LONDON – Boris Johnson defies political gravity.
Britain’s prime minister has failed to deliver on his core promise -- to take the country out of the European Union by Oct. 31. He has repeatedly been caught lying. He has used offensive and racist language, and most voters don’t trust him.
Yet polls make him the favorite to win Thursday’s U.K. election. If Johnson manages to secure a parliamentary majority and a mandate to “Get Brexit Done” -- in the words of his endlessly repeated campaign slogan -- it will be a triumph for a 55-year-old politician who has been written off more than once.
“He does seem to defy the odds,” said Victoria Honeyman, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds. “I’m trying to think of another politician in Britain that’s like him, in that we’re willing to forgive their mistakes to such a degree. Nobody is coming to mind.”
Johnson has built a career playing the rumpled, Latin-spouting clown who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He once said he had as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being “reincarnated as an olive.” But his bumbling exterior masks a steel core of ambition.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964, the eldest of four children in an affluent, boisterous British family with German, Russian and Turkish roots. His childhood ambition, according to sister Rachel Johnson, was to be “world king.” At the elite private school Eton he was clever, though not diligent; one teacher complained to Johnson’s parents about his ”disgracefully cavalier attitude.”
At Oxford University, Johnson was president of the Oxford Union debating society, and a member of the Bullingdon Club, a posh, raucous drinking-and-dining society notorious for drunken vandalism.
As a young journalist for The Daily Telegraph in Brussels, he delighted his editors with exaggerated stories of European Union waste and ridiculous red tape — tales that had an enduring political impact in Britain.
“He created a narrative, which was that poor old defenseless Britain was being ganged upon by all these scheming Europeans who are out to destroy our ancient liberties and our way of life,” said Martin Fletcher, a former foreign editor of The Times of London who was a Brussels correspondent after Johnson. “And that narrative took hold.”
Johnson spent the following decades juggling journalism and politics, downplaying his personal ambition while becoming steadily more famous. He was a magazine editor, a backbench lawmaker, a self-satirizing guest on TV comedy quiz shows. In 2008, he was elected mayor of London, serving until 2016.
His path wasn’t smooth. Johnson was fired from The Times for fabricating a quote. He was recorded promising to give a friend the address of a journalist that the friend wanted beaten up. He was sacked from a senior Conservative post for lying about an extramarital affair. He always bounced back.
His words often landed him in trouble. Johnson has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, claimed that "part Kenyan" Barack Obama had an ancestral dislike of Britain, called the children of single mothers “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” and compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."
Confronted with past language, Johnson has claimed he was joking, or accused journalists of distorting his words and raking up long-ago articles. Critics allege that his quips are not gaffes, but deliberate dog-whistles to bigots — a populist tactic straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.
None of the gaffes derailed his career. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Johnson’s celebrity status means his untruths don’t harm him the way they would most politicians.
“His reputation as someone who, let's say, plays fast and loose with the truth is almost kind of priced in or baked in,” Bale said. “People just accept that that's who he is. And they think, ‘Well, that's Boris.’"
Enemies and allies alike have long wondered what Johnson really believes. Before Britain’s 2016 referendum he wrote two newspaper columns — one in favor of quitting the EU, one for remaining — before throwing himself behind the "leave" campaign. He calls himself as socially liberal Conservative and says he’s proud of his immigrant roots, but helped stoke fears of migrants during the referendum campaign.
His energy and popular appeal helped the “leave” side win. Critics say the campaign was built on lies, such as the false claim, emblazoned on the side of a bus, that Britain sends 350 million pounds ($460 million) a week to the EU, money that could instead be spent on the U.K.'s health service.
After the referendum, Johnson was made foreign secretary by Prime Minister Theresa May, one of the top jobs in government. Two years later he quit in opposition to her Brexit blueprint, then won a Conservative leadership contest in July 2019 when May resigned in defeat after Parliament stymied her plan.
To get the top job, Johnson promised Conservatives that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit beyond Oct. 31.
But his first three months in office were studded with defeats: He suspended Parliament to sideline troublesome lawmakers, but the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the move illegal. Parliament rejected his attempt to push through this Brexit bill and forced him to ask the EU for more time. The “do or die” date of Oct. 31 came and went. Now he says that if he’s elected, the U.K. will leave the bloc by Jan. 31.
Johnson has faced new questions about his character during the campaign. Authorities are investigating his relationship with American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, a personal friend who allegedly received favors and public funds while Johnson was the mayor of London. Johnson insists "everything was done with full propriety."
Johnson has at times appeared evasive on the campaign trail, and refused the customary party leaders’ interview with BBC interrogator Andrew Neil.
This week he squirmed when asked about a 4-year-old boy forced to lie on a hospital floor because there were no beds. When a reporter tried to get the prime minister to look at a photo of the boy, Johnson took the journalist’s phone and stuck it in his pocket.
Johnson’s personal approval rating is deep in negative territory, according to opinion pollsters — especially among women. The one saving grace is that his main opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, gets even worse ratings.
“Get Brexit Done” is a misleading slogan. Leaving the EU will only kick-start months or years of negotiations on future trade relations with the bloc. But it has proved an effective campaign pitch: simple, memorable and promising relief to Britons weary after years of division and acrimony.
Honeyman said Johnson has many defects as a politician — but to his supporters, they don’t seem to matter.
“The campaign has confirmed that he is light on policy detail, that he is not really that comfortable facing up to either members of the public or to commentators and journalists,” she said. “But I don’t think that will impact on his popularity amongst the electorate. I think for some, they like seeing a politician who is less polished … Some like a lovable rogue.”
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