Boris Johnson, London’s New York-born mayor, moves one step closer to being ‘World King’


London Mayor Boris Johnson, left, poses with a wax figure of himself at the Madame Tussauds waxwork museum in London in May 2009. (Shaun Curry/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, announced yesterday that he’s most likely going to stand for the British Parliament in the 2015 general election. So what, you might be wondering? Another politician breaking their word (Johnson has said countless times that he would not run for Parliament next year). Another well-educated, middle-aged conservative male trying to further his career.

All of this may be true, but Johnson has, in one instant, made British politics fun again. Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to convince the country that he’s done a good job over the past four years. The opposition leader, Ed Miliband, is trying to come across as a credible leader with serious policies. There is also a growing disaffection with politics, the Scottish referendum in September and a potential referendum on Britain's European Union membership on the horizon.

Where does Johnson fit into all this? Right now, he's seen as a breath of fresh air. He doesn't do details, he rarely keeps to his word, and he's changed his views countless times to suit whichever electorate he’s trying to please. But one thing is for certain — Johnson is his own man, and the British people (so far) like him for it. American politicians are not afraid to tweet with strippers or say precisely what is on their mind. While British politicians as usually more restrained, Johnson isn’t afraid to get stuck on a zip wire or criticize his senior party colleagues.

To see why Johnson is different from a conventional British politician, compare his last appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" with that of archrival Cameron.

Here's Johnson:

And now here's Cameron:

Although Johnson paints himself as a populist, his appeal is a distinctly British one. He gives the appearance of being somewhat of a buffoon, scruffy, often looking classless. But much of this is the secret to his success. At several turning points throughout his career, he has been underestimated. When Johnson was given the editorship of the Spectator magazine in 1999, a naysayer likened it to “entrusting a Ming vase to the hands of an ape.” When he was sacked from the Conservative cabinet in 2005 over an affair he lied about, many thought his political career was over. When he ran for mayor of London three years later, few believed he would beat incumbent Ken Livingstone.

Time after time, he has proved his detractors wrong. His biographer, Andrew Gimson, thinks Johnson manages to walk a tight rope that others cannot. “He can best be described as the Merry England Candidate," Gimson says. "Boris plays to the gallery with the anti-politics card, but in reality, he is a professional politician.”

Despite all the hubris around Johnson, he is years away from becoming prime minister. This hasn't stopped the excitement mounting over the past 24 hours at the idea that Johnson, the great savior of the Conservative Party, can — post-Cameron — bring the party a majority in Parliament that has eluded it for more than 20 years.

Unlike many of his potential rivals for the Conservative leadership, Johnson is greatly liked by the general public and is known beyond his own crowd. He is labeled by some in his party as a Heineken politician, because he can reach parts of the electorate other Conservatives can’t. According a survey by the influential pollster Lord Ashcroft, Johnson is the second most recognizable politician in the United Kingdom — only the prime minister beats him by two points.

Now he faces his greatest challenge — lining up a Parliament seat to contest in the 2015 election, outmaneuvering his rivals and convincing the country that he is the man to take Britain forward. Gimson thinks Johnson's time may come in 2020. He believes the British people would vote for Johnson then if they want “a strong politician for stirring times, someone capable of changing things in a turbulent age."

There are many parallels to be drawn between Johnson and Winston Churchill. Both men were active writers, penning books and newspaper columns even as they carried on with their political careers. It’s unsurprising that Johnson has announced his return to national politics shortly before his latest book comes out. The topic? A biography examining “the character, life, legacy and meaning today” of Churchill.

And if you're wondering what Johnson thinks of the United States, be aware that he was born in New York. As a child, he once said that when he grew up, he wanted to be "world king." Maybe Britain and No. 10 Downing Street are just a stepping stone to even greater things across the pond.

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.
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