Issue Briefs

Can Boris Johnson lead Britain?

Can Boris Johnson lead Britain?

July 22, 2019 

By Michael Binyon

Cartoonists love his hair – blond, long, untidy, looking as though it hasn’t been combed for a week. All they need to do is draw his hair and everyone knows it is Boris. It’s just the image he wants – recognizable, amusing, popular, informal, a man who does not take himself too seriously but who is always the centre of attention. And like so much about Britain’s next prime minister, it is deceptive and carefully staged.

Carefully staged image

Boris Johnson often messes up his hair just before he appears on camera or at a political rally – it makes him look informal and dispels his image as “toff” – a privileged son of a middle-class family. He is naturally an untidy and disorganized person, but he has learnt to use any fault to his advantage – playing the clown in public or pretending to be confused as a way of concealing his razor-sharp intelligence and driving ambition that has always focused on his own career and advancement. He has frequently got into trouble making remarks that are normally considered borderline racist – talking about black people as “piccaninnies” or saying that a Muslim woman wearing a burqa covering her face makes her look like a letterbox. But he then pretends it was all a joke, or he wasn’t serious. In this way he avoids being branded a racist or an elitist while at the same time appealing to those in the Conservative party who agree with such views.

Mystery about political philosophy

His greatest deception, however, is to leave people uncertain what he actually believes and what views he holds. Is he a conservative or a social liberal? Does he really hate the European Union, or is he simply using this popular prejudice against Brussels to further his own career? Is he quick-witted and able to make impromptu speeches without preparation, or is he simply intellectually lazy and cannot be bothered to ready the briefs and advice he is given? The answer is that he holds all these contradictory views at the same time. The true Boris Johnson is rarely visible.

Views on Europe

The irony of his career is that he comes from a family that has long been closely associated with Britain’s efforts to forge closer links with the EU. His father Stanley Johnson was a member of the European Parliament and then became an environmental official in the Brussels Commission. His brother Joe is also a Conservative Member of Parliament; but opposes Brexit and resigned from the May government over the issue. His sister Rachel is a high-profile journalist who quit the Conservative party and joined the Liberals Democrats because she wants Britain to remain in the EU. The rift in British society caused by Brexit is perfectly illustrated in his own family – although they still loyally support him in public.

Elite school education

Boris himself was educated at Eton, the most prestigious private school in Britain, and went to Oxford University where he studied classics. He now makes a joke of this, often quoting phrases in Latin – both to please other well-educated Britons; but also to make fun of his own privileged background, which pleases Labour voters. He is quick in using colorful language to get himself out of awkward situations: when he was accused of having an affair with another journalist while he was editor of the weekly magazine “The Spectator”, he dismissed the allegations – which were true – as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. People remembered the funny phrase and forgot that he had lied about the affair.


After Oxford, Boris went into journalism, joining The Times newspaper as a trainee. He didn’t last long there: he was sacked after less than two years for inventing quotations for a story he was writing about the discovery of an old castle in London. He then joined the Daily Telegraph and was sent to Brussels to be their correspondent there. He arrived when I was the correspondent for The Times in Brussels, and so we were rivals for two years. Boris was always amusing. But he was an unreliable journalist. He decided that it would appeal more to his readers if he concentrated on negative stories about the EU, and so he wrote many – about EU regulations insisting on straight bananas and cucumbers, or EU rules for classifying the size of condoms. It made Britons laugh at the stupidities of the Brussels bureaucrats and slowly created a climate of public opinion that was hostile to Britain’s EU membership. And frequently his stories, published in the Daily Telegraph, were either exaggerations or shown later to be untrue. It infuriated the officials in the Commission – but there was little they could do to set the record straight.

Not a typical conservative

Despite his clear attempts to build support for him on the right of the Conservative party, Boris is not a typical conservative. He is a traditionalist, he is contemptuous of what he believes in Left-wing infantilism in the Labour party. He is patriotic – almost to the point of being an English (not British) nationalist – and he believes the state should interfere with people’s lives as little as possible. But he is a social liberal. He believes in freedom and in personal freedom. He is tolerant of today’s younger generation, and on issues such as gay marriage, poverty, racial questions he supports equal opportunity for all. When he was mayor of London, he ran an inclusive team, which included four gay people and officials from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds. This is the reason that he was a popular Mayor of London, where he served for two terms. He managed to persuade a city that is overwhelmingly Labour-supporting to vote for him. He was a colorful figure, instantly recognizable, and effective in raising London’s profile around the world, especially during the Olympics.

Critics say that Boris’s social liberalism is because his own private life is so chaotic. He has been married twice, has had several affairs and is currently committed to a new girlfriend who may move into Downing Street with him but who was recently heard having a violent quarrel with him. The neighbors even called the police. Boris refuses to discuss this, saying he values personal privacy and does not want to involve loved ones in his own political future.

A modern Churchill?

To a large extent Boris models himself on his hero Churchill. He wrote a book about Britain’s greatest prime minister, and his own political career is somewhat similar. Churchill also began as a journalist. He quarrelled with his party. He was out of power and in the “wilderness” for several years in the 1930s when he disagreed with Conservative policy over Germany. And he returned to power in 1940 at a time of national crisis. Boris thinks he can return to power now at a time of the greatest political crisis and uncertainly Britain has known since the Second World War. He wants to infuse the country with a spirit of optimism and reunite a fractured party and society. All that matters, he says at rallies, is a belief and optimism that challenges can be overcome.

Can Johnson be an effective Prime Minister?

His problem, in taking over as Prime Minister, is that the job demands a level of seriousness, concentration and detail that Boris finds boring. He was a poor Foreign Secretary, as he did not bother to read the briefs and made mistakes. He still thinks like a journalist, saying things that may be true and certainly make lively headlines, but which might have serious diplomatic consequences. He has a short attention span and prefers to do business by personal relations rather than through conventional civil service channels.

Will this make it easy for him to deal with Trump? Or will the difference in interests between Britain and the US make closer transatlantic relations difficult? Will the new prime minister be able to overcome his image in Europe as a clown, and will he be sufficiently tactful not to make jokes that Britons find funny, but which have often angered the French, the Germans and the Italians? Boris Johnson is a complex and colorful personality. Things will not be dull with him as Prime Minister. But things could also be disastrous.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.