been fired from his first job in journalism, at the Times of London, for making up a quote about Edward II’s relations with a boy, which he had attributed to his godfather, an Oxford don. Johnson was disorganized and had few reporting skills. But he had a knack for comedy and a genius for spotting a counter-narrative. In a collection of his journalism, “Lend Me Your Ears” (2003), Johnson describes a free-market approach to trying out opinions: “There will always be someone ready to buck the conventional wisdom, ready to buy when the market is low.” Johnson realized that conventional British reporting on the procedures of the E.E.C. (which was renamed the European Union in 1993) was reverential, accurate, and dull. He went the other way.
Six months after he arrived in Brussels, Johnson began to churn out sly, exaggerated stories that cast the European project as bureaucratically insane. Snails were to be designated as fish, he wrote. Berlaymont, the European Commission’s headquarters, was to be blown up. Condom sizes were to be standardized. “The E.C. has dismissed Italian plans for a maximum condom width of fifty-four millimetres,” Johnson reported in the Telegraph on May 8, 1991. “M Willy Helin, spokesman for the commission’s industrial standards division, said: ‘This is a very serious business.’ ”
Johnson’s stories caused a sensation. His British rivals were ordered to find and replicate them, which they failed to do, because there was rarely anything there. He was a figure, almost, of self-parody. He drove a battered red sports car. His clothes had holes in them. He turned up late at press conferences and spoke deliberately bad French. European officials had no idea what to do with him. “We answer his attacks,” one said. “But the problem is that our answers are not funny.” On one occasion, as Johnson made yet another grand, dishevelled appearance at a news briefing, a French reporter asked, “Qui est ce monstre?” Johnson rapidly became a darling of the Conservative Party’s Euroskeptic right, and a favorite of Margaret Thatcher’s. “Everything I wrote from Brussels I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England,” Johnson told the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” in 2005. “It really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”
It is hard not to discern a psychological motive in Johnson’s assault on the E.U. machine. As his siblings have pointed out, Brussels had been a deeply unhappy place for him as a child. The Johnsons had lived in a big house in the suburbs, next to a forest. According to Purnell, Rachel Johnson, Boris’s younger sister and also a prominent journalist, has compared life at the time to “The Ice Storm,” the Rick Moody novel about a disintegrating family. “There was the same bleakness, the disconnection,” she has said. Stanley had affairs, and the marriage slowly fell apart. When Johnson was ten, his mother, Charlotte, suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized for nine months. Boris and Rachel were sent to boarding school. When Johnson came back to Brussels, he had a wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, whom he had met at Oxford. The couple lived in an unprepossessing apartment above a dentist named Goris. Johnson disappeared into his work at the Telegraph. “I used to get the paper—yesterday’s news—and there’s his byline in fucking Zagreb,” Mostyn-Owen later recalled. “You get past caring and you start drinking malt whisky.” Mostyn-Owen feared that she would crack up, as Johnson’s mother had. (The couple divorced in 1992; Johnson married his second wife, Marina Wheeler, whom he had known as a child in Brussels, twelve days later.) In the Telegraph’s offices, which overlooked an elegant square, Johnson would lock his door and shout obscenities to himself, while he worked himself up to write each story. “This bizarre ritual, to those who witnessed it, was an insight into the torrent of focus and drive that lies beneath Boris’s affable exterior,” Purnell writes.
In 1994, Johnson was recalled to become the Telegraph’s chief political columnist. He was a newspaper star. But his reporting was no longer credible. “He was by then a caricature, and he had to go,” James Landale, then a reporter at the Times of London, who is now the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, told Purnell. To mark Johnson’s departure from Brussels, Landale wrote a poem, based on Hilaire Belloc’s “Matilda,” in which “Boris told such dreadful lies / It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.” When Johnson returned to London, he confessed to an editorial writer at the Telegraph that he had no political opinions. “You must have some,” the colleague reassured him. “Well, I’m against Europe and against capital punishment,” Johnson said. “I’m sure you’ll make something out of that,” came the reply.
To the British public, Johnson is an immediately recognizable figure in the culture. He is Bertie Wooster. His hair is a mess. He falls into ponds. You can find yourself feeling sympathetic toward him, because of an intimation of vulnerability and a sense that he is fundamentally unserious. “Boris has the capacity to lose his way in a sentence, like a child in a nativity play. You want him to succeed, and when he does you share in his triumph,” Michael Gove, Johnson’s old friend from Oxford, fellow-Brexiteer, and political rival, has said. In “Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson,” Andrew Gimson, a former colleague of Johnson’s, describes his ability—which is almost unique among contemporary British politicians—to cheer people up. “While many politicians have the urge to perfect society, Boris believes in the imperfectability of mankind, and especially of himself,” Gimson writes. (The biography was published in 2006 and updated in 2016.) “He does not seek to attain impossibly high standards, nor does he impose them on others.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson is not as English as he seems. He was born in New York. His electric-blond hair is an inheritance from his great-grandfather Ali Kemal, an outspoken journalist from northwest Turkey, who served as Interior Minister in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. In 1909, Kemal’s first wife, Winifred Johnson, died in childbirth in England, leaving two children to be raised by her mother. Johnson’s grandfather Osman, who was known as Wilfred, left school at thirteen and went to seek his fortune as a farmer in Egypt. During the Second World War, Wilfred flew for the Royal Air Force and crashed a plane while trying to do a trick for his wife, a minor European aristocrat named Irène Williams, who was watching from the ground. Wilfred was badly hurt. “This was later spoken of by the family as a great joke,” Gimson writes.
Boris Johnson’s upbringing was privileged but contingent. Stanley moved jobs. His mother was fragile. It was important to win but vulgar to prepare. Performing plays at Eton, Johnson delighted the other boys by forgetting his lines. Once, when playing Shakespeare’s Richard III, he pasted pages of the script to pillars in the school’s cloisters and spent the performance running between them. He was slapdash and constantly late, and awaited a great future. “I think he honestly believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” Johnson’s housemaster, Martin Hammond, wrote in the spring of 1982, when Johnson was seventeen. Despite his fecklessness, Johnson expected to be made the Captain of School, the head of the scholars’ house at Eton, and duly was. He looked the part. He sang the hymns. “In an odd way, he likes an ordered world, not a random world,” Hammond told Gimson. “Boris was not a rebel at all. He was a fully signed up member of the tribe.”
It was the same at Oxford, where Johnson joined the Bullingdon Club, the university’s most exclusive all-male dining club, and sought the presidency of the Oxford Union, its debating society. Johnson was brilliant on his feet. Anything could be played for laughs. Johnson became the union president by pretending to support the Social Democratic Party, which was fashionable at the time, and switching to the Conservatives when he got the job. Frank Luntz, an American pollster, was a contemporary, and he warned Johnson not to do it. “This is a very small country and it’s not right,” Luntz said. “It will come back to haunt you.” But it didn’t, because—who cares? In 1988, Johnson contributed a chapter on student politics to “The Oxford Myth,” a book of essays edited by his sister, in which he emphasized the importance of cultivating adoring followers. “The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge,” Johnson wrote. In 2003, as an actual politician, Johnson disavowed this insight into his behavior as a young man: “I think my essay remains the locus classicus of the English genre of bogus self-deprecation.”
This is the Johnsonian way. The lies, the performative phrases, the layers of persona—they accrete, one on top of another, flecked here and there with Latin, until everyone has forgotten what the big deal was. In Brussels, Johnson confined himself to dodgy journalism. When he returned to London, he brought the same approach to jobs, extramarital affairs, and political stances. In 1999, Johnson became the editor of The Spectator, a witty, right-wing magazine that is traditionally close to the Conservative Party. The magazine was owned by the news magnate Conrad Black, who would call Johnson and ask him how it was going. Johnson would say that he was trying to turn the magazine into a cookie. “ ‘An opening of solid meal followed suddenly and dramatically by a chocolate taste explosion,’ ” Black recounted to Gimson. “It’s all rubbish, but it’s imaginative.”
In 2001, at the age of thirty-six, Johnson was elected a Member of Parliament for Henley, a safe Conservative seat in Oxfordshire. When he came under pressure to resign from The Spectator, because of the conflict of interest, he demurred, and coined what has become his best-known political aphorism: “I want to have my cake and eat it.” Johnson hates choosing between things, even right and wrong. In 2003, Lynn Barber, of the Observer, asked Johnson what principles he would be prepared to resign over. “I’m a bit of an optimist so it doesn’t tend to occur to me to resign,” he replied. “I tend to think of a way of Sellotaping everything together and quietly finding a way through, if I can.”
This quality makes for a radically self-dramatizing conception of politics. The public good does not fascinate Johnson. His heroes are Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, two other former journalists and somewhat errant outsiders, who became Conservative Prime Ministers. “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole,” Disraeli said, on reaching Downing Street. Johnson, likewise, imagines politics as a necessarily upward ascent, a winner-take-all spectacle in which his participation is not questioned. In his “Desert Island Discs” interview, Johnson was asked about his ambition by Sue Lawley, the host. “My silicon chip, my ambition silicon chip, has been programmed to try and scrabble my way up this cursus honorum, this ladder of things. . . . I think British society is designed like that.”
The chase is everything. In 1987, when Johnson married Mostyn-Owen, who was generally considered the most beautiful woman at Oxford, he had to borrow a friend’s dress pants and cufflinks for the church service, and lost his wedding ring at the reception. (Stanley never wore one.) During his speech, Johnson misquoted P. G. Wodehouse and was heckled by a guest who had arrived by helicopter. “Good chap,” Johnson hollered back. “Give the man a coconut.” Mostyn-Owen later described her wedding as “the end of the relationship instead of the beginning.”
In 2008, Johnson became mayor of London, after fighting a disciplined campaign against Ken Livingstone, the Labour incumbent. Johnson had barely any policies and virtually no staff. “Boris is a curious guy,” Nick Boles, a former Conservative M.P., who advised Johnson at the time, has said. “There are no Johnsonites.” When the brand is a personality, it is hard to play a supporting role. In his first months in office, Johnson was drawn to the idea of being a “chairman mayor,” with a deputy who would actually do the job, and he appointed Tim Parker, a business-turnaround specialist, to run the show. (Johnson kept his weekly column at the Telegraph, for which he was paid two hundred and fifty thousand pounds a year.) But the experiment failed after a few months. Johnson ran City Hall much as he ran The Spectator—in a chaotic, idiosyncratic fashion, in which things sort of, well, just happened. “Boris is surrounded by people who are seeking to advance their own careers rather than his vision but he doesn’t seem to mind and we’re not clear what his vision is anyway,” one official told Purnell.
To Johnson’s credit, nothing went disastrously wrong during his eight years as mayor. In August, 2011, when the city erupted in a long weekend of rioting over a police killing in North London, he was on a family vacation in Canada, and took three days to return. But when he was criticized by a crowd in Clapham, where shops had been looted, he salvaged the situation by grabbing a broom, as if to join the cleanup effort. The boos turned to applause. Compared with Livingstone, however, Johnson left scarcely a mark on the city. Livingstone, who was London’s first elected mayor, introduced the congestion charge and the Oyster card (for using the Underground), added six thousand police officers, and won government funding for Crossrail, an eighteen-billion-pound Underground line that will open in 2021. Johnson’s legacy is a handful of toys: the city’s popular bike scheme, which was conceived before he took office; a cable car over the Thames; the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a tower/sculpture/slide in the Olympic park, in east London; and retro, double-decker buses that are unbearably hot in the summer. He is drawn to fantastical objects rather than to practicable policies. For years, as mayor, Johnson dreamed of a new airport in the marshes of the Thames, “Boris Island.” Since Brexit, he likes to talk about building a twenty-two-mile bridge over the English Channel to France.
The abiding image of Johnson as mayor comes from the 2012 Olympic Games, which were awarded during Livingstone’s tenure. As he rode a zip line into Victoria Park, as a promotional stunt, he gradually slowed to a halt. He remained stuck there, carrying two small Union Jack flags. The mishap did not harm him in the least. In “Political Sport and the Sport of Politics: A Psycho-Cultural Study of Play, the Antics of Boris Johnson and the London 2012 Olympic Games,” from 2014, Candida Yates, a professor of culture and communication at Bournemouth University, identifies Johnson as a politician who often seems to subvert the existing order but whose persona—quintessentially English, amateur and clownlike—serves only to reinforce it. “Johnson’s political identity is slippery,” Yates writes. He makes people in power, including himself, appear ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean he would dream of handing power to anybody else. He is a fully signed-up member of the tribe. Among British voters, Yates argues, Johnson’s gift is “to associate himself with the fantasy of ‘home’ as being located within an earlier, less complicated and secure pre-globalised age of flag-waving street parties, community sport and class difference.”
Brexit is the ultimate fantasy of home. On February 21, 2016, Johnson announced that he would be arguing for Britain to leave the European Union. At the time—four months before the referendum—the Brexit campaign still didn’t have a unified, formal organization and was badly outgunned by “Stronger In,” the government-backed Remain campaign. According to “All Out War,” the first part of Tim Shipman’s breathless, comprehensive, multivolume account of British politics since 2016, Johnson drafted three opinion articles—two for leaving, one for staying—in order to make up his mind. His first draft contained six hundred words about traffic regulations. A few hours before he declared his decision, he texted David Cameron, the Prime Minister, who had been two years below him at Eton. Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, Johnson predicted that “Brexit will be crushed like the toad beneath the harrow.” Dozens of reporters had gathered outside his house. “After thirty years of writing about this . . . I have a chance actually to do something,” Johnson told the scrum. “I will be advocating vote leave—or whatever the team is called, I understand there are many of them—because I want a better deal for the people of this country.” He described his chaotic announcement later as “an imperial goatfuck.”
At first, Johnson promised that he would not take a high-profile role in the Brexit campaign—or criticize Conservatives who were backing Remain—but that pledge lasted only a few days. The referendum debate was made for him. It pitched the government, which was boring, cautious, and cognizant of the flaws in Britain’s relationship with the E.U., against the Brexiteers, whose very name carried a whiff of japes and derring-do. While Cameron and his loyal ministers presented fact sheets warning of the economic and political risks of Brexit, Johnson and the gang toured the country in a bright-red bus, waving asparagus (to promote British farming) and promising to return three hundred and fifty million pounds a week to the National Health Service, which was a lie.
Like the E.E.C. officials in Brussels twenty-five years earlier, the Remain campaign found Johnson impossible to counter. “Boris Johnson is Mr Teflon,” a staffer wrote in a memo, about a month before the vote. “Almost all respondents find him funny and entertaining; some take him seriously, some don’t; but all of them discount his blunders and gaffs with ‘but that’s Boris.’ He’s seen as quite fake, but cleverly so.”
The jolly feel around Johnson enables him to air sinister ideas and dodge the consequences. When Barack Obama told reporters that Brexit would hurt the U.K.’s trading prospects, Johnson wrote a column referring to “the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” (Johnson has also written of “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” with their “watermelon smiles,” in Africa, and described Muslim women wearing niqabs as “letter boxes.”) At a climactic TV debate between Leave and Remain figures, on the last day of the campaign, Johnson adopted a line—previously used by Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party and now the Brexit Party leader—describing the day of the referendum as Britain’s independence day, a nationalist slogan that brought the house down.
On the morning of June 24, 2016, after the result had become clear, Cameron resigned. Johnson and Gove, the two most high-profile Conservative Brexiteers, appeared at a news conference, looking terrified. Johnson was expected to be installed in Downing Street within weeks. But, not for the first time, when he was confronted with something that he desperately wanted, Johnson lost focus. The day after the most momentous event in British politics for several decades, Johnson went to the countryside to play cricket with the ninth Earl of Spencer. The next day, he hosted a barbecue.
Johnson and Gove paired up to form what was known, very briefly, as the “Dream Team,” to lead a new, pro-Brexit government. The pact lasted six days. The afternoon before Johnson was due to launch his campaign to become Prime Minister, he still hadn’t written a speech. Boles, the M.P. who had advised Johnson when he became mayor in 2008, remembers finding him surrounded by a few lines jotted on scraps of paper. “Johnson was proud of his writing skills, his way with words,” Shipman writes. “And in his hour of maximum exposure they appeared to be failing him.” Johnson told Boles, “I’ve got nothing.” Gove ran to become Prime Minister himself. Johnson withdrew from the contest before it began.
The implosion of the Dream Team opened the way for Theresa May to become Prime Minister. To Johnson’s great surprise—and to everybody else’s—May chose him as her Foreign Secretary. (“What next, Dracula as health minister?” a spokesman for Germany’s Social Democratic Party asked.) At the age of fifty-two, Johnson was appointed to one of Britain’s great offices of state. Given the chance to frame a credible narrative for leaving the E.U., and to influence and improve Britain’s relationships with its neighbors in Europe and around the world, Johnson did none of those things. It is true that he was impeded by May’s close control of Brexit from Downing Street. It is also true that Johnson’s sole contribution to the conversation about the difficult trade-offs involved in Britain’s most important political challenge since the Second World War has been a reheating of his two-decade-old adage: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”
Johnson’s spell as Foreign Secretary was punctuated by moments of idiocy. In January, 2017, inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine in Myanmar, a microphone picked up his muttered recital of a colonial-era poem (Kipling again), before the British Ambassador stopped him. That November, Johnson said that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran since 2016 on spying charges, had been teaching journalism in the country, when her family insists that she was merely on vacation. Johnson’s mistake was seized on by Iranian officials; Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still in prison.
“Inside the Foreign Office,” a BBC documentary series that premièred last November, captured Johnson as a distracted, agenda-free buffoon. “We got the nice one, rather than extraordinary rendition,” Johnson says, as he and his team board a British government jet bound for Portugal. “Why are they trying to shaft us?” he asks of the French, during the Brexit negotiations. “Do they want more money?” In July, 2018, after May revealed the shape of her planned compromise with the E.U., Johnson left the government. The Brexit dream, he wrote in his resignation letter, “is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
Last month, Johnson was the first candidate to enter the race to succeed May. Whoever replaces her as the Conservative Party leader will automatically become Prime Minister. As of this writing, there are ten Tory M.P.s in the contest. Their fellow-M.P.s will choose the final two, who will then seek the votes of the hundred and sixty thousand mainly white, mainly older, fervently pro-Brexit Conservative members around the country. Johnson, who has promised to take Britain out of the E.U. on October 31st this year, with or without a deal, is the overwhelming favorite. He has had a haircut and is in modest, on-script campaigning mode. Of course, he could still fail to become Prime Minister. His self-belief is matched only by his capacity for self-sabotage. Until this moment, Johnson’s life and career have been a kind of monument to wishful thinking—of ridiculous expectations shockingly fulfilled. Brexit is much the same. “I’ve got nothing,” Johnson said. Britain is about to find out what nothing means. ♦