LONDON — The race for British prime minister has suddenly become a contest all about character. And so it’s been a rough few days for front-runner Boris Johnson, seen as either the next Winston Churchill or an entertaining dissembler, depending.
Pretty much everyone expects Johnson to win the contest — unless the flamboyant, rumpled, ambitious former London mayor does something to trip himself up. And there’s been some tripping up already.
On Friday, the Guardian ran a scoop about an argument — what Brits call a “row” — that brought police to the apartment Johnson, 55, shares with girlfriend Carrie Symonds, 31, a former communications strategist for the Tories.
A neighbor (himself now a figure of controversy) taped the argument and played it for the Guardian, including shouts heard through the wall from Symonds of “Get off me” and “You just don’t care for anything, because you’re spoilt.”
Johnson’s challenger, Jeremy Hunt — the foreign secretary and multimillionaire in the smart suit — on Sunday accused Johnson of dodging debates and press interviews, which he was.
“So don’t be a coward, Boris,” Hunt said. “Man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”
There ensued 24 hours of news coverage about the appropriateness of one male candidate telling another male candidate to “man up.”
To calm the waters, a “friend” released a gauzy romantic photo of Johnson holding hands with Symonds in a meadow on a sunny hilltop.
Date of photo unknown. Location uncertain. But a big splash in the media. Only after the photo ran on Tuesday’s front pages did British journalists demand to know the source.
On Tuesday, Johnson refused to comment on the picture or where it came from while appearing on LBC radio, as host Nick Ferrari drilled down, “This is quite an old picture, isn’t it?”
This is all happening — the shouty row and the “man up” stuff — as Britain faces a looming October deadline for Brexit, deemed by many the most significant challenge the country has faced since World War II.
This has become the strangest kind of election.
First of all, it is not an election so much as a selection, by the 160,000 dues-paying Conservative Party members who will choose their next party leader, who in turn will become the prime minister of a country of 66 million. This is the first time in history a British leader has been chosen like this.
All societies have cherished myths, and one of the British myths is that the private life of public people should remain private. Yet public personages in Britain — from the royals to the lowest backbenchers in Parliament to retired footballers — have had their phones hacked, their trash rifled, their lives upended by a voracious tabloid culture, of both purveyors and consumers.
A columnist at the upmarket London Times did not break any new ground when she wrote Sunday about Johnson having “three mistresses on record, an abortion and at least one love child.”
Whether this stuff hurts or helps Johnson is untested. He remains the clear favorite of the Conservative Party activists, who have been demoralized by outgoing Theresa May’s tenure as prime minister.
They want a winner, and the thinking is that Johnson is a winner — that he can deliver Brexit, beat back challenges by populist Nigel Farage and best Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the next general election.
In the final ballot among Conservative lawmakers, Johnson won the backing of more than half of his colleagues in Westminster — 160 out of 313 members. Hunt, the runner-up, got just 77 votes.
The most recent survey, by the U.K. polling company Survation, taken after Johnson’s spat with his girlfriend, found that 45 percent of Tory voters still backed Johnson, compared with 34 percent for Hunt. The race has tightened in a week.
The dues-paying Tories who will choose the next prime minister are generally older, whiter, more male, more middle-class and more likely to live outside London. These members tell pollsters they want Brexit. Johnson has promised, “do or die,” that Britain will exit on Oct. 31.
But will it?
The question of character clings to Johnson.
The very proper Economist magazine illustrated its latest cover with an image of Johnson half done up in clown makeup, with the headline: “Which Boris would Britain get?”
The Guardian quoted one of the Conservative Party’s largest donors, John Griffin, saying, “We need to know if he can be trusted.”
“He will get even more attention from women if he becomes PM,” Griffin said. “I would be concerned if he went marauding around, taking advantage of women by using his position. It would not be right at all.”
Johnson served briefly in the May government as foreign secretary, a stint marked by as many gaffes as breakthroughs in diplomacy.
In Myanmar, the British ambassador had to stop him in the middle of reciting a colonial-era poem in front of a group of local dignitaries.
One of Johnson’s most careless blunders concerned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national who has been languishing in an Iranian jail for three years on charges she denies. As foreign secretary, Johnson said she was teaching journalism in Iran. Her family, which claims that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday, said Johnson’s comments undercut her release.
Johnson points to his tenure as a relatively popular mayor of socially liberal, global London, a city propelled by media, finance, tech, education, real estate and immigrants.
But his critics warn that the London mayor’s top job is PR — and to keep the tube running.
Max Hastings, who edited the Daily Telegraph when Johnson was the paper’s Brussels correspondent, wrote an excoriating piece this week about his former star journalist.
Hastings called Johnson a “brilliant entertainer who made a popular maître d’ for London as its mayor,” but said he is “unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”
George Packer, a political editor at the Financial Times, described Johnson as “the most charismatic, shambolic and divisive politician of his generation.”
But there are plenty of people in Johnson’s corner. Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiteer, said Johnson will make good on his promise to exit the European Union in October.
“We need a leaver and somebody who really believes in it to get us out,” Rees-Mogg told LBC radio. “Boris is very positive about the opportunities, rather than the very defensive approach Mrs. May always took.”
Johnson was the face of the 2016 pro-Brexit campaign, while May voted to “remain.”
Jesse Norman, a Conservative politician who has worked on previous Johnson campaigns, said: “Boris is different in many ways from the public caricatures. He has the capacity to re-energize the government, resolve the deadlock over Brexit and above all keep this country away from the very dangerous policies of the Labour Party. Those are goals we can unite behind.”
“The Establishment is appalled, astonished, aghast. PM Boris?” Quentin Letts, a journalist and Johnson supporter, wrote in the Sun tabloid. “They shake their heads in despair that we ill-washed voters are unable — not clever enough — to share their view. How DARE he be so popular?”
Correction: An earlier version of this report referred to the ouster of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and described it as happening this year. He resigned in 2017.