LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II’s very first prime minister was the nation’s wartime hero Sir Winston Churchill. After a ceremonial “kiss of hands on appointment” at Buckingham Palace, the 14th premier of her long reign is now Boris Johnson.
With Brexit still unresolved and undelivered, Britain is facing its biggest domestic and international upheaval since 1945. And the main question, at home and abroad, is whether Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is up to the task.
But what is he really like, and how will his government be different from that of predecessor Theresa May?
For those overseas who don’t yet know Johnson, the easy shorthand is that he is “Trump with better jokes — and bigger brains.”
The U.S. president certainly likes him and his brand of populist, disruptive politics. In a rally in Washington this week, Trump said: “He’s a good man, he’s tough and he’s smart. They call him ‘Britain Trump’.”
In fact, when Johnson was in New York City a few years ago, surrounded by a scrum of photographers trying to take his picture, he spotted a girl walking towards him. Fascinated by the scene, she stopped and he heard her utter the crushing line: “Gee, is that Trump?”
That case of mistaken identity near Central Park didn’t happen just once, it happened three times on Johnson’s trip.
Trump and Johnson have so much in common— physically, politically, temperamentally— that it’s not difficult to see why they would get on famously, or why the American public may get them confused.
Their superficial similarities are obvious, not least the fact that both have almost comical, blond hair that has become their trademark. Both were born in New York, Trump in Queens and Johnson in Manhattan.
The pair share a talent for self-promotion, and for turning their celebrity into raw political impact, in a way that repels and fascinates in almost equal measure.
Andrew Gimson, author of the biography “Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson,” says that the former Mayor of London and foreign secretary has a connection with Trump that few British politicians can achieve.
“There’s a reason why Trump has got where he is: he’s a great performer, always putting on a show of some sort. Boris too is a performer, he wants to amuse people, be interesting. They would recognize they are similar people in that sense,” Gimson says.
“Another connection is that they both gain from being despised by and from annoying a lot of smart, metropolitan people and that really shows their supporters they must be doing something right. Annoying stuck-up, liberal hypocrites is a kind of revenge for them.
“They are anti-establishment disrupters, they shock the so-called grown-up people who think politics has to be done in a very solemn way, that you couldn’t ever announce anything in a tweet. Neither Boris nor Trump are dull.”
There’s a reason why Trump has got where he is: he’s a great performer, always putting on a show of some sort. Boris too is a performer, he wants to amuse people, be interesting. They would recognize they are similar people in that sense. Andrew Gimson, author of ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’
There is artifice in their art too. Trump trades on the contrived reality TV image of a successful businessman, even though many of his commercial ventures have turned into epic failures.
Johnson has also spent years carefully crafting his public “persona” of a bumbling, disheveled gaffe-prone innocent, when in reality he is a ferociously ambitious and competitive individual.
The act, which began during his Oxford student days, has endeared him to many Tory party activists, many of whom think he has a rare gift for putting a smile on their faces. His trademark ruffling of his messy hair was as familiar as his risque jokes and rhetorical flamboyance.
But those who have followed him for years have spotted just how manufactured the performance really is. Sonia Purnell, author of another biography “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition”, worked with Johnson when they were journalists in Brussels in the early 1990s.
“He’s a great actor, he’s a showman. The whole ruffling the hair thing was about making sure he didn’t seem too ambitious. The ‘gaffes’ weren’t really gaffes, they were scripted,” Purnell says.
Once, during the Conservative party conference in 2007, guest speaker Arnold Schwarzenegger was waiting to come on stage as he heard Johnson speak. “He’s fumbling all over the place,” the Hollywood actor said, sotto voce, although a mic picked up his remark.
He’s a great actor, he’s a showman. The whole ruffling the hair thing was about making sure he didn’t seem too ambitious. The ‘gaffes’ weren’t really gaffes, they were scripted. Sonia Purnell, author of ‘Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition’
But as Purnell points out, Arnie was just another fooled by the Johnson act. “The rambling was written into his speeches,” Purnell says. “It was carefully rehearsed and he would ramble in exactly the same way the next day, to another audience.”
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Boris Johnson’s desire to be funny, or provocative, has often returned to haunt him. His previous columns as a journalist have caused outrage among his critics, not least when he veered into racial slurs.
In one Daily Telegraph column, he joked about “flag-waving piccaninnies” greeting the Queen abroad, adding that when Congolese armed fighters meet Tony Blair they “will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.” Johnson has since apologized, but his friends argue that his irony and sarcasm is taken too literally.
When HuffPost UK asked black Britons for their verdict on all this in June, it wasn’t favorable. Kwame Anthony, 45, said he doesn’t follow politics but he has heard of Johnson.
“The first thing that comes to my mind when you said the word ‘piccaninnies’ is slavery. Immediately. It’s a nasty word and any white person who uses it obviously thinks that black people are less than them. Otherwise, why would they use it?”
Tyrone Stewart, 68, said the phrases “reek of empire,” and that Johnson’s use of them “speaks volumes about his position on black people.”
“In Jamaica, we use the term ‘pickney’ to refer to our children and it’s derived from ‘piccaninny’ which, of course, has racist connotations. So, coming from Boris Johnson, and the context that he used it in, is offensive.
“Johnson’s reference [to watermelons] is similar to the golliwogs that we used to see on the Robertson’s jam jars, back in the day. It’s the same sort of thing.”
We thought we’d hit the bottom - no we haven’t: Boris Johnson is the bottom. He is our Donald Trump along with Nigel Farage, who he will bring along. We are in a Trumpian world, now. God, we have to do something about that! George Brown, 58
On another occasion, writing ahead of Barack Obama’s visit to the UK ahead of the Brexit vote, Johnson described Obama as a “part-Kenyan president.” He claimed Obama removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House in 2008 showed he was uninterested in the U.K.-U.S. relationship.
“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” his column in The Sun newspaper read.
Stewart, who owns a shop on a South London high street, told us that Johnson referring to Obama as Kenyan wasn’t, in and of itself, racist, “although we know what he meant.”
Londoner Angela Watson added that the term piccaninny evoked feelings of disappointment and sadness, more than anything else. “If someone walked up to me in the street and called me that word, I would ask them who they are talking to. It’s unacceptable.”
Alwin, who was sitting in a cafe added: “If Boris Johnson can refer to black people in such a dehumanizing way, openly and without challenge, yet be headed for Downing Street...what does that tell you about where we are? Politicians should be held to account but they’re not.
“Watermelon smiles? It tells me that, as a black man, I am inferior. But I am not. This just proves that we have a long way to go in achieving equality in this country.”
George Brown, 58, told us he thinks Boris Johnson is a “self-centered charlatan.”
“We thought we’d hit the bottom - no we haven’t: Boris Johnson is the bottom. He is our Donald Trump along with Nigel Farage, who he will bring along. We are in a Trumpian world, now. God, we have to do something about that!”
Critics of Johnson certainly pounced when Trump grouped him, via a retweet of a message by white nationalist activist Katie Hopkins, with hard-right leaders across the globe.
“Trump in the White House, Boris in Number 10, Netanyahu building Israel, Bolsanaro, Salvini, Orban, Kaczyński, & the Right Minded bringing strength in depth,” the tweet read.
That kind of comparison spooks many moderate Conservatives who have lent Johnson their support, in the hope that he will be the center-ground modernizer who managed to twice win the Mayoralty of London in what is traditionally a ‘Labour city.’
Cabinet minister Matt Hancock, who dropped his own leadership campaign to back Johnson, is quick to spot the danger of being too closely yoked to Trump.
“On this point about ‘Britain Trump’, Boris Johnson’s politics are essentially a progressive, modernizing One Nation Conservative politics. Look at what he did in London,” he said.
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Still, there’s no question that Johnson and Trump revel in their ability to shock and see political incorrectness as a weapon to fuel the populist surge that thrust them both into prominence. In Trump’s case it led to him becoming president, in Johnson’s case it helped him lead the Brexit uprising in 2016.
That willingness to be rude to opponents, including those in big business, is a hallmark of both. While the president ignores corporate America’s fears of a trade war with China, his British friend exploits a similar disconnect between the ‘working man’ and those who fear his politics leads to economic chaos.
At a private reception to mark the Queen’s birthday, Johnson was asked about employers’ fears that leaving the European Union could damage British jobs in the car-making and aviation industries. “Fuck business,” he replied. His opponents have tried to hang the quote around his neck ever since, including in the Tory leadership race, but he appears to wear it as a badge of pride.
For Trump and Johnson, the guiding rule seems to be Oscar Wilde’s famous line that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Narcissism in politics is hardly a rare quality, but both have taken it to a new level.
Much more damaging than the naked self-regard is a perception that both men don’t just dissemble like other politicians, they actually lie. Trump’s lies are so well documented that the New York Times catalogued every one of them in 2017 (he said something untrue every day for the first 40 days of his presidency).
Johnson’s “big lie” is that he said voting for Brexit would result in £350 million ($430 million) a week extra in funding for the NHS, based on the inaccurate claim that the UK “sends” that sum to the EU. The claim, posted on his Vote Leave campaign battlebus, has now landed Johnson in court facing charges of “misconduct in public office.”
The former foreign secretary’s previous lies have led to two significant sackings in his career. He was fired from The Times newspaper for inventing a quote while working in Brussels.
He was later sacked as a shadow minister by then Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about having an affair while married. Johnson had described tabloid reports as an “inverted pyramid of piffle,” but when Howard discovered the MP had been “less than frank” he summarily dismissed him.
And when it comes to women, the similarity with Trump is notable. Although Johnson has never harassed or assaulted any of his partners, he is certainly “sexually incontinent,” as one former aide put it. Petronella Wyatt, whose love affair led to his removal from Howard’s team, said that Johnson once told her: “I find it genuinely unreasonable that men should be confined to one woman.”
Like Trump, his marital infidelity has not affected his base of supporters. Stories of “bonking Boris” abound, but unsurprisingly Trump plays down Johnson’s philandering. “Well, it always matters, but I think that it’s certainly not what it was 20 years ago, and not certainly what it was 50 years ago. I think today it matters much less,” he told The Sun tabloid.
Although Johnson has never harassed or assaulted any of his partners, he is certainly “sexually incontinent,” as one former aide put it.
Never comfortable with powerful women, Trump may well prefer the macho, “best bloke” mateyness a Johnson premiership offers.
There are undoubtedly some big differences between the pair, not least their intellect and education. While Trump has an infamous problem with remembering simple names of people and places, Johnson has an incredibly sharp memory, and can recall whole passages of conversation between himself and others he met years earlier.
He can recite whole scenes from movies (“Apocalypse Now” is a particular favorite), sing in German and joke in French.
It won’t be long before Johnson reminds everyone that he was a New Yorker, born if not bred. In recent years, he renounced his American citizenship, amid fears of double taxation.
But prior to that, he once appeared on the David Letterman show and couldn’t resist reaching for the sky. “I suppose I could be president of the United States,” he said. “You know, technically speaking.”
He and Trump will want the last laugh. Yet already for millions, the joke isn’t funny any more.
The “KS” was a reference to “King’s Scholar,” the elite within the elite of England’s famed Eton College where both men had been educated, just like previous prime ministers Robert Walpole and Harold Macmillan. But while Johnson had merited a scholarship, Cameron had not.
The joke was that if everything went wrong after the Tory leader entered No.10, a certain Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was ready and willing to step in and sort things out.
Former communications chief at London’s City Hall, Guto Harri, says that the criticism of Johnson as a politician who lacks detail is wide of the mark.
“He’s a big-picture man. Like the journalist he is, he will go to the executive summary and find the critical nugget straight away. You see the wood from the trees whereas Gordon Brown and Theresa May are looking at the twigs on the branches,” he says.
“But he can get very micro if he feels he needs to. In Transport for London meetings, he would get stuck into why can’t we move that traffic light on the corner of X street. He loved those artificial models for planning, where are the doors facing, can you get more outside space, can you squeeze a few more trees in. He got into quite a lot of detail.
“On crime, he’d say ‘why could somebody be stabbed in Tottenham last night, where were they, how could the police be within five minutes of where they were stabbed and not get there in 10 minutes’, that kind of stuff.”
Harri adds that Johnson was prepared to get his way too. “The key thing for Boris is this natural journalist’s thing of healthy skepticism. The average politician says I want to do this and the official says well it can’t be done, it’s too expensive of complicated. And they go ‘OK what a shame.’
“Boris says ‘why can’t it be done?’ That bloody mindedness is why he got a lot done. The advice would be ‘stop and search would help but it’s politically unpalatable’ and he’d say ‘not with me it ain’t’. He ramped it up and two years later there was a 40% drop in violent crime.”
But others stress that while the eight years running London forged long-lasting alliances, its real significance lay in the way Johnson worked.
“It’s actually about that model of governance. He’s very good at setting the tone and then letting people get on with their jobs,” one ally says.
“We need to give him the best platform to be a success, not just for him, but primarily because we’ve got a fucking crisis and we want it sorted.”
We need to give him the best platform to be a success, not just for him, but primarily because we’ve got a fucking crisis and we want it sorted.
One former aide says that Johnson’s almost photographic memory and ability to absorb a complex brief quickly are talents that contrast with his public image as a bumbling politician.
“The thing people don’t seem to understand with him is there’s a very big brain but it works in a different way to other people.
“You can literally plonk something in front of him five minutes before he’s due to meet somebody, five pages, and boom it’s in every single detail. Someone will walk through the door and he will regurgitate a fact about them. He was very good at that.
“He’s not a dot the ‘i’, cross the ‘t’ man. He will absorb the facts, set the tone and direction and expect you to get on with it.”
But for those who want a clue to what a Johnson premiership will feel like behind the scenes, one former official says that he also expects results to come with the autonomy he grants his staff.
“The key thing about the way he operates and I think he’ll do the same at No.10: he will expect you to do it but God you will know if you are not doing it.
“He would say something at a TfL [Transport for London] meeting on a Thursday and if he hadn’t heard back by the Monday, he would be on the phone or he would be texting ‘what the hell is going on?’ If you do deliver, he’s brilliant at encouraging and showering praise, but he is a driver from behind the scenes.
“He’s very consensual, will ask pertinent questions and takes a considered view based on the advice of others. But then he will say ‘right, this is what we are going to do.’ He will have heard all the arguments, he may not agree with you, but he’s considered what you’ve said and then expects you to enforce what he wants.”
In his relations with the EU, Johnson certainly won’t be consensual, and everyone in Westminster is assuming he will put down some markers to warn Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron that he is serious about his no-deal threat.
It’s unclear whether Johnson’s new style of leadership will win round his Conservative colleagues and persuade them to back a Brexit deal that May just couldn’t get through the British parliament.
European capitals will be watching closely for his first few days in office to check whether he really is bluffing about pulling the UK out of the EU “do or die” on October 31. But the rest of the world, not least Washington, will be watching too.
With files from Nadine White