LONDON – Boris Johnson once said he had as much chance of becoming Britain’s prime minister as of finding Elvis on Mars.
It was typical Johnson: a joke to deflect attention from his intense ambition.
Johnson has long yearned to be Britain’s leader, and now stands as strong favorite to win a Conservative Party runoff vote against Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The winner is due to be announced in late July, and will replace Theresa May as party leader and prime minister.
It’s the latest dramatic lurch in the roller-coaster career of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a flaxen-haired, Latin-spouting eccentric once described by historian Max Hastings as “a man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple.”
Born in 1964 into a noisy, close-knit upper-middle-class family, the 55-year-old is a graduate of elite private school Eton and Oxford University. He has been a journalist (once fired for fabricating a quote), a Conservative member of Parliament (sacked as party vice chairman for lying about an extramarital affair), the mayor of London, Britain’s top diplomat and a leading advocate of leaving the European Union.
Even allies admit his record is mixed. Johnson was an energetic ambassador for London as mayor between 2008 and 2016, though critics blasted his backing for vanity projects including a little-used cable car and a never-built “garden bridge” over the River Thames.
A leading figure in Britain’s 2016 campaign to leave the EU, he was made foreign secretary by May when she came to power after the referendum. His two years in the job were studded with missteps. He was recorded saying that a violence-torn Libyan city could become a tourism hub once authorities “clear the dead bodies away,” and worsened the plight of a British-Iranian woman detained in Tehran by repeating an incorrect Iranian allegation that she was a journalist.
In July 2018, Johnson quit the government over his opposition to May’s Brexit blueprint. Since then he has burnished his hard-Brexit credentials, vowing to lead Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, deal or no deal – though he is vague about how he plans to achieve this.
Quick-witted, chaotic, a born entertainer and attention-seeker, Johnson is seen by many Conservatives as a politician who can win over floating voters and defeat rival parties on both the left and the right.
But others argue that decades of verbal blunders, glibly offensive comments and falsehoods make him unfit for high office. Johnson has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, claimed that “part Kenyan” Barack Obama had an ancestral dislike of Britain and compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
Johnson says he’s just engaging in plain-speaking and accuses journalists of distorting his words. Critics allege that his quips are not gaffes, but populist tactics straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.
Political scientist Tim Bale said it would be a mistake to see Johnson “as the panel-show host and mayor of London of days gone by, rather than the Steve Bannon-influenced, Trump-influenced populist that he has since become.”
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