Who is Boris Johnson?

Boris Johnson became British prime minister in July, as the result of a Conservative Party leadership contest. He campaigned on getting Britain out of the European Union, but that was hard to do without a parliamentary majority to support him. So he asked voters to endorse him and his party in a December general election. 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. But 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 in June.

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Johnson was the favorite to be prime minister in 2016, 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 decision was put to the 139,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party.

Johnson sought to appeal to hardcore Brexiteers by promising that the U.K. would 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 supported many of May’s positions, he was caricatured as “Theresa in trousers.”

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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.


Conservatives chose Johnson as their leader. Upon becoming prime minister in July, he declared that Britain needed a can-do attitude to make Brexit happen. “After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record,” he said.

Johnson pushed a more decisive split from the E.U. than his predecessor proposed. He also declared he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than request a Brexit extension beyond Oct. 31.


Britain long ago tired of the Brexit debate. But it remains divided on what its relationship with Europe should look like.


Johnson succeeded in renegotiating a withdrawal deal with E.U. leaders but failed to get parliamentary support for his fast-tracked plan. He he had to request a Brexit extension, then called a snap election.

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Johnson’s populist politics — and shock of blond hair — have been compared to President Trump. The two are allies. But because the U.S. leader is so unpopular in Britain, Johnson has tried to keep his distance.

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Johnson's main opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has charged that a post-Brexit Britain under Johnson would be subservient to Trump and put the beloved National Heath Service up for sale.

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Besides pledging to "get Brexit done," Johnson has vowed to end the austerity program of previous Conservative governments and start spending once again.

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