The Exceptional Rise of Boris Johnson

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“I think Boris honestly sees it as churlish of us not to regard him as an exception—one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”  These words were written by a housemaster at Eton College about a young student named Boris Johnson.

Today, over 30 years later, Johnson seems to have gotten his way.  He is widely regarded as an exception.  In the course of his political career, he has triumphed over scandals that would have felled many a lesser man.  He is currently the mayor of London and the most popular politician in the United Kingdom.  In May 2015, he will likely be elected to Parliament.  Thanks to Johnson’s trademark messy blond hair, gift for generating sound bites, and eye for a good photo op, the British media fixate on his every move.  No one doubts that he is set on becoming prime minister.  Whoever is leading the Conservative Party after the next election should watch his back.

The man usually referred to in the media as just “Boris” or “BoJo” was born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in 1964 to a wealthy, upper-class family.  He showed signs of an ambitious nature from an early age, telling his parents that when he grew up he wanted to become “world king.”  At Eton College—alma mater of 19 British prime ministers, including incumbent David Cameron—Johnson was elected head boy.  He went on to Oxford University, where he was elected president of the famed Oxford Union debating society.

Despite such a promising start, Johnson was fired from an early job as a journalist with the Times for fabricating a quotation from a source.  This would be the first indication of Johnson’s tendency to sabotage himself.  Most of the major setbacks in his career have been self-inflicted.

Johnson quickly rebounded, being hired as a reporter by the Daily Telegraph.  His success there led to his appointment as editor of The Spectator.  Johnson built his public profile by giving regular interviews and appearing on the BBC’s satirical commentary show Have I Got News for You.  His bumbling humor and occasional gaffes made him a popular guest.

When he was offered the editor’s post at The Spectator, Johnson promised his publisher that he would not seek political office.  But he broke his word and ran for Parliament as a Conservative soon thereafter.  His dual roles as editor of The Spectator and MP regularly caused headaches for the Conservative leadership when his articles seemed to contradict official party stances.  Reflecting on this period, Johnson told the BBC, “My policy on cake was pro having it and pro eating it.  I did a kind of circus act where I had these two ponies and gradually they got further and further apart with the inevitable result.”

Despite his bad experiences, Johnson seems not to have changed his policy on cake.  In 2008, after being elected mayor of London, he was rehired by the Daily Telegraph as a columnist.  Johnson’s annual salary of £250,000 ($400,000) drew criticism.  He responded by calling it “chicken feed” and pointing out that he donates £50,000 of it to fund scholarships.  His columns still regularly diverge from his party’s official platform.  In August, he wrote that British nationals who travel to Syria and Iraq should be presumed to be terrorists and stripped of their citizenship.  This goes far beyond measures proposed by Cameron’s government.

In 2004, Johnson suffered a major setback in his political career when his extramarital affair with a member of The Spectator’s staff was exposed.  He had lied about the affair to then-Conservative Party leader Michael Howard.  Thus, Howard felt he could no longer trust Johnson and fired him from his position as shadow minister for the arts.

Johnson’s prospects improved when Cameron took over as leader of the Conservative Party.  A fellow old Etonian, Cameron drafted Johnson to run for mayor of London.  Johnson was not the first choice, but suitable candidates were in short supply.  London traditionally voted for the Labour Party, and the incumbent Mayor Ken Livingstone was seen as undefeatable.

Johnson’s campaign initially drew scorn and derision.  Some commentators said it would be like putting an inmate in charge of the asylum.  Others said his privileged background meant he could never win over London’s poorer communities.  Livingstone claims he immediately realized Johnson’s humorous public persona made him a formidable opponent.  “People laugh.  I would never miss Have I Got News for You when he was on it.  I would almost fall off my chair.  That’s a very powerful quality.  Boris makes people feel good about themselves,” he told the BBC in 2013.

Johnson defied conventional wisdom by winning the election in 2007 with a small majority.  He resigned his seat in Parliament and wasted no time in making the role of mayor his own.  After Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he and Johnson clashed regularly.  For instance, when Cameron announced plans to cut rent subsidies that would affect many of London’s poor, Johnson said on a radio show, “What we will not see, and will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London.  On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots.”

If Johnson had tried to design the perfect platform for his talents and ambition, he could not have done better than the office of London mayor.  Apart from the scandals, his career in Parliament had been unremarkable.  As mayor of London, he is largely free to do as he pleases.  Johnson has never given much evidence of holding any deep political convictions.  He does whatever furthers his own interests, even if this involves disloyalty to his party.  As mayor, he can claim he is standing up for the people of London; defying Cameron boosts his standing with his constituents.

The office of mayor also provides limitless opportunities for photo ops.  Today, it is difficult to open a newspaper or turn on a news show in the United Kingdom without seeing images of Johnson.  One day he’s holding up a brick to highlight the importance of building new houses.  Another day he’s playing guitar at a London Underground station to publicize an arts initiative.  Later still, he’s playing basketball with underprivileged youths.

Johnson’s ultimate moment in the spotlight was the 2012 London Olympics.  He was in the media constantly promoting the games and became something of an unofficial mascot.  After British athletes won their first gold medal, he celebrated by donning a harness to ride a zip line across a public park while waving two British flags.  As the cameras rolled, Johnson got stuck halfway across the wire.  This only served to endear him further to the public.  Cameron commented afterward, “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire, it would be a disaster.  For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph.”

Johnson consciously cultivates his lovably disheveled image—and not just by leaving his hair uncombed.  As his biographer Sonia Purnell wrote in the Guardian, “Those wonderfully spontaneous bumbling speeches . . . are meticulously planned.  Former staff reveal how the pauses, the non sequiturs, the rambling tangents are studiously prepared; the most successful jokes and ‘off-the-cuff’ Boris-isms are rehearsed and recycled.”  Conrad Black, Johnson’s former publisher at the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, told the BBC, “He’s a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear.”

As Johnson’s popularity grew, so did speculation about his further ambition.  Only MPs are eligible to become prime minister; thus, returning to Parliament is a critical step.  Johnson is legally permitted to hold dual office.  However, he had pledged to serve only as mayor until his term expires in 2016.  Then, in August, he sheepishly announced that he would be running for Parliament in the May 2015 election.  He was swiftly selected as candidate for a majority-Conservative constituency, so his victory is virtually guaranteed.

Many party activists were elated.  Johnson’s popularity is seen as one of the Conservatives’ best assets in the fight to win back voters who are defecting to the United Kingdom Independence Party.

After Johnson made his announcement, Cameron tweeted, “Great news that Boris plans to stand at next year’s general election—I’ve always said I want my star players on the pitch.”  One cannot help but wonder about his true feelings on having a celebrity rival with a history of disloyalty breathing down his neck.

If the Conservatives lose in May, Cameron will resign.  The call will certainly go up for Johnson to replace him as party leader, but some political observers wonder if he will answer straight away.  He would face a minimum of five years serving as leader of the opposition, a thankless job that involves endless drudgery and very little glory.  Johnson might prefer to let someone else do the hard work while he continues building his popularity.  He could still take over as leader closer to the 2020 election.

Such a move is not without precedent.  Iain Duncan Smith served as leader of the opposition Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003 but was replaced before ever contesting an election.  An MP at the time, Johnson witnessed Duncan Smith’s fall firsthand.

Regardless of the outcome of the next election, the British media will fixate on Johnson and his ambition for some years to come.  If he can control his tendency toward self-sabotage, the boy who dreamed of being “world king” may well become prime minister of the United Kingdom.

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