Source: Wikimedia Commons
Boris Johnson officially replaced Theresa May as Great Britain’s new prime minister last week today, upon being summoned to Buckingham Palace and formally invited to govern by Queen Elizabeth II. He had won a Conservative Party leadership contest earlier in the week, in which he defeated his rival, Jeremy Hunt, with 66 percent of the vote.
Despite the comfortable victory he enjoyed, a divisive reputation precedes Johnson’s ascent to the U.K.’s top political office among the broader British public. Over the course of an 18-year-long political career, Johnson’s legacy has arguably been defined more by his gaffes and ensuing controversies than his skill at governing or crafting effective legislation. Often, his blunders invite hilarity, such as the time he accidentally bulldozed a ten-year-old boy during a light-hearted rugby exhibition match. Other times, they are cringe-inducing, like when he addressed a Sikh temple and argued in favor of a U.K.-India free trade agreement, impeccably reasoning that it would make transporting alcohol between the two countries easier.
These and countless other faux-pas feed into a class-clown persona, one that allows him to transcend his privileged upbringing as a graduate of Eton boarding school and Oxford University and endear himself among his supporters. Boris Johnson embraces this persona with a surprising level of self-awareness, which suggests some sort of method might actually underlie his foolery. In an interview with the BBC, Johnson tellingly says that “as a general tactic in life…it is often useful to give the slight impression that you are deliberately pretending not to know what is going on. Because the reality may be that you do not know what is going on, but people won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Early in his career, Johnson worked as a journalist, a role in which he is accused of establishing a loose relationship with the truth. He started with The Times in London, where he was fired for fabricating a quote. After that, he secured a job with the Daily Telegraph as their Brussels correspondent and made a name for himself by publishing exaggerated and unfavorable stories about the European Union (EU). He eventually turned to politics as a member of parliament from 2001 to 2008, then served two terms as mayor of London from 2008-2016, before most recently serving as the U.K.’s foreign minister.
In his first speech as prime minister, Johnson presented a rough outline of his policy agenda, which included proposals such as strengthening public safety by hiring on 20,000 new police officers, implementing hospital upgrades to reduce wait times, and increasing per-student funding in primary and secondary schools.
All that is, of course, the appetizer to the main dish that is his stance on Brexit. In 2016, Johnson was known as the unofficial leader of the “Leave” campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum. Now as prime minister, Boris Johnson vows to ensure the U.K. will break from the EU on October 31st “no ifs or buts,” as he said in his speech. While he has clarified that exiting with a deal would be preferable, he has stated on numerous occasions that failure to achieve a satisfactory one will not scare him away from following through with the results of the British public’s vote back in 2016. The main impediment to a deal concerns a policy known as the Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and single market indefinitely. Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers argue that the Irish backstop is an anti-democratic ploy to keep the U.K. from truly leaving the EU.
Johnson faces a tough road ahead if he intends to scrape together some sort of an agreement before the deadline in the fall. The EU already views the U.K. as untrustworthy after failed attempts to approve Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and Boris Johnson’s track record does not exactly scream “trust me”. His optimism is probably his greatest strength as a politician, and he will need plenty of it in the coming months. Whether it works as well on his counterparts over on the continent who do not look too favorably upon his Eurosceptic past remains to be seen.