Boris Johnson, political escape artist, lands in hot water, again

  • >>Ellen Barry, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-06-26 22:30:31 BdST

It is not an easy task to hold Boris Johnson to account. Ask John Palmer, who tried to do it 30 years ago, when they were both reporters covering Europe for British newspapers.

Johnson, now 55 and on a glide path toward becoming prime minister, was then a rising star at The Daily Telegraph, cranking out front-page scoops that verged on satire, portraying European bureaucrats as absurd, overregulating control freaks. That the articles often proved to be overblown or inaccurate did not seem to bother him.

He was a posh eccentric out of a PG Wodehouse novel, absent-minded and chronically disorganised, fresh from studying classics at Eton and Oxford. His hair protruded from his head at surprising angles, and the doors of his red Alfa Romeo, his biographer writes, were sometimes secured with string. Palmer, who covered Europe for the left-wing Guardian newspaper and was Johnson’s father’s age, tried to warn him that his distortions had become dangerous. But nothing seemed to stick.

“He would say, ‘You’re taking it all too seriously, for God’s sake. Have a sense of proportion, old boy,’” Palmer said. “He would say, ‘It’s the underlying truth that you’re missing, the underlying truth.’”

His critics could do little but smile and shrug their shoulders at the phenomenon everyone called, simply, “Boris.”

“It was thought to be a comic sideshow,” Palmer said.

It was just the beginning for Johnson, who went on to become one of the great escape artists of British politics.

He has walked away from gaffes, deceptions and errors that would have ended the career of any normal politician, brushing criticism away with his trademark bluster and self-confidence. The most recent crisis occurred on Friday, when, despite the titanic efforts of his political handlers to keep him out of hot water until July, when the race for prime minister ends, police officers were called to respond to an altercation between Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, 31, a former communications chief for the Conservative Party. Neighbours reported screaming, breaking of glasses, and Symonds shouting “get off me” and “get out of my flat.”

A familiar cycle was thrown into gear. Politicians and commentators expressed alarm at Johnson’s history of loose-cannon behaviour, noting that as prime minister he posed a security risk, and his poll numbers suffered. But his hard-core supporters seemed to like him even more. This, said one of his biographers, is the key to his political magic.

“Part of his appeal is that he upsets the grown-ups, and a lot of the voters like that,” said Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson.”

“There is a similar dynamic to Trump,” Gimson noted. “The more he upsets the pious liberals, the better pleased his supporters are.”

People, he added, “love seeing authority mocked. At school, it’s always fun if there’s a pupil bright enough to make jokes at the teachers’ expense. Boris has a sense of the ridiculous, including people who take themselves too seriously.”

Johnson faces only one more hurdle before becoming prime minister: a ballot of around 160,000 Conservative Party members next month. Party members are aware of Johnson’s reputation for untrustworthiness. He was fired once, from The Times of London, for fabricating a quote; and a second time, from his job at the Conservative Party, for lying to cover up an extramarital affair. He was caught on tape offering assistance to a friend who planned to hire someone to physically assault a journalist, and he has been accused of threatening editors pursuing stories that cast him in a bad light.

He has used racist and offensive language, describing African children as “pickaninnies” and comparing Muslim women in hijab to “letter boxes.” As foreign secretary, he said that a British-Iranian woman in Iranian custody had been teaching journalism, a flub that her husband says almost certainly prolonged her imprisonment. A serial philanderer, he has left behind two marriages, at least one illegitimate child and a long string of embittered former mentors and allies. Max Hastings, who jump-started Johnson’s career by hiring him at The Daily Telegraph, said he “would not take Boris’ word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday.”

“He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist,” Hastings said.

But the Tories have rallied around Johnson anyway. He alone is telling Conservative Party members what they want to hear: that he is prepared to take Britain out of the European Union without a deal on Oct 31.

They also — and this is crucial — find him amusing.

“He has got this weird gift of moving among large crowds of people in a way which cheers them up,” said Charles Moore, who edited The Daily Telegraph from 1995 to 2003. “The Conservatives have been led for so long by dreary people. None of them have that quality he has. They don’t lift people’s hearts when they come into the room.”

The Tory grass roots, Moore said, are enraged by left-wing sanctimony, and “long for something that is more subversive and different.” Johnson has offered himself, at this precise moment, as “the lord of misrule.”

“I think he is a bit of a genius, and one of the reasons I do broadly support him — though I have endless frustrations and doubts — is because of what I think is a sort of genius,” Moore said.

Boris Johnson, a leadership candidate for Britain's Conservative Party, visits a tea shop in Oxshott, Surrey, Britain, June 25, 2019. Reuters

Boris Johnson, a leadership candidate for Britain's Conservative Party, visits a tea shop in Oxshott, Surrey, Britain, June 25, 2019. Reuters

Johnson — full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — is an improbable populist. He spent much of his childhood in Brussels, where his father, Stanley, served as a European Commission official and oversaw Pan-European legislation on the environment.

Despite his Middle-England surname, his great-grandfather was a Turkish politician, Ali Kemal, who was lynched by pro-Ataturk nationalists. His grandfather, Osman Ali, changed his name to Wilfred Johnson and raised his children to be emphatically English and emphatically upper class.

Boris was the eldest of four siblings who competed at everything, “whether it be running or jumping, eating the hottest mince pies at Christmas or having the blondest hair,” Sonia Purnell wrote in “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition.” Boris, in particular, hated to lose. As a child, when asked what he wanted to be, he would say, “World king.”

At Oxford, he established himself as a political chameleon, aligning himself with the centre-left Social Democratic Party to win the presidency of the Oxford Union. Acquaintances at the time said they had no idea what his true political beliefs were.

“He was almost like a blank screen on which people could project their own political views,” said Anthony Goodman, a counterpart at the Oxford Union. “He allowed people to think whatever they wanted to think. That was pretty smart.”

It was in Brussels, for The Daily Telegraph, that he stumbled on the cause that would propel his career to the top: halting Britain’s integration into the European Union.

His secret weapon was humour. He began producing front-page scoops — “marmalade droppers,” as they are known in Britain — that mirrored the Eurosceptic opinions of The Telegraph’s conservative readers: Sniffer dogs would be dispatched to regulate the smell of manure! Bureaucrats were planning a one-size-fits-all condom! The European Union would ban prawn-flavour potato chips!

Nigel Sheinwald, a former senior diplomat who served as the Foreign Office’s press secretary during that period, described Johnson’s reporting as “not well founded on facts. It was exaggerated, it was dishonest, and it massaged information to fit a narrative that he had preconceived.”

But it made him a brand. Charles Grant, who was posted in Brussels for The Economist newsmagazine, said Johnson seemed to adopt the anti-European argument for career reasons. “I felt for a long time that he didn’t believe what he wrote,” he said. “It was a game. For him, the game was, ‘How should I be a success?’”

Johnson recalled it as the most exhilarating time in his career.

“Everything I wrote from Brussels — I was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall, and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England,” he said. “Everything I wrote was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”

Two decades later, when Conservatives were called upon to take sides in the Brexit referendum, Johnson had so distanced himself from the issue that many of his close associates were surprised when he joined the “Leave” campaign. By then, he had restyled himself as a centrist, winning two elections as mayor of the left-leaning city of London. He was one of the most popular politicians in the country.

Close observers note that there is art behind Johnson’s chaos.

The television presenter Jeremy Vine recently recalled watching Johnson work a crowd at an insurance industry awards ceremony. He arrived four minutes before he was due to give a speech and floundered at the podium, seemingly at sea. It brought the house down.

“Something about the chaos of it — the reality, I suppose — was utterly joyful,” Vine wrote. “We had an MP in front of us who was utterly real, who had come without a script or an agenda and then forgotten, not just the name of the event, but his whole speech and the punch line to his funniest story. I watched in awe.”

Eighteen months later, Vine appeared with Johnson at another industry event, and Johnson repeated the performance exactly. The two speeches, Vine said, “had made me pose the fundamental question, the one that concerns you most when you listen to a politician: Is this guy for real?”

© 2019 New York Times News Service