Tie askew, hair mussed into a state of tonsorial turmoil, one sock inside out, Boris Johnson is facing his first major audition for the job he has craved all his life. He knows what is coming. “Why were the police called to your house in the early hours of Friday morning?” asks Iain Dale, the moderator of last month’s Conservative leadership hustings in Birmingham. An uneasy murmur spreads along the gathered rows of party members.
“I don’t think people want to hear about that kind of thing,” Johnson growls, referring to the row with his partner Carrie Symonds, during which she shouted “Get off me” and lambasted him for spilling red wine on her sofa. Britain’s prospective prime minister had been recorded yelling “Get off my f**king laptop”.
Police, alerted by neighbours, visited the apartment and said they had no cause for concern, but the dispute quickly found its way on to the front pages.
Then Johnson does something strange. Out of nowhere, he starts recounting his struggle as London mayor to introduce a restyled version of London’s red Routemaster bus, complete with a hop-on, hop-off platform at the back.
“People said we shouldn’t have an open platform on the back of the new Routemaster bus,” he tells the bemused audience. “They said Brussels was against it and that it was against health and safety. But we delivered it.”
It is classic Johnson: an imagined victory over the mighty EU and completely irrelevant. None of Johnson’s red buses today operates with an open platform — the conductors who were required to ensure their safety were deemed too expensive. Many of the Tory members cheer Johnson’s obfuscation, but a minority becomes restless: “Answer the question,” some heckle.
A few days later, Johnson, 55, is asked on Talk Radio about how he likes to relax, and embarks on another unexpected excursion. “I make . . . I have a thing where I make models of . . . buses,” he says, drifting into a kind of reverie.
“I get old, um, I don’t know, wooden crates, right? And then I paint them . . . I suppose it’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles . . . I turn it into a bus . . . I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus.”
Johnson’s team cringe with embarrassment as they recall the interview and one cabinet minister observes: “I thought he sounded unhinged — it was bizarre.” Could it be that the man, simultaneously Britain’s most liked and loathed Conservative politician, finds comfort in returning to happier times when — as London mayor — he actually ran the buses? “He wants to be liked,” says the cabinet minister. “When he was London mayor he was liked.”
In his City Hall days from 2008 to 2016, Johnson’s bus anecdote would have been viewed as proof of the loveable eccentricity of this man-child politician, odds-on to become Britain’s next prime minister at the end of the leadership contest on July 24. Today, however, his many critics question the motives behind every utterance of the figure they blame for landing Britain in its Brexit crisis.
As the bus-hobby video clip went viral, online-content strategists pointed out that by talking about buses, the former foreign secretary had successfully crowded out from online searches what would normally come up if you google “Boris and bus”: the infamous red bus in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, which falsely claimed that Britain sent £350m a week to Brussels, and which added: “Let’s fund our NHS instead.” It is that bus that defines Johnson today.
Johnson has told mainstream Tory MPs that if he becomes prime minister he will again become the popular, socially liberal figure who defied the odds by winning the London mayoralty in a Labour city in 2008 — the man who won plaudits for promoting an amnesty for illegal immigrants, cheap travel and a “living wage” for Londoners, set against the warm glow of the 2012 Olympics.
His critics see instead the hard Brexiter who harnessed populist anti-immigrant messages to win the vote to get Britain out of the EU. Johnson now presents himself as the man to sort out Brexit and “pitchfork this incubus off our back”. One Tory MP sighs: “He’s the one who put it there.”
Many in the party suspect Johnson is not a true Brexiter and that he only backed Leave to further his career. Asked once why he wanted to swap journalism for politics, the prospective Tory leader told a friend: “They don’t put up statues to journalists.”
Among the broader public, Johnson no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. While 25 per cent of Britons thought he would make a good prime minister, according to a recent YouGov poll, 58 per cent thought he would be a bad one.
The candidate has also faced questions about a number of racist and offensive comments he has made in the past. “Occasionally some plaster comes off the ceiling,” Johnson said, when asked about his use of language. In his weekly Daily Telegraph column, he has previously called Africans “piccaninnies”, referred to “watermelon smiles” and called gay men “bum boys”.
Successful London mayor or incompetent foreign secretary? Compassionate Conservative or dog-whistle racist? Serious figure or court jester? What sort of prime minister would Boris Johnson be?
In Birmingham, Johnson supporters are out in force. “He’s the leader this country needs,” Aman Bhogal from London tells the FT. “He will get Brexit done and build a great Britain, like he built a great London.”
Mark Platt from Walsall agrees: “He’s charismatic and controversial. He can connect with a wider audience. He’s the breath of fresh air we need.”
Having won the backing of more than half of all Conservative MPs in the first phase of the contest to succeed Theresa May as party leader — and thus prime minister — he looks almost certain to beat his rival Jeremy Hunt, the managerial foreign secretary, in the second stage of the contest.
About 160,000 party members will choose between the two men in a postal ballot this month; polls suggest about two-thirds of party activists currently back Johnson.
The party membership, according to surveys, loves Johnson’s “do or die” commitment to leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal. One survey found that a majority of Tory members wanted to see Brexit completed even if it led to the break-up of the United Kingdom, significant damage to the economy or the destruction of the Conservative party itself.
Hunt is also prepared to countenance a no-deal exit but with one heavy caveat: it would amount to “political suicide” for the Tories.
Johnson’s coronation is not yet assured. The mood in Birmingham is enthusiastic but not euphoric. Party members hurl questions at him covering issues such as his youthful cocaine use, his “f**k business” response to corporate concerns about Brexit, and his description of Muslim women wearing the burka as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” in his newspaper column last year.
About 40 per cent of Tory members recently told YouGov that Johnson could not be trusted to tell the truth. As a journalist in the 1990s, he wrote stories for The Daily Telegraph lampooning the perceived absurdities he witnessed as the paper’s EU correspondent in Brussels; only some of them were true.
Max Hastings, his former editor, wrote recently in The Guardian: “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or a mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy . . . It seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.” Yet Hastings was happy enough to indulge Johnson — who had previously been fired by The Times for making up a quote — so long as he provided entertaining copy from Brussels.
Indeed, with his plus-size personality and rare gift for being able to make people laugh, Johnson has long been indulged by editors, voters and Tory activists. “He just brings so much energy,” says Wayne Fitzgerald, chairman of Peterborough Conservative Association.
“He’s not dull and boring as most politicians are perceived to be — you never see Boris give a dull speech. When he came to Peterborough, it was like the Pope arrived. He’s the glue that will unite the party and unite the country by delivering Brexit in October. I don’t believe there’s anyone else who could do that.”
“I think he’s probably going to win, with dire consequences for the party and the country,” says Dominic Grieve, the pro-EU former Tory attorney-general.
After Johnson’s abortive 2016 bid for the Tory leadership, some assumed his prime-ministerial ambitions were quashed for ever. But the combination of May’s inept leadership and her failure to pass any form of Brexit deal gave him another chance.
This time, his supporters are determined to protect him from his own worst instincts. Having learnt from his back catalogue of mistakes, gaffes and provocative quotes, his team are playing it safe and initially limited his public appearances.
Perhaps the critical figure in Johnson’s progress from shambolic former foreign secretary to prime minister-in-waiting has been 31-year-old Symonds, with whom he began a relationship after separating from his second wife Marina Wheeler last year.
Symonds, an experienced political operator who is well liked within the party, advised several cabinet ministers and led the Tory party’s communications outfit for a year until August 2018.
One Johnson supporter notes her ability to “take charge of Boris and really focus him”. She revitalised his appearance with fresh suits, a stringent diet and a new haircut. But her biggest role was to help Johnson make friends in the Conservative parliamentary party — something he has struggled with since first entering the Commons in 2001. At least half a dozen MPs told the FT they backed Johnson because of her role and understanding of the party.
Symonds also shaped the dynamic within the Boris Mark Two operation. She insisted on a clean campaign with no personal digs at opponents (Johnson scarcely references Hunt in interviews). Team Boris, in the past, had suffered from being overly macho — all his other key aides are male — and her influence has helped win over several female MPs to the campaign.
If Johnson makes it to Downing Street, Symonds is unlikely to take up a formal political role, advising privately instead. “Like Theresa [May] with [husband] Philip, Boris trusts Carrie completely,” says an ally of Johnson.
Friends expect her to continue as a senior adviser to Oceana, an ocean conservation charity part-funded by Michael Bloomberg. “I don’t think she will have a job, but Carrie will do her own thing as well as being Flotuk [First Lady of the United Kingdom],” says one aide.
The rest of the campaign team is split into three camps, with inevitable tensions between them as the jostling begins over who will fill the key roles in a Johnson cabinet — and in the backroom staff in Number 10 — if he makes it over the line and becomes prime minister.
First there are the long marchers, who supported his political career before the Brexit referendum and helped on his ill-fated 2016 leadership bid. This group includes Tory MPs Jake Berry, Ben Wallace and Conor Burns.
Then Johnson has his City Hall crew: the aides and politicians who worked with him during his two-term London mayoralty. Several of these are now MPs — notably Brexit minister James Cleverly and housing minister Kit Malthouse. Others are expected to join him in Number 10, including former chief of staff Edward Lister.
Johnson has stressed that if he becomes prime minister, he would build a high-calibre team around him modelled on his City Hall operation — an attempt to reassure critics who fear he would struggle with the detail.
“If he puts the right people in place, he could be a good prime minister,” says Neil Parish, a senior Conservative MP. “If he doesn’t, it will be a bloody disaster.”
“When he’s choosing staff, Boris looks to who he knows, who he trusts and who is good,” says Cleverly, a senior adviser to Johnson at City Hall. “He’ll take the same approach in Number 10 as in City Hall: setting the tone and agenda, delegating and letting people get on with the job.”
Will Walden, a former spokesman for Johnson, says the mayor was good at chasing up decisions: “He really got in your ear if you hadn’t done what you’d said you would do.”
Finally, Johnson has his new recruits who have signed up since the referendum. These include Gavin Williamson, sacked two months ago as defence secretary by May for allegedly leaking details of a National Security Council meeting. He successfully deployed a blend of threats and blandishments as Johnson’s unofficial “chief whip” to deliver the votes of Tory MPs a few weeks ago.
“Puke-making” is how one minister describes Williamson’s renaissance, but the presence of this former government chief whip marked a seriousness and ruthlessness that impressed many Tory MPs, who were invited in for 20-minute meetings with the candidate over the past few months.
Former Tory chairman Grant Shapps, who developed a complex spreadsheet to track the voting intentions of Tory MPs, and former MP James Wharton were joined on the campaign by other advisers, including former Vote Leave staffers Lee Cain for media and Oliver Lewis on policy.
“Boris obviously has the X factor but the big question was whether he could be focused,” Shapps says. “My experience of the campaign was that the answer to that was absolutely yes.”
On Monday and Tuesday evenings since January, dinners of veal, lamb or steak have been held at the Westminster town house of the leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg. Groups of eight to 10 different MPs attended these gatherings, enjoying vintage wines from his cellar.
Rees-Mogg’s 11-year-old son occasionally served drinks when the MPs arrived (Johnson was not drinking at the beginning of the year due to a diet). The purpose of these dinners was to make Johnson more “accessible” to colleagues.
Johnson ended up winning the votes of 160 MPs, but the success of the Westminster phase of the contest — where MPs whittled down a list of candidates to the final two — has been followed by a bumpy “transition” to the second phase. Mark Fullbrook, a business partner of the Australian elections expert Lynton Crosby, has been brought in to help win the backing of party members.
Fullbrook is a former Tory campaign director but his presence in the Johnson team has ruffled feathers among some in the team. One denounced as “atrocious” the unsuccessful Fullbrook campaign in 2016 to win the London mayoralty for Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith, which was labelled Islamophobic by the eventual winner, Labour’s Sadiq Khan.
Some of the support Johnson has won over the past eight months has arguably been less about his personal qualities than about the existential crisis facing his party. Many pro-EU Tories reluctantly accept that the party must deliver Brexit or face electoral oblivion.
They hope that if only Brexit could be delivered, the “London mayor-era” Johnson will re-emerge with a brand of compassionate Conservatism that could win Leave-supporting seats in the Midlands and the north of England, defeating the leftwing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Fullbrook’s campaign slogan is “deliver, unite, defeat”, or DUD for short. Johnson’s pitch is that he will deliver Brexit by the deadline, unite his party behind a centrist version of Toryism, and then defeat Corbyn at a subsequent election.
Robert Buckland, a justice minister and a Tory moderate, is hoping for the best: “He’s the inoculation we need against the bacillus of populism. His factory setting is one nation, compassionate Conservatism.”
Local government minister Rishi Sunak says Johnson understands the need for state-backed regeneration in the north and that in spite of his “f**k business” comment, he is committed to an enterprise economy.
“Boris unashamedly talks about wealth. He is able to sell the idea that we have to defend wealth creators in an inclusive way that resonates and doesn’t sound like we’re rapacious capitalists. No one else bothers.”
Johnson aims to end the decade of Tory austerity that followed the financial crash with a spending spree, intended to heal some of the problems in Britain that were reflected in the 2016 referendum.
More money will be found from somewhere for transport, schools, police and social care, along with a £20bn tax-cutting programme. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, however, that the tax cuts would mainly benefit richer households, and says they are incompatible with the government’s promise to end austerity.
Johnson is open to the charge that he is not bothered about where the money will come from. “You have no care for money or anything,” said Symonds to Johnson during their infamous row. Outside the flat they share in south London, Johnson’s car windscreen was seen to have accumulated unpaid parking fines.
David Gauke, justice secretary and a backer of Hunt, says anyone wanting to be Johnson’s chancellor would be making a “noble act of self-sacrifice”. Sajid Javid, home secretary and a former Deutsche Bank executive, is widely tipped for the role.
Johnson likes to cite his time at City Hall as evidence of his suitability for high office, though it included some famous mis-steps, such as the £43m of taxpayers’ money spent on a “garden bridge” that never materialised.
He tends to skate over his time as foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018, a period when he was criticised for a lack of seriousness and attention to detail. “He has undoubted abilities but when he’s given a responsible job like the Foreign Office he can’t do it,” says Grieve.
His supporters deny this. Michael Fallon, former defence secretary, says: “He was very collegiate. We worked together in building an international coalition against Daesh [Isis]. We had about 70 countries in the end and a lot of the work was done by the Foreign Office. I never saw him behind on the detail — he was always focused on big issues.”
MP Alok Sharma, a colleague at the Foreign Office, agrees: “He brought a lot of warmth to meetings. He was open to hearing the views around the table and was very popular with staff. When he went to the canteen, he was mobbed by people. He has a unique and special quality.”
Johnson’s supporters argue this could prove an asset for a country demoralised and diminished by the Brexit saga, and British diplomats in the US say he did “a great job” building relations with the Trump administration. But his diplomatic gaffes — such as claiming the EU wanted to hand out Nazi-style “punishment beatings” in revenge for Brexit — piled up on his watch.
Peter Westmacott, Britain’s former ambassador to the US and to Turkey, witnessed Johnson attempting to persuade an audience of Turkish people that he was a friend — citing the fact that his own great-grandfather was a Turk.
It was not altogether convincing, he says, given Johnson had repeatedly referred to the idea of Turkey joining the EU as part of his Brexit campaign. “The monstrous lie about 80 million Turks coming to Britain if we didn’t have Brexit didn’t go down well.”
Perhaps the most damaging episode occurred when he wrongly claimed that a British-Iranian woman jailed in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, had been in the country training journalists, contradicting her family and employer’s statements that she had been there on holiday.
A few days after Johnson’s comments, an official Iranian website said his statement had “shed new light” on her case, and she was accused in court of spreading propaganda against the regime.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has a five-year-old daughter, remains in prison. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe, who continues to campaign for her release, said last month: “His great failing, in the prime minister candidacy process, is that he hasn’t taken responsibility for his mistakes — and that is not good enough for someone who wants to be prime minister.”
Johnson’s prospective premiership will ultimately be defined by Brexit itself. In European capitals, the former foreign secretary is widely regarded as a policy lightweight, who busked his way through the referendum and is now thrashing around fanciful ideas to try to get out of the mess he created.
“On Brexit, he always spoke in general terms,” says Claus Grube, former Danish ambassador in London. “You were never really sure what was a joke and what was government policy.”
Another EU ambassador says: “There was always a feeling he was working off the basis of a hunch.” One story recounted by the London diplomatic corps is how Johnson, as foreign secretary and champion of a free-trading “Global Britain”, was taken by surprise when told that Britain did more trade with the Netherlands and Ireland than with China.
He has now nailed himself to an October 31 deadline for leaving the EU, which even some of his closest supporters believe is a pipe dream. “I’m looking forward to going on the BBC on October 30 and saying, ‘Ah yes, “do or die” was always a metaphor,’” one senior supporter of the Johnson campaign tells the FT.
Johnson says he hopes to achieve within a matter of months a completely renegotiated Brexit deal. Yet his ideas have already been rejected on multiple occasions by the EU. His plan includes ripping up the withdrawal deal agreed by May and replacing the Irish backstop — which is intended to keep an open border in Ireland — with technology that has never been deployed anywhere in the world.
The £39bn “divorce bill” to the EU, which was agreed by May, would be withheld as a threat. In exchange, he expects the EU to agree a new trade deal in record time, ensuring a tariff-free trading relationship in the meantime.
“Boris is despised in Brussels, they won’t give him even the tiniest fig leaf,” says one British diplomat. In June, Ivan Rogers, former British ambassador to the EU, said in a lecture: “I am worried that the longer the sheer lack of seriousness and honesty — the delusion-mongering — goes on, the more we imperil our long-term prospects.”
But Johnson is adamant that if the EU does not agree to offer significant concessions, Britain will leave without a deal on October 31, effectively guaranteeing a disruptive and economically damaging Brexit on both sides of the English Channel.
Some Tory MPs say they would vote down Johnson and his government rather than allow a no-deal exit to happen. “It only takes a dozen or so people to defect to the [pro-European] Liberal Democrats to bring down the government,” says one minister. “There’s a danger we will crash straight into a general election.”
Pro-Europeans in his party hope the fear of an early election would persuade Johnson, instead, to try to push a tweaked version of the May deal through parliament. “His instinct for self-preservation will trump ideological purity,” says one pro-Europe minister backing Johnson.
Maybe, but he is riding a tiger. Johnson only secured the backing of hardline Brexiters in the European Research Group after giving them a cast-iron guarantee that Britain would leave the EU on October 31, come “hell or high water”.
The problem for Johnson is that if he tries to push through a no-deal exit, parliament could stop him; that would split his party and precipitate a general election. If he fails to take Britain out on that date, he will also split his party and Eurosceptics will turn on him with a vengeance. “If he double-crosses us, there will be a horse’s head in his bed,” says a leading Tory Brexiter.
The man who, at the age of five, is said to have told his sister he wanted to be “world king”, the man who still hankers for a happier pre-Brexit era of hop-on, hop-off London buses and Olympic torches, is poised to become PM in the most forbidding political environment in Britain’s postwar history. He helped create the situation that he now seeks to resolve.
If he fails, he could go down as the least successful, shortest-lived prime minister in modern history, consoled by cardboard models of London buses and thoughts of what might have been.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent
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