Mad in Britain How Boris Johnson Turned the British against Europe

Boris Johnson has always wanted to make it to the top, and he's almost there. The man who helped Brexit pass will now likely have the job of delivering it. But it's possible that even he doesn't know what he wants to do. Europe is in for a turbulent autumn.

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By in London


One day, Boris Johnson had the idea to build a luxuriant garden bridge in London. On another, he urgently pushed for an airport on an artificial island, mocked by detractors as "Boris Island." Once, he believed the time had come for a truly enormous construction that would connect England to Europe. And recently, he's been saying he would like to build a bridge connecting Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Johnson appears to dream of one day walking on water. For now, though, he simply wants to become Britain's next prime minister.

That's what brought him here to the seaside resort of Bournemouth in southern England. He ignores the thousands of Brits frolicking on the kilometer-long beach on this summer day, and instead marches straight into the Pavilion Theatre where the "Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club" regularly performs and the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" will soon be staged.

Around 600 members of the Conservative Party are sitting in the cream-colored theater and are currently in the process of electing a new leader -- who will also be Britain's next prime minister. There's not much excitement in the hall; the whole thing is more reminiscent of a funeral service than a coronation mass, though that probably has less to do with the desolate state of the Tories than with the advanced median age of the audience, which looks to be around 70.

The two top candidates each have one hour to charm their fellow party members in Bournemouth. Johnson gets to go first. Before the moderator has even finished speaking his name, the 55-year-old works his way around the stage set and marches forward with his bull-necked, compact posture, which always makes him look like a younger and blonder Winston Churchill. Then he rattles off witty remarks to the audience like volleys of gunfire. Are these dark times for the Tories? Yes, but "the night is darkest before dawn." Brexit? A piece of cake. All the doomsayers who warned of biblical droughts and skies without any airplanes didn't believe in the greatness of Great Britain.

Boris Johnson says he will complete Britain's withdrawal from the EU "with style" and that he will no longer ask questions in Brussels, but instead dictate the way forward. "A little bit more resolve is necessary," he says. By this point, even the most elderly in the theater are cheering.

'Hunt Would Be More Competent, Boris More Amusing'

It's an entertaining and energetic performance, so very different from that of his challenger Jeremy Hunt, who has rolled his sleeves up to his elbow and memorized almost all the economic strongholds in southern England. But he manages only to gently lull his audience to sleep with facts and figures.

Asked what his takeaway from Bournemouth is later, one conservative answers, "That Hunt would be the more competent prime minister, but that Boris would be more amusing."

So, has Johnson's time finally come? Will this man who has had a role in shaping British politics for 30 years now be holding the keys to 10 Downing Street next Wednesday? It certainly seems so.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson still has to keep his notorious penchant for self-destruction in check during the final dash. And he has to secure the majority of votes from the Tory Party, which has around 160,000 members. And if he does succeed, he will also have to convince Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II that more than half of the elected parliamentarians in the British House of Commons back him. Otherwise, she might refuse to appoint him.

But even at this point, it's hard to imagine Johnson not becoming Britain's 77th prime minister. He's too far ahead in the polls not to win, with seven out of 10 Tories saying they want to vote for him. The man who loves writing about great Englishmen like Churchill and Shakespeare will soon have the chance to show whether he is built of the same stuff.

Another Joke in the Never-Ending Brexit Farce

It isn't even remotely possible to predict what Johnson as prime minister would mean for a country that voted to leave the European Union over three years ago and has been teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis since. Brexit has put Britain into a kind of political coma -- it's still managing to handle basic things, but the country is more or less unconscious and leaderless.

The two major parties -- the Conservatives and Labour -- have been worn out by countless internal Brexit skirmishes and are at risk of breaking apart. Meanwhile, a determined competitor has emerged in the form of right-wing populist Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, which feeds on people's anger and wants to smash the entire democratic system to pieces.

The fact that the originally planned Brexit date of March 29, 2019, has already been postponed twice, and could possibly be postponed a third and fourth time, plays right into the hands of this destructive force. And though time may be running out for other British politicians, it is not for Farage.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been humiliated more often and more mercilessly than just about any British politician before her, has been forced to abandon the effort to complete Brexit -- in any form. Someone else will have to do that now. And that someone will likely be named Boris Johnson, in yet another joke in the never-ending Brexit farce.

Johnson of all people. The man who, for a long time, couldn't even decide whether he was for or against leaving the EU; who prepared two newspaper columns in the run-up to the June 2016 referendum, one arguing Britain should stay in the union and the other arguing that it should leave; who ultimately, out of obvious personal calculation, made himself the front man for Brexit and played a pivotal role in tipping sentiment in the country in its favor. 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.

A clear majority of the British distrust the stage character that Johnson plays, which so often comes across as a kind of 21st century Falstaff: a loud-mouthed, vain and rowdy ditherer, but also so shrewd and eloquent that many find it difficult to resist his seductive ways. A large share of British parliamentarians and even many Tory members of the European Parliament trust Johnson about as far as they can throw him.

And yet a bizarre coalition of conservative enemies of the EU and former EU allies have rallied behind him, united in their panic over the Tories' potential loss of power and the far-fetched belief that only Johnson can make the impossible possible: Namely keeping Nigel Farage and socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at bay while at the same time guiding the British people into the much vaunted post-Brexit Promised Land.

'A Ceaseless Struggle for Supremacy'

But there's a catch: Johnson may also have inexhaustible charisma, but he doesn't have a plan -- only an apparently unshakable belief in himself. But how far will that take him?

History is repeating itself. The country that gave birth to modern democracy now seems willing to elect a populist born in New York who has made his peculiar hair his trademark and who, as a member of the elite, is now agitating against them -- and who feels like he is destined for greatness.

Boris Johnson was born "to wage a ceaseless struggle for supremacy," says Andrew Gimson, as he ponders Britain's future prime minister over a glass of white wine. It's not easy for the British journalist to utter those words. The 61-year-old is a friendly contemporary of Johnson's who at times closes his eyes for an extended moment before muttering remarks that are ready-for-print. They don't include many critical ones. Recently, he says, people have been saying too many negative things about Johnson. "He is often kinder than the people who attack him."

Gimson is a friend and ex-colleague of Johnson's. The two used to work together at the Spectator, a weekly conservative magazine. In 2006, Gimson felt it was time to write a biography of Johnson. At the time, Johnson was just a simple member of the House of Commons but one, as Gimson wrote, who might someday become prime minister. Many shared that feeling back then.

When he approached Johnson about the idea at the time, he says, the politician was at first enthusiastic and then horrified. In the end, Gimson claims, Johnson jokingly offered him 100,000 pounds or, alternatively, free tutoring for his children if he abandoned his plans. Apparently, Johnson, who has an "excessive wish to be liked," suspected the book would go deeper rather than simply provide a flattering account.

In his biography, Gimson draws the image of an unsettled man who actually wanted to become "king of the world" even as a child. A lot of that is attributable to Stanley Johnson, who looks a lot like his son and, despite an age difference of 24 years, is often confused with him.

The family's history, rooted in Turkey, could be straight out of a fairy tale. Boris Johnson's great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman Empire and even ordered the arrest of Kemal Atatürk, the man who would go on to found modern Turkey. Ali Kemal eventually got lynched. Johnson's grandfather Osman Ali fled to London and renamed himself "Wilfred Johnson." Gimson writes that the Johnson family was not one that played together, with the focus instead on sibling rivalry. "If I came in second in Latin, my father would instantly demand: Who came first?" says Boris' half-sister Julia. "It became a standard catchphrase in our household and a vigorous deterrent against being anything except top."

A Permanent Charm Offensive

To get there, her big brother relied on three things in particular, starting with his undeniable talent. The second being humor. He inherited the role of the eccentric and, at times, simple-minded Englishman from his father Stanley, a book author, politician, philanderer and joker. It helps him to cloak his ambition. Third, he relies on his charm, which has enabled him to survive more scandals than any other politician of his generation.

Early on, Johnson made himself unassailable through his mix of talent, humor and the art of seduction. One telling episode is from his time at Eton, the elite boarding school that has produced more prime ministers than any other British school. During a school staging of Shakespeare's "Richard III," it was of course Johnson who got cast in the role of the king. But he didn't memorize his lines. Instead, invisible to the audience, he stapled notes to the stage set and hurried from one to the next during the performance.

"Boris is pretty impressive when success can be achieved by pure intelligence unaccompanied by hard work," one of Boris' teachers wrote to Stanley Johnson in 1982. The teacher added: "I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else."

Those airs -- that he was different than the others -- could also be observed during his time at Oxford University, only he often thought he was better. Oddly enough, many of the men who are responsible for Britain's current political fate, met at Oxford in the mid-1980s. On the one hand, you had men like former Prime Minister David Cameron, Exchequer Philip Hammond and current foreign minister and Johnson rival Jeremy Hunt, who chose subjects like politics and economics. On the other, you had people like Boris Johnson, who studied classical antiquity and ardent EU opponent Jacob Rees-Mogg, who earned a degree in history. The first group would campaign 30 years later for their country to remain in the EU, with the latter choosing Brexit.

The Political Entertainer

Johnson even wanted to stand out from this group, so he ran to become president of the famous Oxford Union debate club in 1984. It shocked him when he lost to a nobody who hadn't even gone to an elite boarding school. He ran again the following year. The second time, he chose a strategy that he is using again today to try to unite his party and country behind him: He presented himself as a tough-as-nails Tory to fellow conservative students, while making liberal promises to students who skewed toward Labour. That's how he won.

The fact that he was never able to precisely articulate the policies he wanted to pursue as a leader somehow got lost in all the Boris euphoria. Andrew Gimson also met Johnson at Oxford. "Boris made people helpless with laughter," he says, "and so great was their enjoyment that they scarcely cared what he did with their support, as long as he kept on amusing them."

Johnson's time as a political entertainer began in the spring of 1989. The young journalist had been sent to Brussels as a correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph newspaper. He had previously been forced out at the respected Times of London newspaper after fabricating a controversial quote. But his employers at the Telegraph didn't seem to care. Johnson knew the EU capital well, too -- his father Stanley had once transplanted the family to Belgium because he had landed a job at the European Commission and in the European Parliament. When Boris was young, his mother disappeared from his life for eight months that she spent at a clinic following a nervous breakdown. His parents later separated. This left Johnson without any positive memories of his life in the EU capital.

His second run in Brussels came at a very interesting time. Less than six months earlier, the debate in Britain over its membership in the EU had hit a new peak of intensity. Margaret Thatcher, who had always been skeptical about integrating too deeply, had gone on the offensive. Arch-conservative Thatcher was deeply suspicious of then-European Commission President Jacques Delors' vision of turning the economic alliance into an ever-closer and, above all, a "social" union. To her, social sounded a bit too much like socialist. In a speech in Bruges, "Mrs. No" warned of a "European super-state." The atmosphere was ripe for someone who would become Thatcher's "favorite journalist" in no time at all.

There is little to suggest that Boris Johnson had a strong attitude toward Europe when he began reporting from Brussels. But the bureaucratic wrangling, the antagonism that is inherent to the democratic process and all the hullabaloo over regulations must have felt like an imposition for a freethinker like him who always has to be thinking in superlatives.

A Pinocchio-Like Relationship With the Truth

He soon began making fun of all the EU's trivialities, and he got a warm reception for it back in London, where the euroskeptics in the Tory party were growing louder and louder. So, Johnson began delivering ever wilder articles. As long as people bought into his fairy tales, it didn't bother Johnson that he was curating an increasingly Pinocchio-like relationship with the truth.

Johnson claimed that the EU wanted to ban British shrimp-flavored potato chips. That the EU wanted to standardize condom sizes throughout the Continent, ignoring what he alluded to be a smaller endowment among Italian men. He also claimed the EU wanted to categorize snails as fish. Even that the internal market would possibly lead to one of the biggest art thefts in history and make the borders between states so permeable that the Continent would become a paradise for drug smugglers, terrorists, arms dealers and migrants of all kinds.

Every afternoon, Johnson, who was often choleric and resentful, would work himself up into his ritual "4 o'clock rage," says Sonia Purnell, who was his deputy at the time and would later write a biography about him. In return, he would scream obscenities at the yucca plant on his desk to get in the right mood to write his anti-EU treatises. Just for fun.

Purnell is convinced that her former colleague negligently supplied British right-wing populists and anti-EU agitators with all kinds of ammunition. It may or may not be a coincidence. The UK Independence Party, whose rise would later play a decisive role in the successful 2016 Brexit referendum, first ran in an election for the European Parliament in 1994 -- Boris Johnson's final year in Brussels.

Former British EU Commissioner Chris Patten considers Johnson "one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism." But he says you can't really label the former journalist as a liar. "I think he's one of those people in life who simply doesn't really understand the difference between fact and fiction," says Patten.

Given that he always got away with everything that he said and did, he just got even more carried away. Even after his switch to politics in 1997, he continued to invent facts, figures and threats. Infatuated with his own, classically schooled art of formulating things, he insulted women, black people, gays, Muslims, Liverpudlians, abuse victims, Labour voters, climate protection activists and practically every other group in and outside of Britain -- except rich white men.

The fact that his ability to seduce stretched beyond the political arena meant that he lied repeatedly about his amorous escapades, which were and are so numerous that it still isn't clear how many illegitimate children he actually has.

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