Who is Boris Johnson?


Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing St. as Britain’s new prime minister on July 24. What’s important to know about him? He is a crowd-pleaser. He is also known to offend. He has been a cheerleader for Brexit and argues that Britain can make it happen with a can-do attitude. He is not an isolationist — he wants to manage “Global Britain” on the United Kingdom’s terms.

The son of a diplomat and an artist, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York and grew up in Brussels. After his mother’s health deteriorated, he was sent to boarding school. He’s pictured here at Eton in 1979.

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At Oxford, Johnson studied classics and became president of the Oxford Union debate society, hosting guests such as Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri.

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Johnson first made his name as a newspaper reporter and editor. He was fired from the Times of London for making up a quote, but went on to work as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph and become Margaret Thatcher’s favorite columnist. With exaggerated and inaccurate dispatches, such as “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same,” Johnson stoked the euroskepticism that would set the stage for Brexit and his own premiership.

Johnson became editor of the Spectator magazine in 1999 and continued there even after entering politics. He was elected a member of Parliament from Henley in 2001.

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Johnson boosted Spectator circulation. He also generated controversy, as when he published an editorial suggesting Liverpool was “hooked on grief” after the killing of a British hostage in Iraq.

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Johnson had his ups and downs as a member of Parliament. He lost a leadership post after lying about an affair with a Spectator columnist but was elevated again by Tory leader David Cameron.

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London is traditionally a bastion of the left-leaning Labour Party. But Johnson, a Conservative, managed to win two terms as the capital’s mayor. And he remained fairly popular, despite some costly failures and a tendency to say outrageous things. He especially relished his role as host of the 2012 Olympics, which was not organized by city hall but made him into a sort of global celebrity mayor.

How does a Conservative lead a liberal, cosmopolitan city? As mayor, Johnson talked up the benefits of immigration.

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Johnson as mayor wasted large sums of money on several failed projects, including a scheme to build a pedestrian “garden bridge” across the Thames and another to build an airport on “Boris Island” in the Thames estuary.

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In one of his early acts as mayor, Johnson banned alcohol on the London Underground. Pictured here: Protesters gather on the last night of legal drinking.

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Johnson introduced public bicycle rentals, which came to be known as “Boris Bikes.” The idea was his predecessor’s.

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Much of the success of the 2016 Brexit campaign is attributed to the backing of the charismatic Johnson. He had been torn on the question. He even drafted two newspaper columns — one on why Britain should get out and another on why it should stay in. But ultimately he announced he would advocate “leave.”

“Take back control” resonated with voters. It encompassed a desire to reclaim powers that had been granted to Brussels, the idea that the European Union is a waste of money and anxieties about immigration.

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Johnson’s side in the Brexit campaign claimed that Britain sends 350 million pounds (about $440 million) a week to the E.U. Independent fact-checkers put the figure at closer to 280 million pounds ($350 million).

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A bid to prosecute Johnson over the misleading claim was thrown out by a London court last month.

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Johnson was the favorite to be prime minister once before, when Cameron resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Hours before Johnson was to announce his candidacy, his campaign manager, Michael Gove, announced his own run. “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” Gove said.

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Johnson bowed out. He said the country needed a leader to take it in a new direction, but “I have concluded that person cannot be me.”

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It was Theresa May who prevailed in that leadership contest. She surprised politics watchers when she appointed Johnson — her rival — as her foreign secretary. Johnson was not known for his diplomacy. He once suggested President Barack Obama was biased against Brexit because he was “par­­t-Kenyan” and anti-colonial.

Prime Minister Theresa May with her cabinet, with Johnson two seats away.

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Johnson was the first British foreign secretary to visit Moscow in five years. He would later accuse Russia of being behind a nerve agent attack in the British town of Salisbury.


Johnson is pictured here in Kenya. Perhaps his biggest mistake as foreign secretary was when he suggested a British-Iranian woman was “teaching people journalism” before her arrest in Iran. Tehran used his comment as justification.

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Johnson resigned as foreign secretary in July 2018, complaining that May’s compromise Brexit plan would shackle Britain to Europe like “a colony.”

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May was forced out by her own party for failing to deliver Brexit. Only a tiny, unrepresentative crumb of the British electorate got a say in picking her replacement. The 313 Tory members of Parliament chose two finalists, and then the 139,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party determined the winner.

Johnson has sought to appeal to hardcore Brexiteers by promising that the U.K. will leave the E.U. by Oct. 31 — “do or die.”

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Johnson’s challenger was the man who replaced him as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Because Hunt supports many of May’s positions, he was caricatured as “Theresa in trousers.”

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Johnson’s populist politics — and shock of blond hair — have been compared to President Trump. The U.S. leader has said Johnson would do a “great job” as prime minister.

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Johnson waved a vacuum-wrapped fish at a campaign event and railed at E.U. shipping regulations. As in his Brussels days, his story was inaccurate. The offending regulations are British.


On the day of the changeover at Downing Street, May hosted her last “prime minister’s questions” session and then submitted her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II. Johnson then met with the queen and officially became prime minister. “After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record,” he said.