Boris Johnson (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson) born 19 June 1964, a British politician, journalist, and popular historian who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015, having been the MP for Henley from 2001 to 2008. He was Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, and from 2016 to 2018 he served as Foreign Secretary. A member of the Conservative Party, Johnson identifies as a one-nation conservative and has been associated with both economically and socially liberal policies. Johnson is a candidate for leader of the Conservative Party, and thus Prime Minister, in the 2019 leadership contest.
Born in New York City to wealthy upper-middle class British parents, Johnson was educated at the European School, Brussels I, Ashdown House, and Eton College. He read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1986. He began his career in journalism at The Times, but was sacked for falsifying a quotation. He later became The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, with his articles exerting a strong influence on the growing Eurosceptic sentiment among the British right-wing. He was eventually made assistant editor of the Telegraph in 1994. In 1999, he left the Telegraph to become editor of The Spectator, a role he would hold until 2005.
He was elected MP for Henley in 2001, and largely adhered to the Conservatives’ party line during his first period in Parliament. He did, however, adopt a more socially liberal stance on issues like LGBT rights. He was later selected to be the Conservative candidate for the 2008 London mayoral election; Johnson defeated Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone in the election, and subsequently resigned his seat in the House of Commons. During his first term as Mayor of London, he banned alcohol consumption on the city’s public transport, and introduced the New Routemaster buses, cycle hire scheme, and Thames cable car. In 2012, he was re-elected Mayor, again defeating Livingstone. During his second term he oversaw the 2012 Olympics. In 2015, he returned to Parliament as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, stepping down as Mayor the following year. In 2016, Johnson was a prominent figure in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, becoming a leading figure in the successful Vote Leave campaign. He later declined to run in the party leadership election immediately following the referendum, despite speculation that he would. After Theresa May won the leadership, she appointed Johnson Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. He served in this position for two years, before resigning in protest at May’s approach to Brexit, criticising the Chequers Agreement.
Johnson is a controversial figure within British politics and journalism. Supporters have praised him as an entertaining, humorous, and popular figure, with an appeal stretching beyond traditional Conservative voters. Conversely, he has been criticised by figures on both the left and the right, who have accused him of elitism, cronyism, dishonesty, laziness, and using racist and homophobic language. Johnson is the subject of several biographies and a number of fictionalised portrayals.
Boris Johnson Quick Facts
- Birth date: June 19, 1964
- Birth place: New York, New York
- Birth name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson
- Father: Stanley Johnson, environmentalist, writer, former politician
- Mother: Charlotte Johnson Wahl, painter
- Marriages: Marina Wheeler (1993-present, separated); Allegra Mostyn-Owen (1987-1993, divorced)
- Children: with Marina Wheeler: Lara, Milo, Cassia and Theodore; with Helen Macintyre: Stephanie
- Education: Balliol College, University of Oxford, B.A., 1987
- Johnson is in a relationship with Carrie Symonds, a former communications official for the Conservative Party.
- Brother Jo Johnson is also a Conservative politician.
- Johnson was the fourth prime minister to study at Balliol College. The other three were H.H. Asquith, Edward Heath, and Harold Macmillan.
- Johnson has written books on politics, history and British culture, such as “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History” and “The Dream of Rome.”
- 1973 – The Johnson family moves to Belgium.
- 1987 – Becomes a trainee reporter for The Times.
- 1988 – Fired from The Times for making up a quote.
- 1989 – Appointed Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
- 1999-2005 – Editor for the weekly magazine The Spectator.
- 2001 – Johnson is elected a member of the House of Commons in Parliament, winning the seat in Henley for the Conservative Party.
- 2003-2004 – Vice chairman of the Conservative Party.
- 2004 – Serves as shadow minister for the arts. Fired over allegations of an affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt.
- December 2005-July 2007 – Serves as the shadow minister for higher education.
- May 2008 – Johnson is elected mayor of London. He is re-elected in 2012.
- August 2012 – Johnson gets stuck on a zip line during a Summer Olympics event in London’s Victoria Park.
- May 2015 – Re-elected to Parliament, representing a seat for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
- July 13, 2016 – Johnson is appointed foreign secretary by Prime Minister Theresa May, and serves for two years.
- February 21, 2016 – Johnson announces he supports the Brexit campaign.
- July 9, 2018 – Johnson resigns as foreign secretary due to his disagreement with May’s approach to Brexit.
- September 2018 – Johnson and Marina Wheeler announce their separation and pending divorce.
- July 23, 2019 – Boris Johnson is elected leader of the United Kingdom’s Conservative party, and will take over for May as prime minister, pending approval of the Queen.
- August 28, 2019 – Queen Elizabeth approves Johnson’s request to suspend UK parliament from mid-September, shortening the time available to lawmakers to block a no-deal Brexit. The news is met with opposition from politicians who denounce it as potentially unconstitutional and undemocratic. In a televised interview, Johnson denies that he was seeking to prevent Parliament from limiting his Brexit plans.
- September 4, 2019 – Johnson suffers a defeat after lawmakers in the House of Commons approve a bill to block a no-deal Brexit., 327 votes to 299. It instructs Johnson to request another Brexit extension if he cannot secure a deal with the European Union by the October 31 deadline. Hours after, the House of Commons dismiss demands for an election, falling short of the required 434 supermajority to pass.
- September 5, 2019 – During a speech in Wakefield, in northern England, Johnson says he’d rather be “dead in the ditch” than ask Europe to delay Brexit. The same day Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, announces he will step down as MP because he is “torn between family loyalty and the national interest.”
- September 25, 2019 – Lawmakers return to work after the UK Supreme Court rules Johnson’s decision to unilaterally suspend Parliament until mid-October — just two weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union — was “unlawful, void and of no effect,” a huge defeat for the prime minister.
- October 17, 2019 – Johnson announces that UK negotiators have struck a Brexit deal with their European counterparts, setting the stage for a vote on the proposal in Parliament.
- October 19, 2019 – UK lawmakers withhold approval of Johnson’s Brexit deal, voting for an amendment to delay ratification. The amendment required Johnson to send a letter requesting an extension from the European Union and Downing Street later confirms the letter was sent.
Who Is Boris Johnson?
Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel Johnson, once said that as a child, he wanted to be “World King” when he grew up. Now one of the most divisive politicians of his generation has fulfilled one lifelong dream to become the United Kingdom’s prime minister. Who is the real Boris Johnson?
Early life and education
Johnson was born to British parents on 19 June 1964 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City. His birth was registered with both the U.S authorities and the city’s British Consulate, thereby granting him both American and British citizenship. His father, Stanley Johnson, was then studying economics at Columbia University.
Johnson’s maternal grandfather was the lawyer Sir James Fawcett. Johnson’s paternal great-grandfather was Circassian-Turkish journalist Ali Kemal who was a secular Muslim; his father’s other ancestry includes English and French, including descent from King George II of Great Britain. Johnson’s mother was Charlotte Fawcett; an artist from a family of liberal intellectuals, she had married Stanley in 1963, prior to their move to the U.S. She is the granddaughter of Elias Avery Lowe, a palaeographer, who was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the U.S., and Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, a translator of Thomas Mann. Johnson’s maternal great-grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew and Orthodox Jewish rabbi. In reference to his varied ancestry, Johnson has described himself as a “one-man melting pot” – with a combination of Muslims, Jews, and Christians as great-grandparents. Johnson was given the middle name “Boris” after a Russian émigré his parents had once met.
Johnson’s parents lived opposite the Chelsea Hotel, although in September 1964 they returned to Britain so that Charlotte could study at the University of Oxford. She lived with her son in Summertown, Oxford, and gave birth to a daughter, Rachel, in 1965. In July 1965, the family moved to Crouch End in North London; in February 1966, they relocated to Washington D.C., where Stanley had gained employment with the World Bank. A third child, Leo, was born in September 1967. Stanley then gained employment with a policy panel on population control, in June moving the family to Norwalk, Connecticut.
In 1969, the family settled into Stanley’s family farm at Nethercote, near Winsford in Exmoor in the west of England. There, Johnson gained his first experiences with fox hunting. Stanley was regularly absent from Nethercote, leaving Johnson to be raised largely by his mother and au pairs. As a child, Johnson was quiet and studious, although he suffered from deafness, resulting in several operations to insert grommets into his ears. He and his siblings were encouraged to engage in high-brow activities from a young age, with high achievement being greatly valued; Johnson’s earliest recorded ambition was to be “world king”. Having few or no friends other than their siblings, the children became very close.
In late 1969 the family relocated to Maida Vale, West London, where Stanley began post-doctoral research at the London School of Economics. In 1970, Charlotte and the children briefly returned to Nethercote, where Johnson was schooled at the Winsford Village School, before returning to London to settle in Primrose Hill, there being educated at Primrose Hill Primary School. In late 1971 another son, Joseph, was born to the family.
After Stanley secured employment at the European Commission, he moved his family in April 1973 to Uccle, Brussels, where Johnson became fluent in French. Charlotte had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised with clinical depression, and Johnson and his siblings were sent to Ashdown House preparatory boarding school in East Sussex in 1975. There he developed a love of rugby and excelled at Ancient Greek and Latin; he was appalled at the teachers’ use of corporal punishment. Meanwhile, Stanley and Charlotte’s relationship broke down in December 1978 and they divorced in 1980. Charlotte moved into a flat in Notting Hill, where her children spent much of their time with her.
Eton and Oxford: 1977–1987
Johnson was awarded a King’s Scholarship to study at Eton College, the elite independent boarding school in Eton, Berkshire. Arriving in the autumn term of 1977, Johnson began using the given name Boris rather than Alex, and developed “the eccentric English persona” for which he would become known. He abandoned his mother’s Catholicism and became an Anglican, joining the Church of England. Although school reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, he was popular and well known at Eton. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper-middle and upper classes; his best friends were Darius Guppy and Charles Spencer, both of whom accompanied him to Oxford University and remained friends into adulthood. Johnson excelled in English and Classics, winning prizes in both, and became secretary of the school debating society, and editor of the school newspaper, The Eton College Chronicle. In late 1981 he was admitted to the Eton Society. Upon finishing his time at Eton, Johnson went on a gap year to Australia, where he taught English and Latin at Timbertop, an Outward Bound-inspired campus of Geelong Grammar, an elite independent boarding school.
Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course based in the study of Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford. Arriving at the university in late 1983, he was one of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who dominated British politics and media in the early 21st century, among them senior Conservative Party members David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Nick Boles. At the university, he played rugby for Balliol, and associated primarily with Old Etonians, joining the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an upper-class drinking society known for vandalism. Johnson entered into a relationship with the aristocrat Allegra Mostyn-Owen and they became engaged while at university.
Johnson was popular and well known at Oxford. With Guppy, he co-edited the university’s satirical magazine Tributary. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union, before campaigning for the position of Union president, losing the election to Neil Sherlock. In 1986, Johnson ran for president again, aided by undergraduate Frank Luntz; his campaign focused on reaching out from his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and downplaying his Conservative connections. Hoping to court their vote, Johnson associated with university groups affiliated with the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Liberal Party. Luntz later alleged that Johnson portrayed himself as an SDP supporter during the campaign, although Johnson claims no recollection of this. Johnson won the election and was appointed president, although his presidency was not seen as particularly distinguished or memorable, and questions were raised regarding his competency and seriousness. Having specialised in the study of ancient literature and classical philosophy, Johnson graduated from Balliol College with an upper second-class degree, but was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.
Boris Johnson Journalism career
The Times and The Daily Telegraph: 1987–1994
Johnson and Mostyn-Owen married in West Felton, Shropshire, in September 1987; Allegra e Boris – a duet for violin and viola – was specially commissioned for the wedding from Hans Werner Henze. After a honeymoon in Egypt they settled in West Kensington, West London. Johnson secured work for a management consultancy company, L.E.K. Consulting, but resigned after a week. Through family connections, in late 1987 he began work as a graduate trainee at The Times. Scandal erupted when Johnson wrote an article on the archaeological discovery of Edward II’s palace for the newspaper. Johnson invented a quote for the article that he falsely claimed came from the historian Colin Lucas, his own godfather. After The Times’ editor Charles Wilson learned of the deception, Johnson was sacked.
Johnson secured employment on the leader-writing desk of The Daily Telegraph, having known its editor, Max Hastings, through his Oxford University presidency. His articles were designed to appeal to the newspaper’s conservative, middle-class, middle-aged “Middle England” readership, and were known for their distinctive literary style, replete with old-fashioned words and phrases, and for regularly referring to the readership as “my friends”. In early 1989, Johnson was appointed to the newspaper’s Brussels bureau to report on the European Commission, remaining in the post until 1994. A strong critic of Commission President Jacques Delors, he established himself as one of the city’s few Eurosceptic journalists. Many of his fellow journalists there were critical of his articles, opining that they often contained untruths designed to discredit the Commission including false claims that the EU were planning to ban prawn cocktail crisps and English sausages, and were to regulate the size of condoms, so called euromyths. Chris Patten later stated that, at that time, Johnson was “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism”.
Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson believed that these articles made Johnson “one of [Euroscepticism’s] most famous exponents”. According to later biographer Sonia Purnell—who was Johnson’s Brussels deputy—he helped make Euroscepticism “an attractive and emotionally resonant cause for the Right”, whereas previously it was associated with the British Left. Johnson’s articles established him as the favourite journalist of the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, although Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was annoyed by Johnson and spent much time attempting to refute his claims. Johnson’s articles exacerbated tensions between the Conservative Party’s Eurosceptic and Europhile factions, tensions which were widely viewed as contributing to the party’s defeat in the 1997 general election. As a result, Johnson earned the mistrust of many party members. His writings were also a key influence on the emergence of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the early 1990s.
In February 1990, Johnson’s wife left him; after several attempts at reconciliation, they divorced in April 1993. He entered a relationship with a childhood friend, Marina Wheeler, who had moved to Brussels in 1990. In May 1993, they married at Horsham, Sussex, and Wheeler gave birth to a daughter soon after. Johnson and his new wife settled in Islington, North London, an area known for its left-liberal intelligentsia. Under the influence of this milieu and his wife, Johnson moved in a more liberal direction on issues like climate change, LGBT rights, and race relations. The couple had three further children in Islington, each given the joint surname of Johnson-Wheeler, who were sent to the local Canonbury Primary School and then private secondary schools. Devoting much time to his children, Johnson wrote a book of verse, Perils of the Pushy Parents – A Cautionary Tale, which was published to largely poor reviews.
Political columnist: 1994–1999
Back in London, Hastings turned down Johnson’s request to become a war reporter, instead promoting him to the position of assistant editor and chief political columnist. Johnson’s column received praise for being ideologically eclectic and distinctively written, and earned him a Commentator of the Year Award at the What the Papers Say awards. He was also accused of bigotry; in one column he used the words “piccannies” and “watermelon smiles” when referring to Africans, and championed European colonialism in Uganda, while in another he referred to gay men as “tank-topped bumboys”.
Contemplating a political career, in 1993 Johnson outlined his desire to stand as a Conservative candidate to be a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in the 1994 European Parliament elections. Although Andrew Mitchell convinced Major not to veto Johnson’s candidacy, Johnson found it impossible to find a constituency. He subsequently turned his attention to obtaining a seat in the UK House of Commons. After being rejected as Conservative candidate for Holborn and St. Pancras, he was selected as the party’s candidate for Clwyd South in North Wales, a Labour Party safe seat. Spending six weeks campaigning, he attained 9,091 votes (23%) in the 1997 general election, losing to the Labour candidate.
Scandal erupted in June 1995 when a recording of a 1990 telephone conversation between Johnson and his friend Darius Guppy was made public. In the conversation, Guppy revealed that his criminal activities were being investigated by News of the World journalist Stuart Collier, and he asked Johnson to provide him with Collier’s private address, seeking to have the latter beaten up. Johnson agreed to supply the information although he expressed concern that he would be associated with the attack. When the phone conversation was published in 1995, Johnson stated that he did not ultimately give the information to Guppy; Hastings reprimanded Johnson but did not sack him.
Johnson was given a regular column in The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph’s sister publication; it attracted mixed reviews and was often thought rushed. In 1999, he was also given a column on new cars in the magazine GQ. His behaviour regularly annoyed his editors; those at GQ were frustrated by the large number of parking fines that Johnson acquired while testing cars for them, while he was consistently late in providing his columns for The Telegraph and The Spectator, forcing many staff to stay late to accommodate him; they related that if they went ahead and published without his work included, he would get angry and shout at them with expletives.
Johnson’s appearance on an April 1998 episode of Have I Got News for You brought him to a far wider audience; emphasising a bumbling upper-class persona, he was viewed as entertaining and invited back on to later episodes, including as a guest presenter. After these, he came to be recognised on the street by the public, and was invited to appear on other television shows, such as Top Gear, Parkinson, Breakfast with Frost, and Question Time.
The Spectator: 1999–2005
In July 1999, Conrad Black—proprietor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator—offered Johnson the editorship of the latter on the condition he abandon his parliamentary aspirations; Johnson agreed. While retaining The Spectator’s traditional right-wing bent, Johnson welcomed contributions from leftist writers and cartoonists. Under Johnson’s editorship, the magazine’s circulation grew by 10% to 62,000 and it began to turn a profit. His editorship also drew criticism; some opined that under him The Spectator avoided serious issues, while colleagues became annoyed that he was regularly absent from the office, meetings, and events. He gained a reputation as a poor political pundit as a result of incorrect political predictions made in the magazine, and was strongly criticised—including by his father-in-law Charles Wheeler—for allowing Spectator columnist Taki Theodoracopulos to publish racist and antisemitic language in the magazine.
Boris Johnson Early political career
MP for Henley: 2001–2008
Following Michael Heseltine’s retirement, Johnson decided to stand as Conservative candidate for Henley, a Conservative safe seat in Oxfordshire. The local Conservative branch were split over Johnson’s candidacy—some thought him amusing and charming; others disliked his flippant attitude and lack of knowledge about the local area—although they did select him. Boosted by his television fame, Johnson stood as the Conservative candidate for the constituency in the 2001 general election, winning with a majority of 8,500 votes. Alongside his Islington home, Johnson bought a farmhouse outside Thame in his new constituency. He regularly attended Henley social events and occasionally wrote for the Henley Standard. His constituency surgeries proved popular, and he joined local campaigns to stop the closure of Townlands Hospital and the local air ambulance.
In Parliament, Johnson was appointed to a standing committee assessing the Proceeds of Crime Bill, although he missed many of its meetings. Despite his credentials as a public speaker, his speeches in the House of Commons were widely deemed lacklustre; Johnson later called them “crap”. In his first four years as MP he attended just over half of the Commons votes; in his second term this declined to 45%. He usually supported the Conservative party line although rebelled against it five times in this period, reflecting a more socially liberal attitude to many colleagues; he voted to repeal Section 28 and supported the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Although initially stating he would not, he voted in support of the government’s plans to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in April 2003 visited occupied Baghdad. In August 2004, he backed unsuccessful impeachment procedures against Prime Minister Tony Blair for “high crimes and misdemeanours” regarding the war, and in December 2006 described the invasion as “a colossal mistake and misadventure”.
Although labelling Johnson “ineffably duplicitous” for breaking his promise not to become an MP, Black decided not to dismiss him because he “helped promote the magazine and raise its circulation”. Johnson remained editor of The Spectator, also writing columns for The Daily Telegraph and GQ, and making television appearances. His 2001 book, Friends, Voters, Countrymen: Jottings on the Stump, recounted that year’s election campaign, while 2003’s Lend Me Your Ears collected together previously published columns and articles. In 2004 his first novel was published; Seventy-Two Virgins: A Comedy of Errors revolved around the life of a Conservative MP and contained various autobiographical elements. Responding to critics who argued that he was juggling too many jobs, he cited Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli as exemplars who combined their political and literary careers. To manage the stress he took up jogging and cycling, and became so well known for the latter that Gimson suggested that he was “perhaps the most famous cyclist in Britain”.
Following William Hague’s resignation as Conservative leader, Johnson backed Kenneth Clarke, regarding Clarke as the only candidate capable of winning a general election. However, Iain Duncan Smith was elected. Johnson had a strained relationship with Duncan Smith, and The Spectator became critical of the latter’s party leadership. Duncan Smith was removed from his position in November 2003 and replaced by Michael Howard; Howard deemed Johnson to be the most popular Conservative politician with the electorate and appointed him vice-chairman of the party, responsible for overseeing its electoral campaign. In his Shadow Cabinet reshuffle of May 2004, Howard appointed Johnson to the position of shadow arts minister. In October, Howard ordered Johnson to publicly apologise in Liverpool for publishing a Spectator article—anonymously written by Simon Heffer—which claimed that the crowds at the Hillsborough disaster had contributed towards the incident and that Liverpudlians had a predilection for reliance on the welfare state.
In November 2004, tabloids revealed that since 2000 Johnson had been having an affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, resulting in two terminated pregnancies. Johnson initially called the claims “piffle”. After the allegations were proven, Howard asked Johnson to resign as vice-chairman and shadow arts minister for publicly lying; when Johnson refused, Howard sacked him from those positions. The scandal was satirised by The Spectator’s theatre critics Toby Young and Lloyd Evans in a play, Who’s the Daddy?, performed at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre in July 2005.
In the 2005 general election, Johnson was re-elected MP for Henley, increasing his majority to 12,793. Labour won the election and Howard stood down as Conservative leader; Johnson backed David Cameron as his successor. After Cameron was selected, he appointed Johnson as the shadow higher education minister, acknowledging his popularity among students. Interested in streamlining university funding, Johnson supported Labour’s proposed top-up fees. In September 2006, his image was used in pro-Conservative “Boris needs you” and “I Love Boris” material during university Freshers’ Week. In 2006, Johnson campaigned to become the Rector of the University of Edinburgh, but his support for top-up fees damaged his campaign and he came third.
In April 2006 he attracted further public attention for rugby-tackling former footballer Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match. In September 2006, Papua New Guinea’s high commission protested after he compared the Conservatives’ frequently changing leadership to cannibalism in Papua New Guinea.
In 2005, The Spectator’s new chief executive, Andrew Neil, dismissed Johnson as editor. To make up for this financial loss, Johnson negotiated with The Daily Telegraph to raise his annual fee from £200,000 to £250,000, averaging at £5,000 per column, each of which took up around an hour and a half of his time. He presented a popular history television show, The Dream of Rome, for production company Tiger Aspect; the show was broadcast in January 2006 and a book followed in February. Through his own production company, he produced a sequel, After Rome, focusing on early Islamic history. As a result of his various activities, in 2007 he earned £540,000, making him the UK’s third-highest-earning MP that year.
Boris Johnson: Mayor of London
Mayoral election: 2007–2008
In March 2007, Johnson proposed standing as Conservative candidate for Mayor of London in the 2008 mayoral election. Most Conservatives did not take him seriously, favouring Nick Boles. However, after Boles withdrew, Johnson gained Cameron’s support, and was endorsed by the London Evening Standard. In July, he announced his candidacy, and in September was selected Conservative candidate after gaining 79% of the vote in a public London-wide primary.
The Conservatives hired election strategist Lynton Crosby to run Johnson’s mayoral campaign, which was primarily funded by sympathisers in London’s financial sector. Johnson’s campaign focused on reducing youth crime, making public transport safer, and replacing the articulated buses with an updated version of the AEC Routemaster. During his campaign, Johnson also advocated the law being flexible for “when cannabis is being used to alleviate severe and chronic pain”. Targeting the Conservative-leaning suburbs of outer London, it capitalised on perceptions that the Labour Mayoralty had neglected them in favour of inner London. His campaign emphasised his popularity, even among those who opposed his policies, with opponents complaining that a common attitude among voters was: “I’m voting for Boris because he is a laugh”.
Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone took Johnson seriously, referring to him as “the most formidable opponent I will face in my political career.” Livingstone’s campaign portrayed Johnson as an out-of-touch toff and bigot, citing racist and homophobic language used in his column; Johnson responded that these quotes had been taken out of context and were meant as satire. Johnson insisted he was not a bigot, declaring: “I’m absolutely 100% anti-racist; I despise and loath racism”. Publicly emphasising his Turkish ancestry, he went contrary to Conservative policy by endorsing an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants. The allegations were exacerbated when the fascist British National Party (BNP) urged supporters to give their second preference votes to Johnson; he responded by “utterly and unreservedly” condemning the BNP. Further controversy arose when Johnson admitted having used cannabis and cocaine as a student.
The May 2008 election saw a turnout of approximately 45%, with Johnson receiving 43.2% and Livingstone 37% of first-preference votes; when second-preference votes were added, Johnson proved victorious with 53.2% to Livingstone’s 46.8%. Johnson benefited from a large voter turnout in Conservative strongholds like Bexley and Bromley. Having secured the largest personal electoral mandate in the UK, he praised Livingstone as a “very considerable public servant” and added that he hoped to “discover a way in which the mayoralty can continue to benefit from your transparent love of London”. He announced his resignation as MP for Henley, generating some anger from Henley party members and constituents who felt abandoned.
First term: 2008–2012
Johnson giving a victory speech in City Hall after being elected Mayor of London
Settling into the City Hall mayoral office, Johnson’s first official engagement was an appearance at the Sikh celebrations for Vaisakhi in Trafalgar Square. Rather than bringing a team of assistants with him to the job as Livingstone had done, Johnson built his team over the following six months. Those in City Hall who were deemed too closely allied to Livingstone’s administration had their employment terminated. Johnson appointed Tim Parker to be first Deputy Mayor, but after Parker began taking increasing control at City Hall and insisted that all staff report directly to him, Johnson sacked him. As a result of these problems, many in the Conservative Party initially distanced themselves from Johnson’s administration, fearing that it would be counter-productive to achieving a Conservative victory in the 2010 general election.
He received criticism during the early weeks of his administration, largely because he was late for two official functions in his first week on the job, and because after three weeks he went on holiday to Turkey. In July 2008 Johnson visited the closing ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, there offending his Chinese hosts with his attire. During the electoral campaign, Johnson had confided to Brian Paddick that he was unsure how he would retain his current lifestyle while relying upon the mayoral salary of £140,000 a year. To resolve this problem, he agreed to continue his Telegraph column alongside his mayoral job, thus earning a further £250,000 a year. His team believed that this would cause controversy, and made him promise to donate a fifth of his Telegraph fee to a charitable cause providing bursaries for students. Johnson resented this, and ultimately did not pay a full fifth. Controversy erupted when he was questioned about his Telegraph fee on BBC’s HARDtalk; here, he referred to the £250,000 as “chicken feed”, something that was widely condemned given that this was roughly 10 times the average yearly wage for a British worker.
During his first administration, Johnson was embroiled in several personal scandals. After moving to a new house in Islington, he built a shed on his balcony without obtaining planning permission; after neighbours complained, he dismantled the shed. The press also accused him of having an affair with Helen Macintyre and of fathering her child, allegations that he did not deny. Controversy was generated when Johnson was accused of warning the MP Damian Green that police were planning to arrest him; Johnson denied the claims and did not face criminal charges under the Criminal Justice Act. He was accused of cronyism, in particular for appointing Veronica Wadley, a former Evening Standard editor who had supported him, as the chair of London’s Arts Council when she was widely regarded as not being the best candidate for the position. He was caught up in the parliamentary expenses scandal and accused of excessive personal spending on taxi journeys. His deputy mayor Ian Clement was found to have misused a City Hall credit card, resulting in his resignation. Johnson remained a popular figure in London with a strong celebrity status. In 2009, he rescued a woman, Franny Armstrong, from anti-social teenagers who had threatened her while he was cycling past.
Johnson made no major changes to the mayoral system as developed by Livingstone. He reversed several measures implemented by Livingstone’s administration, ending the city’s oil deal with Venezuela, abolishing The Londoner newsletter, and scrapping the half yearly inspections of black cabs, although the latter were reinstated three years later. Abolishing the western wing of the congestion charging zone, he cancelled plans to increase the congestion charge for four-wheel-drive vehicles. He was subsequently accused of failing to publish an independent report on air pollution commissioned by the Greater London Authority, which revealed the city breached legal limits on nitrogen dioxide levels.
Johnson retained Livingstone projects like Crossrail and the 2012 Olympic Games, but was accused of trying to take credit for them. He introduced a public bicycle scheme that had been mooted by Livingstone’s administration; colloquially known as “Boris Bikes”, the partly privately financed system cost £140 million and was a significant financial loss although it proved popular. Despite Johnson’s support of cycling in London – and his much publicised identity as a cyclist himself – his administration was criticised by some cycling groups who argued that he had failed to make the city’s roads safer for cyclists. As per his election pledge, he also commissioned the development of the New Routemaster buses for central London. He also ordered the construction of a cable car system that crossed the River Thames between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.
Johnson’s first policy initiative was a ban on drinking alcohol on public transport. At the beginning of his tenure as mayor, Johnson announced plans to extend pay-as-you-go Oyster cards to national rail services in London. One of the pledges in Johnson’s election manifesto was to retain Tube ticket offices, in opposition to Livingstone’s proposal to close up to 40 London Underground ticket offices. On 2 July 2008 the Mayor’s office announced that the closure plan was to be abandoned and that offices would remain open. On 21 November 2013, Transport for London announced that all London Underground ticket offices would close by 2015. In financing these projects, Johnson’s administration borrowed £100 million, while public transport fares were increased by 50%.
During the first Mayoral term, Johnson was perceived as having moved leftward on certain issues, for instance supporting the London Living Wage and endorsing an amnesty for illegal migrants. He tried placating critics who had deemed him a bigot by appearing at London’s gay pride parade and praising ethnic minority newspapers. In 2012, he banned London buses from displaying the adverts of Core Issues Trust, a Christian group, which compared being gay to an illness. In August 2008, Johnson broke from the traditional protocol of those in public office not publicly commenting on other nations’ elections by endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States.
Relations with police, finance, and the media
Johnson appointed himself chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), and in October 2008 successfully pushed for the resignation of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair after the latter was criticised for allegedly handing contracts to friends and for his handling of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. This earned Johnson great respect among Conservatives, who interpreted it as his first act of strength. Although resigning as MPA chairman in January 2010, throughout his mayoralty Johnson was highly supportive of the Metropolitan Police, particularly during the controversy surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson. Overall crime in London fell during his administration, although his claim that serious youth crime had decreased was shown to be false, as it had increased. Similarly, his claim that Metropolitan Police numbers had increased was also incorrect, as the city’s police force had shrunk under his administration. He was also criticised for his response to the 2011 London riots; holidaying with his family in British Columbia when the rioting broke out, he did not immediately return to London, only returning 48 hours after it had begun and addressing Londoners 60 hours thereafter. Upon visiting shopkeepers and residents affected by the riots in Clapham, he was booed and jeered by elements within the crowds.
Johnson championed London’s financial sector and denounced what he saw as “banker bashing” following the financial crisis of 2007–08, condemning the anti-capitalist Occupy London movement that appeared in 2011. He spent much time with those involved in the financial services, and criticised the government’s 50p tax rate for higher earners. He collected donations from the city’s wealthy for a charitable enterprise, the Mayor’s Fund, which he had established to aid disadvantaged youths; although initially announcing that it would raise £100 million, by 2010 it had only spent £1.5 million. He also retained extensive personal contacts throughout the British media, which resulted in widespread favourable press coverage of his administration. In turn he remained largely supportive of his friends in the media—among them Rupert Murdoch—during the News International phone hacking scandal.
The formation of the Forensic Audit Panel was announced on 8 May 2008. The panel is tasked with monitoring and investigating financial management at the London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority. Johnson’s announcement was criticised by Labour for the perceived politicisation of this nominally independent panel, who asked if the appointment of key Johnson allies to the panel – “to dig dirt on Ken Livingstone” – was “an appropriate use of public funds”. The head of the panel, Patience Wheatcroft is married to a Conservative councillor and three of the four remaining panel members also have close links to the Conservatives: Stephen Greenhalgh (Conservative Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council), Patrick Frederick (Chairman of Conservative Business Relations for South East England and Southern London) and Edward Lister (Conservative Leader of Wandsworth Council).
Up for re-election in 2012, Johnson again hired Crosby to orchestrate his campaign. Before the election, Johnson published Johnson’s Life of London, a work of popular history that the historian A. N. Wilson characterised as a “coded plea” for votes. Polls suggested that while Livingstone’s approach to transport was preferred, voters in London placed greater trust in Johnson over issues of crime and the economy. During the 2012 Mayoral election, Johnson sought re-election, while Livingstone was again selected as the Labour candidate. Johnson’s campaign emphasised the accusation that Livingstone was guilty of tax evasion, for which Livingstone called Johnson a “bare-faced liar”. The political scientist Andrew Crines believed that Livingstone’s campaign focused on criticising Johnson rather than presenting an alternate and progressive vision of London’s future. In 2012, Johnson was re-elected as mayor, again defeating Livingstone.
Second term: 2012–2016
London was successful in its bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics while Ken Livingstone was still mayor in 2005. Johnson’s role in the proceedings was to be the co-chair of an Olympic board which oversaw the games. Two of his actions subsequent to taking on this role were to improve the transport around London by making more tickets available and laying on more buses around the capital during the busy period, when thousands of spectators were temporary visitors in London, and also to allow shops and supermarkets to have longer opening hours on Sundays. However Johnson was accused of covering up pollution ahead of the games by deploying dust suppressants to remove air particulates near monitoring stations. In November 2013, Johnson announced major changes to the operation of London Underground, including the extension of Tube operating hours to run through the night at weekends. The announcement also revealed that all staffed Underground ticket offices would be closed with the aim of saving over £40 million a year, with automated ticketing systems provided instead.
In February 2012, he criticised London’s Saint Patrick’s Day gala dinner celebrations, linking them to Sinn Féin and branding the event “Lefty crap”, for which he later apologised. In February 2013, during a London Assembly meeting following the publication of the 2014 budget for London, Johnson was ejected from the meeting following a vote and on the grounds that his deputy Victoria Borwick had left the chamber. Upon realising that the vote meant that he would not be questioned on the budget, Johnson referred to his political opponents as “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies”.
Johnson attended the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum in London in July 2013, where he answered questions alongside Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. He joked that Malaysian women attended university in order to find husbands, causing some offence among female attendees. In 2014, Johnson pushed his biography of Churchill, The Churchill Factor, with media emphasising how Johnson repeatedly compared himself to Churchill throughout.
Johnson did not run for a third term for Mayor of London and stepped down on 5 May 2016 following the election of former Transport Minister, Sadiq Khan. Johnson left office still popular with the people of London. A YouGov poll commissioned at the end of his term revealed that 52% of Londoners believed he did a “good job” as Mayor of London while only 29% believed he did a “bad job”. In 2016, Sadiq Khan announced that three German-made water cannon, which Johnson had bought for the Metropolitan Police without waiting for clearance from the then Home Secretary Theresa May, were to be sold off with the funds going to youth services. However the vehicles proved unsellable and were eventually sold for scrap in 2018 at a £300k loss.
Return to Parliament
Johnson initially denied that he would return to the House of Commons while remaining mayor. However, after much media speculation, in August 2014 he sought selection as the Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the 2015 general election, becoming the party’s candidate in September. In the May 2015 general election Johnson was elected MP. There was much speculation that he had returned to Parliament because he wanted to replace Cameron as Conservative leader and Prime Minister.
Brexit campaign: 2015–2016
In February 2016, Johnson endorsed Vote Leave in the “Out” campaign for the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. He called Cameron’s warnings about leaving “greatly over exaggerated”. Following this announcement, which was interpreted by financial markets as making Brexit more probable, the pound sterling slumped by nearly 2% to its lowest level since March 2009.
In April 2016, in an article for The Sun, in response to President Barack Obama comments that he thought Britain should remain in the European Union, Johnson said that Obama’s views may have been shaped by an “ancestral dislike” of Britain, due to Obama being “part-Kenyan”. The comments were branded “idiotic” and “deeply offensive” by Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames. The comments were condemned as racist and unacceptable by several Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, and a King’s College London student society revoked a speaking invitation to him on the basis of it. Conversely, his comments were defended by both the Conservative Iain Duncan Smith and UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage.
A month later, during campaigning, he said there was an attempt to create the Roman Empire’s united Europe. He said, “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”
Johnson supported Vote Leave’s statement that the government was committed to Turkish accession to the EU at the earliest possible opportunity. This was a counter to the IN campaign that Turkey ‘is not an issue in this referendum and it shouldn’t be’. The accusation was that VoteLeave were implying that 80 million Turks would come to the UK if it stayed in the EU. However, when interviewed at the time of crucial Parliamentary Brexit debates in January 2019 he denied mentioning Turkey during the campaign. On 22 June 2016, Johnson declared that 23 June could be “Britain’s independence day” in a televised debate in front of a 6000-member audience at Wembley Arena. David Cameron, British Prime Minister at the time, specifically addressed Johnson’s claim, publicly stating; “the idea that our country isn’t independent is nonsense. This whole debate demonstrates our sovereignty.”
Following the victory of the “Leave” campaign, Cameron resigned as Conservative leader and Prime Minister. Johnson was widely regarded as the front-runner to succeed him. However, Johnson announced he would not stand in the Conservative leadership election. Shortly before, Michael Gove—a Johnson ally—concluded that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” The Telegraph called Gove’s comments “the most spectacular political assassination in a generation.” Johnson endorsed Andrea Leadsom’s candidature, but she dropped out of the race a week later.
Foreign Secretary: 2016–2018
After Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, in July 2016 she appointed Johnson Foreign Secretary. Analysts saw the appointment as a tactic to weaken Johnson politically: the new positions of “Brexit Secretary” and International Trade Secretary left the Foreign Secretary as a figurehead with few powers. Johnson’s appointment ensured that he would often be out of the country and unable to organise and mobilise backbenchers against her, while also forcing him to take responsibility for problems caused by withdrawing from the EU. Johnson’s appointment was criticised by some journalists and foreign politicians due to his history of controversial statements about other countries. Former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt said: “I wish it was a joke”. A senior official in Obama’s government suggested Johnson’s appointment would push the US further towards Germany at the expense of the Special Relationship with the UK.
Johnson’s May 2016 visit to Turkey was somewhat tense due to his having won Douglas Murray’s poetry competition about the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, four months earlier. When questioned by a journalist whether he would apologise for the poem, Johnson dismissed the matter as “trivia”. Johnson pledged to help Turkey join the EU and expressed support for Erdogan’s government. Johnson supported the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen and refused to block UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, stating there was no clear evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. In September 2016, human rights groups accused him of blocking the UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. Given the UK-Saudi alliance, in December, he attracted attention for commenting that the Saudis were akin to the Iranians in “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” throughout the Middle East. May said his comments did not represent the government’s view.
In November 2016, Johnson told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — a British-Iranian dual citizen serving a five-year prison sentence in Iran after being arrested for training citizen journalists and bloggers in a BBC World Service Trust project — had been “simply teaching people journalism”. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had said that her visit had been made simply for her daughter to meet her grandparents. Facing criticism, Johnson stated he had been misquoted and that nothing he said had justified Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence. In May 2018, Johnson backed the Iran nuclear deal framework despite Donald Trump’s withdrawal. Johnson opined that the deal could bring economic benefits to the Iranian people.
In April 2017, Johnson said that Gibraltar’s sovereignty “is not going to change” after Brexit. Johnson promised while in Northern Ireland that Brexit would leave the Irish border “absolutely unchanged”. In May 2017, during the 2017 United Kingdom general election he was berated by a woman for discussing alcohol in a Sikh temple in Bristol. Johnson had promised to end tariffs on Indian whisky and though his mother in law is a Sikh whose culture bans alcohol. He later expressed regret that she held differing views. Johnson visited Tortola in the British Virgin Islands on 13 September 2017 to confirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to helping restore British territories devastated by Hurricane Irma. He said he was reminded of photos of Hiroshima after it had been hit by the atom bomb.
In September 2017, he was criticised for reciting lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay while visiting a Myanmar temple; the British ambassador, who was with him, suggested it was “not appropriate” In October 2017 he faced criticism for stating that the Libyan city of Sirte could become an economic success like Dubai: “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”. Following the May 2018 Poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, an act which the UK government blamed on Russia, Johnson compared Vladimir Putin’s hosting of the World Cup in Russia to Adolf Hitler’s hosting of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. Russia’s Foreign Ministry denounced Johnson’s “unacceptable and unworthy” parallel towards Russia, a “nation that lost millions of lives in fighting Nazism”.
Johnson condemned the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He compared the Rohingya situation with the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Johnson supported the Turkish invasion of northern Syria aimed at ousting the Syrian Kurds from the enclave of Afrin.
In a September 2017 op-ed, Johnson reiterated that the UK would regain control of £350m a week after Brexit, suggesting it go to the National Health Service (NHS). He was subsequently criticised by cabinet colleagues for reviving the assertion, and was accused of “clear misuse of official statistics” by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove. The authority rejected the suggestion that it was quibbling over newspaper headlines and not Johnson’s actual words. Following the 2017 general election, Johnson denied media reports that he intended to challenge May’s leadership. In a February 2018 letter to May, Johnson suggested that Northern Ireland may have to accept border controls after Brexit and that it would not seriously affect trade, having initially said a hard border would be unthinkable.
In March 2018, Johnson apologised for his “inadvertent sexism” after being criticised for calling Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry as “Lady Nugee”; Thornberry was married to Christopher Nugee but did not use his surname. In June, he was reported as having said “fuck business” when asked about corporate concerns regarding a ‘hard’ Brexit.
In July 2018, three days after the cabinet had its meeting at Chequers to agree a Brexit strategy, Johnson, along with Brexit Secretary David Davis, resigned his post.
Return to the backbenches: since 2018
By resigning as Foreign Secretary, Johnson returned to the role of a backbench MP. In July, Johnson delivered a resignation speech, stating that ministers were “saying one thing to the EU about what we are really doing, and pretending another to the electorate”. In it, he said that “it is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in these negotiations. We have changed tack once and we can change once again”. Buzzfeed reported that Johnson had been in contact with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief adviser. In interviews, Bannon had praised Johnson and said that he should challenge Theresa May for the party leadership. In January 2019, Johnson came under criticism for remarks he had made during the 2016 Leave campaign regarding the prospect of Turkish accession to the European Union; he denied making such remarks. In March 2019, Johnson said that expenditure on investigating historic allegations of child abuse, instead of more police on the streets, was money “spaffed up the wall”. The claim was strongly criticised by a victim, anti-abuse organisations and a police chief. Shadow police minister Louise Haigh tweeted: “Could you look the victims in the eye and tell them investigating and bringing to justice those who abused them, as children, is a waste of money? You shameless, dangerous oaf.”
In July 2018, Johnson signed a 12?month contract to write articles for the Telegraph Media Group. In August, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACoBA) reported that this employment was a breach of the Ministerial Code. In December, Johnson was ordered to apologise to Parliament for failing to declare £50,000 of earnings. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found that the errors were not inadvertent and that Johnson had failed on nine occasions to make declarations within the rules.
In one of the first articles published by The Daily Telegraph Johnson discussed the Danish face veil ban, he arguing against any ban on the burqa or niqab but suggested that such garments make the wearer resemble a “letter box” and “bank robber”. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCM) accused Johnson of “pandering to the far right”, while Conservative peer Baroness Warsi accused him of “dog whistle” politics. Several senior Conservatives, including May, called on Johnson to apologise. Others, such as MP Nadine Dorries, argued that his comments did not go far enough and that face veils should be banned. A Sky News poll found 60% thought Johnson’s comments were not racist, to 33% who did; 48% thought he should not apologise, while 45% thought he should. An independent panel was set up to review Johnson’s comments. In December, the panel cleared him of wrongdoing, stating that while his language could be considered “provocative”, he was “respectful and tolerant” and was fully entitled to use “satire” to make his point. In September 2018, Johnson wrote: “We have opened ourselves to perpetual political blackmail. We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier.” Senior Tories heavily criticised him, with Alan Duncan of the Foreign Office vowing to ensure the comments marked “the political end of Boris Johnson”.
In April 2019, the Independent Press Standards Organisation ruled that a claim in a 6 January 2019 article in The Daily Telegraph, “The British people won’t be scared into backing a woeful Brexit deal nobody voted for”, authored by Johnson, that a no-deal Brexit was “by some margin preferred by the British public” was false, and “represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i)” of its guidelines, and required that a correction to the false claim be published in the print edition, and appended to the online version.
Alleged misconduct in public office
Marcus Ball, a private prosecutor, crowdfunded more than £200,000 from nearly 6,000 supporters to prosecute Johnson on three counts for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office. Johnson is alleged to have abused the public’s trust during the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum by lying about the UK’s spending on European Union membership in his public offices as a Member of Parliament and as Mayor of London. On 23 February 2019 the prosecution laid an information of the case at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and filed an application for a summons against Johnson. On 29 May, District judge Margot Coleman wrote: “The applicant’s case is there is ample evidence that the proposed defendant knew that the statements were false”. She stressed the allegations were currently unproven. The preliminary hearing was scheduled to take place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court with the case later due to be sent to the Crown Court for trial, but the case was thrown out by the High Court on 7 June.
Conservative Party leadership election
On 16 May 2019, Johnson confirmed that he would stand in the Conservative Party leadership election following Theresa May’s resignation. In an interview in early June, just before visiting the UK, US President Donald Trump endorsed Johnson for the role, saying of the election: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players…but I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him.”
On 12 June, Johnson formally launched his campaign, saying, “After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31st. We must do better than the current Withdrawal Agreement that has been rejected three times by Parliament—and let me clear that I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome. I don’t think that we will end up with any such thing. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously for no deal. Indeed, it is astonishing that anyone could suggest dispensing with that vital tool of negotiation.” On the campaign trail, Johnson warned of “catastrophic consequences for voter trust in politics” if the government pushed the EU for further delays. He advocated removing the backstop from any Brexit deal and replacing it with alternative arrangements, and promised to retain the £39 billion divorce payment the UK is due to give the EU upon withdrawal “until greater clarity emerges”. Johnson initially pledged to cut income tax barrier for earners of more than £50,000 by raising the 40% tax threshold to £80,000, but backed away from these plans after coming under assault in a televised BBC debate. He has also said he plans to lift the level at which low paid workers start to pay National Insurance.
A poll of party members published on 13 June showed Johnson to be the clear front-runner. He received 114 votes in the ballot, the first of five, that took place that day. Johnson was criticised by his competitor Jeremy Hunt for failing to appear alongside him and the other candidates in a debate on 16 June. During the debate, which was broadcast by Channel 4, Hunt asked: “If his team won’t allow him out with five fairly friendly colleagues, how is he going to deal with 27 European countries?” On 16 June, the second ballot took place, and Johnson gained the backing of 12 more MPs, taking his number of votes to 126. He achieved 143 votes in the third ballot and 157 in the fourth ballot. In the last ballot of MPs on 20 June he reached 160 votes and was named one of the final two candidates, alongside Hunt.
On 19 July, Reuters reported that Johnson, as well as his political allies, had been actively supported by the former Russian oil tycoon Alexander Temerko, who became a major donor to the Conservative Party after he fled Russia in 2004 to evade criminal charges. Temerko, who said he was on friendly first-name terms with Johnson, is known to have had close ties to Russia’s intelligence and security services.
Ideologically, Johnson has described himself as a “One-Nation Tory”. The political scientist Tony Travers of the London School of Economics described Johnson as “a fairly classic—that is, small-state—mildly eurosceptic Conservative” who like his contemporaries Cameron and Osborne also embraced “modern social liberalism”. The Guardian stated that while mayor, Johnson blended economic and social liberalism, with The Economist claiming that in doing so Johnson “transcends his Tory identity” and adopts a more libertarian perspective. Stuart Reid, Johnson’s colleague at The Spectator, described the latter’s views as being those of a “liberal libertarian”. The Business Insider noted that as London Mayor, Johnson gained a reputation as “a liberal, centre-ground politician”. Johnson’s biographer and friend Andrew Gimson said that while “in economic and social matters, [Johnson] is a genuine liberal”, he retains a “Tory element” to his personality through his “love of existing institutions, and a recognition of the inevitability of hierarchy”.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of Democratic Audit, said that “Boris is politically nimble”, while biographer Sonia Purnell stated that Johnson regularly changed his opinion on political issues, commenting on what she perceived to be “an ideological emptiness beneath the staunch Tory exterior”. She later referred to his “opportunistic—some might say pragmatic—approach to politics”. In 2014, former Mayor Ken Livingstone claimed in an interview with the New Statesman that, while he had once feared Johnson as “the most hardline right-wing ideologue since Thatcher”, over the course of Johnson’s mayoralty he had instead concluded that he was “a fairly lazy tosser who just wants to be there” while doing very little work.
Writing for Prospect, Philip Collins suggested that Johnson and other Brexiteers in the Conservative Party were “British Gaullists” who were “drawing on a conception of the nation in which the dormant spirit of liberty is being reborn.” He suggested that this was a form of nationalism, albeit not of the “chauvinistic” variety. In Politico, Michael Hirsch compared Johnson to Trump, suggesting that both were advocates of a “New Nationalism”. Johnson responded that he is “not a nationalist if by that you mean I’m a xenophobe or someone who deprecates other countries and cultures”.
Purnell has noted that Johnson “is nothing if not an elitist”. In an article titled “Long Live Elitism”, Johnson stated that “without elites and elitism man would still be in his caves”. However, since the Brexit campaign, he has criticised the “cynicism of the elite” about Brexit, described an “elite conspiracy to thwart Brexit”, and accused the elite of being “frankly indifferent to the suffering that their policies are causing”. Some media sources have therefore called him a “populist”.
Views on immigration and the European Union
Purnell believed that it was the influence of Johnson’s maternal family, the left-wing Fawcetts, that led to him developing “a genuine abhorrence of racial discrimination”. Johnson praised the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, saying that “Churchill saved this country and the whole of Europe from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny and our debt to him is incalculable.” He added that Churchill had “an extraordinary record as a social reformer who cared deeply for working people and their lives.” As Mayor of London, Johnson was known as a supporter of immigration. In 2018, during the Brexit negotiations, he advocated for a more liberal approach to immigration than British Prime Minister Theresa May.
In 2003, Johnson said of the EU, “I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it.” From 2009 onwards, he advocated for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. In 2018, during the Brexit negotiations, he called for Britain to leave the Single Market. He stated that Britain’s EU membership had led to the suppression of the wages of its “indigenous” people and said the EU was intent on creating a “superstate” that wants to rob Britain of its sovereignty. In 2019, Johnson said he would take Britain out of the EU on 31 October whether there was a deal in place or not. If the UK would leave under a “No Deal Brexit”, it would leave the EU without a formal agreement and subsequently have to trade with the world (including EU member states) on World Trade Organization terms.
Widely known simply as “Boris”, Johnson has attracted a variety of nicknames, including “BoJo”, a portmanteau of his forename and surname. Biographer Sonia Purnell described his public persona as “brand Boris”, noting that he developed it while at Oxford University. Max Hastings referred to this public image as a “façade resembling that of P. G. Wodehouse’s Gussie Fink-Nottle, allied to wit, charm, brilliance and startling flashes of instability”, while political scientist Andrew Crines stated that Johnson displayed “the character of a likable and trustworthy individual with strong intellectual capital”. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has defined him as “Beano Boris” due to his perceived comical nature, saying: “He’s our Berlusconi … He’s the only feel-good politician we have, everyone else is too busy being responsible.” To the journalist Dave Hill, Johnson was “a unique figure in British politics, an unprecedented blend of comedian, conman, faux subversive showman and populist media confection”.
Johnson purposely cultivates a “semi-shambolic look”, for instance by specifically ruffling his hair in a certain way for when he makes public appearances. Purnell described him as “a manic self-promoter” who filled his life with “fun and jokes”. Described by Crines as “a joker”, Johnson has stated that “humour is a utensil that you can use to sugar the pill and to get important points across.” Purnell noted that colleagues regularly expressed the view that Johnson used people to advance his own interests, with Gimson noting that Johnson was “one of the great flatterers of our times”. Purnell noted that he deflected serious questions using “a little humour and a good deal of bravado”. According to Gimson, Johnson was “a humane man” who “could also be staggeringly inconsiderate of others” when pursuing his own interests. Gimson also noted that Johnson has “an excessive desire to be liked”.
According to Purnell, “[Johnson] is blessed with immense charisma, wit, sex appeal and celebrity gold dust; he is also recognised and loved by millions—although perhaps less so by many who have had to work closely with him (let alone depend on him). Resourceful, cunning and strategic, he can pull off serious political coups when the greater good happens to coincide with his personal advantage but these aspirations are rarely backed up by concrete achievements, or even detailed plans.” Furthermore, Purnell noted that Johnson was a “highly evasive figure” when it came to his personal life, who remained detached from others and who had very few if any intimate friends. Among friends and family, Johnson is known as “Al” rather than “Boris”. Gimson stated that Johnson “has very bad manners. He tends to be late, does not care about being late, and dresses without much care”. Highly ambitious and very competitive, Johnson was, Gimson noted, born “to wage a ceaseless struggle for supremacy”. He would be particularly angered with those he thought insulted aspects of his personal life; for instance, when an article in The Telegraph upset Johnson he emailed commissioning editor Sam Leith with the simple message “Fuck off and die.” Thus, Purnell notes, Johnson hides his ruthlessness “using bumbling, self-deprecation or humour”, adding that he was a fan of “laddish banter and crude sexual references”.
Johnson is the eldest of the four children of Stanley Johnson, a former Conservative Member of the European Parliament and employee of the European Commission and the World Bank, and the painter Charlotte Johnson Wahl (née Fawcett), the daughter of Sir James Fawcett, a barrister and president of the European Commission of Human Rights. His younger siblings are Rachel Johnson, a writer and journalist; Leo Johnson, a partner specialising in sustainability at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers; and Jo Johnson, the former Minister of State for Universities and Science and Conservative MP for Orpington. Johnson’s stepmother, Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Teddy Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. In April 2017, Rachel Johnson joined the Liberal Democrats in protest against Conservative Brexit policies; she was a member of the Conservatives between 2008 and 2011.
Johnson had dual citizenship in the United Kingdom and the United States, since he was born in New York City to English parents. In 2014, Johnson acknowledged he was disputing a demand for capital gains tax from the US tax authorities, which ultimately he paid. In February 2015, he announced his intention to give up US citizenship to demonstrate his loyalty to the UK and in 2016 he renounced his US citizenship. Johnson is a fluent speaker of French and Italian, and has a good grasp of German, Spanish, and Latin, frequently using classical references in his newspaper columns and speeches.
In 1987, he married Allegra Mostyn-Owen, the daughter of the art historian William Mostyn-Owen and the Italian writer Gaia Servadio; the marriage was dissolved in 1993. A couple of weeks later he married Marina Wheeler, a barrister and daughter of journalist and broadcaster Charles Wheeler and his wife, Dip Singh; five weeks later, Wheeler and Johnson’s first child was born. The Wheeler and Johnson families have known each other for decades, and Marina Wheeler was at the European School, Brussels I at the same time as her future husband. They have four children: two daughters and two sons.
In April 2006, the News of the World alleged that Johnson was having an affair with the journalist Anna Fazackerley; the pair refused to comment and shortly after Johnson began employing Fazackerley.
In 2009, Johnson fathered a daughter with Helen MacIntyre, an arts consultant. The child’s existence was the subject of legal action in 2013 with the Court of Appeal quashing an injunction seeking to ban reporting of her existence; the judge ruled that the public had a right to know about Johnson’s “reckless” behaviour. In that court case, it was additionally claimed that Johnson has had another child out of wedlock.
In September 2018, Johnson and Wheeler issued a statement confirming that after 25 years of marriage they had separated “several months ago”, and had begun the process of getting divorced.
Johnson’s current girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, is the daughter of Matthew Symonds, co-founder of The Independent, and Josephine Mcaffee, a lawyer.
In June 2019, Johnson said that he paints wooden crates to resemble buses as a hobby. In 2007 he said he had smoked cannabis before he went to university. He has also admitted to trying cocaine.
Reception and legacy
Johnson is a controversial figure in British politics and journalism. Sonia Purnell described Johnson as “the most unconventional, yet compelling politician of the post-Blair era” in British politics. She added that in Britain, he was “beloved by millions and recognised by all”. Giles Edwards and Jonathan Isaby commented that Johnson appealed to “a broad cross-section of the public”, with his friends characterising him as a “Heineken Tory” who can appeal to voters that other Conservatives cannot. Gimson expressed the view that “people love him because he makes them laugh”, noting that he had become “the darling of the Tory rank and file”.
Purnell recognised that during the 2008 mayoral election, he was “polarising opinions to the extreme”, with critics viewing him as “variously evil, a clown, a racist and a bigot”. Writing in The Guardian, journalist Polly Toynbee for instance referred to him as “jester, toff, self-absorbed sociopath and serial liar”, while Labour politician Hazel Blears called him “a nasty right-wing elitist, with odious views and criminal friends”.
More recently, Johnson has evoked comparisons with United States President Donald Trump. In June 2016, Nick Clegg described him as “like Donald Trump with a thesaurus”, while fellow Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke described him as a “nicer Donald Trump” and EU official Martin Selmayr described the potential election of Johnson and Trump to the leadership of their respective countries as a “horror scenario”. Although Johnson was critical of Trump on a number of occasions before he became President of the United States, he has praised Trump as President, but disagrees with many of his policies.
In The Economist’s 2018 end-of-the-year awards for the worst in British politics, Johnson received the highest award (the “politician who has done most to let down his party and country”). The Economist described Johnson as one of the architects of the Brexit “catastrophe”,
In a big field, there was one outstanding candidate. He failed miserably as foreign secretary. He sniped at Mrs May while in Cabinet. He has agitated against her deal from the backbenches and in his lucrative newspaper column without presenting a real alternative. A demagogue not a statesman, he is the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years.
In popular culture
Johnson was portrayed by Will Barton in the 2017 BBC-produced drama Theresa vs. Boris: How May Became PM, and by Richard Goulding in the 2019 HBO and Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.
Hero of the Brexiteers
This ability to flatter and make others feel liked goes some way to explaining how Johnson managed to win two terms as mayor in London, where voters historically tilt toward the UK’s center-left Labour party. Second, there’s his politics — and his political ambition. Johnson played the decisive role in making Brexit happen. In 2016, under immense pressure from the then-prime minister David Cameron to back the Remain campaign, Johnson broke ranks and backed Brexit at the last minute. This has made him the hero of the Brexiteers.
“Boris has that undefinable quality of leadership. He can persuade people to back him and go in a direction that they may not have initially supported,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg, a longstanding Euroskeptic and Johnson supporter. “Only someone with his kind of optimism can get people behind Brexit.”
But others think that Johnson’s decision to lead the Brexit campaign was nothing more than a deliberate political move. Morgan, a Remain supporter, explains that the suspicion among some is Johnson “did this knowing that it would potentially, eventually, burnish his leadership credentials.”
It’s no secret that ending up in high office was always Johnson’s aim. Mount says “it was always clear that he saw journalism as a ringside seat for the main contest, which he wanted to star in.”
All of this raises the most important question for the residents of the UK: what will a Johnson premiership actually look like? He enters office at a time when politics is fluid. It’s not just the Brexiteers who have their tails up. People who have been campaigning to scrap Brexit ever since 2016 are more confident than ever that it can now be stopped. When you consider that his own party has mixed views on Johnson, the 48% of people who voted remain are even more worried about PM Johnson.
Hugo Dixon, a Remainer who happens to be one of Johnson’s oldest friends, shares this concern. “Starting with a bit of ambition is fine, but it has to be with the aim of doing something good. And my worry with Boris is that he is heading down a path that is bad for the country.”
Dixon will not be alone in this view, either in the Commons or in the country at large. And if Johnson fails to reconcile both, his days in office could be numbered from day one. One of the great unknowns is which version of Johnson emerge as PM — the liberal London mayor or the post-Brexit populist. For a man who has for so long lived in the spotlight, we have very little idea of what goes on underneath his blond mop of hair.
The reality might be that Johnson’s fate, ultimately, is not in his own hands. If he is to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 with a new deal, then he has about two months to convince Brussels it needs to renegotiate something that took two years to agree. If he tries to take the UK out without a deal, he might find that political gravity takes over as parliament does everything it can to stop it. And, should Johnson push hard enough, he might find that members of his own party are willing to bring down his government and force a general election.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be a steep learning curve for the boy who always wanted the top job. If it goes right, he will be the man who united the country and delivered Brexit. If he gets it wrong, he might be ousted from office in a matter of months, making him an even shorter-serving leader than that poor old “gloom bucket,” Gordon Brown.
Election December 2019
Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a resounding election victory on Friday that will allow him to end three years of political paralysis and take Britain out of the European Union by Jan. 31. Brexit represents the country’s biggest political and economic gamble since World War Two, cutting the world’s fifth largest economy adrift from the vast trading bloc and threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom.
For Johnson, who campaigned on a vow to “Get Brexit Done”, victory was a vindication after anti-Brexit opponents tried one manoeuvre after another to thwart him during his first chaotic months in office.
“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” a triumphant Johnson told supporters at a rally in London.
“Leaving the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people,” he said, reprising the refrains of his successful Brexit referendum campaign of 2016.
- Boris Johnson Biography and Profile