Johnson’s rise to power has been long telegraphed (including in his own weekly columns in the Tory-boosting Daily Telegraph). A scion of wealth and privilege, Johnson went to Eton and Oxford before embarking on a controversial career in journalism that would catapult him into politics. During his stints as a correspondent in Brussels, Johnson charmed right-wing readers with his activist reporting on the foibles and excesses of the European Union — and earned a reputation for sensationalism and shoddy journalism.
“What was irritating is that he . . . started coming up with some extraordinary and, it turned out, completely inventive untrue stories about Brussels,” Bill Newton Dunn, a long-serving British member of the European Parliament, told my colleagues. He recalled one of many dubious headlines: “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same.”
In the last tortured months of Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenure, Johnson drilled down on an emotive theme: Brexit at all costs. The country’s slow lurch out of the E.U. has paralyzed British politics and exasperated voters of all stripes. May couldn’t overcome the divisions within her own party about the way forward. Johnson, formerly a foreign secretary in May’s government, quit after it became clear May would not deliver the sweeping, clean break from Europe that he and his Brexiteer cohort had promised. For him, it was easier to bide his time and carp from the sidelines than own the mess of disentangling Britain from the continent.
That cynicism was baked in from the start. In February 2016, before championing Brexit, Johnson is said to have drafted two separate columns for the Daily Telegraph, one extolling the merits of leaving the E.U. and another warning that the risks of Brexit were greater than its rewards. He eventually calculated that his political fortunes lay with the former and, as the mayor of London, became the face of the Leave campaign, deploying his wit, irascible enthusiasm and carefully cultivated bumbling affect ahead of a June 2016 referendum no one — including Johnson himself — expected to win.
But the prime minister-in-waiting has been reading throughout from a different script. He makes incessant appeals to the bravura and derring-do of Britain’s past, summoning the spirit of the Blitz and the stubborn will of his icon, Winston Churchill. In a column this Sunday, Johnson embraced the legacy of the American moon landing. If astronauts “could use hand-knit computer codes to make a frictionless reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere,” he wrote, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Ireland border.”
Such absurd, if entertaining, commentary won’t translate easily into meaningful politics.
“Johnson’s entire pitch for the Conservative Party leadership can be read, in fact, as an argument for the force of character,” wrote the Atlantic’s Tom McTague. “In his telling, after years of timidity under the dutiful but ineffective leadership of May, the country needs sheer will — not new technocratic fixes — to solve Britain’s ills . . . This is the Johnsonian view of the world: a romantic, egocentric belief in his personal power to do great things, to solve great puzzles, through the force of his personality.”
In that sense, he’s hardly alone. “Boris Johnson, like [former Italian leader] Silvio Berlusconi, [President] Trump and all the other populist seducers who have made their entry onto the world stage of late, stands for the profanation and infantilization of politics,” wrote Jörg Schindler in German magazine Der Spiegel. “If it benefits him somehow, he can be a liberal today, a social democrat tomorrow and conservative the day after. And he doesn’t even need to conceal his lack of plans and principles.”
Johnson “played a pivotal role in tipping sentiment” in favor of Brexit, Schindler argued. “And now he’s supposed to repair the porcelain he has delighted in smashing over these past years? It promises to be a grandiose — and potentially disastrous show.”
Johnson’s embrace of Churchill lends “his own cynicism and mendacity a paradoxical kind of gravity,” suggested Irish writer Fintan O’Toole in a scathing essay. “It is a mark of how far Britain has fallen,” he added, “that, in what may indeed be its biggest crisis since 1940, so many Tories are willing to suspend disbelief in Johnson’s pantomime caricature of the man who gave it the courage to ‘stand alone’ in that dark hour.”
Set against Trump, whose “anarchism shades into authoritarianism, Johnson’s shades into a kind of insouciant nihilism,” O’Toole mused. “The joker’s evasiveness that has taken him to the brink of power will be no use to him if he crosses that threshold and has to make fateful decisions.”
Johnson is now at that threshold; along with countless others, he must be trembling.