The prime minister, photographed at 10 Downing Street in May 2021(Nadav Kander)Politics
The Minister of Chaos
Boris Johnson knows exactly what hes doing.By Tom McTagueJuly/August 2021 IssueShare
This article was published online on June 7, 2021.
Nothing can go wrong! Boris Johnson said, jumping into the drivers seat of a tram he was about to take for a test ride. Nothing. Can. Go. Wrong.
The prime minister was visiting a factory outside Birmingham, campaigning on behalf of the local mayor ahead of Super Thursdaya spate of elections across England, Scotland, and Wales in early May. These elections would give voters a chance to have their say on Johnsons two years in office, during which quite a lot did go wrong.
Johnson was, as usual, unkempt and amused, a tornado of bonhomie in a country where politicians tend to be phlegmatic and self-serious, if not dour and awkward. Walking in, he had launched into a limerick about a man named Dan who likes to ride trams. The mayor, Andy Street, looked horrified, tomorrows disastrous headlines seeming to flash before his eyes. (The limerick, Im sorry to say, was not at all filthy.)
Johnsons aide told me the prime minister had been excited about his tram ride all morning. He loves infrastructure, mobile infrastructure especiallyplanes, trains, bicycles, trams, even bridges to Ireland and airports floating in the sea. And he loves photo ops. There would be no point in displaying action and intent and momentum if no one were present to document it.
All aboard! he yelled, though there were no passengers. News photographers crowded around and men in hard hats stood by. The tram (British for streetcar) inched forward, only to jerk and shudder to a halt. Thats £2.5 million worth of vehicle, the chief executive of the tram company told me with a nervous laugh. When Johnson finally made it around the bend and neared the end of the circuit, he slammed on the brakes and blasted the horn. Nothing went wrong! he said gleefully.
Nothing, really, could have gone wrong. The tram was limited to three miles an hour and had an automatic-override system to protect it from reckless prime ministers, among others. No matter. It provided Johnson with the chance to do what he loves: to put on a show, to create a little tumult where there is none. He became famous in the late 1990s and early 2000s for his appearances on a popular satirical news program, Have I Got News for You. Each time, he was the butt of the jokes and also the center of attention. After he was first elected to Parliament, in 2001, his colleagues told him that he would have to become serious to succeed in politics. To spend time with Johnson, as I have done over the past several months, is to watch a politician completely indifferent to such advice.
Johnson is nothing like the other prime ministers Ive covered. Tony Blair and David Cameron were polished and formidable. Gordon Brown and Theresa May were rigid, fearful, cautious. Johnson might as well be another species. He is lively and engaged, superficially disheveled but in fact focused and watchful. He is scruffy, impulsive, exuberant. He is the first British leader Ive seen who genuinely appears to be having a good time. His conversations with members of the public are peppered with Thats amazing! and Youre joking! and Wonderful! and Fantastic, fantastic!
Read: Boris Johnson and the optimism delusion
His mission, he says, is to restore Britains faith in itself, to battle the effete and desiccated and hopeless defeatism that defined the Britain of his childhood. He believes that if you repeat that it is morning in Britain over and over again, the country will believe it, and then it will come to pass. His critics, however, say he is just leading the country sinking giggling into the sea.
By now, every British subject is an expert on the matter of Boris Johnson. We know that he has an extraordinary gift for extramarital affairs, that he has (at least) six children by three women, and that his personal finances are a regular subject of press gossip. We know that he has been fired twice for lying (once as a journalist, once as a politician); that he was the Conservative mayor of Britains left-wing capital city; that he helped engineer the defenestration of two prime ministers from his own party; and that he very nearly died during the pandemic. For three decades, weve followed his writing, his ambition, his outrages, his scandals. Yet the truth, for a professional Boris-watcher such as myself, is maddeningly elusive.
To many, Johnson is a clownthe embodiment of the demise of public standards and the face of international populism, post-truth politics, even British decline itself. He is the man who got stuck on a zip line during the London Olympics, dangling above the crowds in a harness and helmet, helplessly waving British flags while people cheered below. The French newspaper Libération used this image on its front page after Britain voted to leave the European Union, with the headline Good Luck.
During the 2012 London Olympics, Johnsonwho was then the citys mayorgot stuck on a zip line, dangling over the crowds until he could be rescued.
( Barcroft Media / Getty )
Johnsons sense of humor regularly gets him into trouble. In 2017, as foreign secretary, he joked about the Libyan city of Sirte having a bright future, as soon as its residents clear the dead bodies away. Announcing further COVID-19 restrictions in October 2020, he reportedly told lawmakers that at least they wouldnt have to spend Christmas with their in-laws. He has likened Hillary Clinton to a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital and the Conservative Partys infighting to Papua New Guineastyle orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.
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To his most vehement critics, he is worse than a clown: a charlatan who lied his way to the top, who endangers democracy and traffics in racism, and who believes in nothing but his own advancement. He has been accused of triggering a wave of populist anger that he then rode to 10 Downing Street, leaving Britain weakened and in very real danger of dissolution. (Scotland once again is considering making its own exit.) He is leading his country through the most radical reshaping of its economy, electoral map, and international role since World War II. To Johnsons cry of faith that nothing can go wrong, critics say: No, a lot can go wrongand very well might.
When I began meeting with Johnson early this year, I didnt know precisely how he would take to interrogation. His exuberance worked in my favor; the fact that he is a former journalist, familiar with our wicked ways, did not.
In Northern Ireland once, he looked over at me as I scribbled in my notebook. Ah, Tom, he said, youre picking up color or something, arent you? The answer, of course, was yescolor being the journalists term for anything that goes beyond straight facts or quotes, the details used to paint a scene for the reader. But I was after more than that.
I wanted to understand whether Johnson was truly a populist, or just popular. His argument for patriotic optimism has obvious appeal, but I wondered whether it masked more cynical impulses. Was he working in the countrys interest, or his own? And I wanted to see up close if he truly wasas his enemies chargethe British equivalent of Donald Trump. On this question, Johnson would have an emphatic answer for me.Johnson is leading his country through the most radical reshaping of its economy, electoral map, and international role since World War II.
Later, in his office, I asked Johnson to imagine that he was a journalist again. How would he open this profile? What is the key, I asked, to understanding Boris Johnson? After a few ums and ahs, Johnson replied: Sheer physical fitness. And hard work.
I laughed, as hed surely hoped I would. Look, Tom, that is your challenge, he said (pronouncing challenge as if it were French), shutting down this line of inquiry. Here was the uncrackable Johnson: the amiability, the self-deprecation, the evasion.
On the day of Johnsons visit to the tram factory, the big national story was the formation of an elite European soccer league, modeled on its steroidal American cousin, the NFL. The plan would draw at least six English clubs and six from the continent into a European Super League. It was announced the night before, and Johnson had come out against it, arguing that it would yank Englands grandest clubs from their traditional environment against the wishes of their fans. It was unfair, he said, and the government would fight it. His opposition led the news that morning.
I wondered why he cared so much. He doesnt know anything about soccer, and in fact delights in his ignorance.
But Johnson intuited something important about English anxiety, and he turned the issue into a parable for a sense of powerlessness and dislocation felt by many in Britain, precisely the sort of feelings that had energized the Brexit movement and carried him to 10 Downing Street. In one of our conversations, Johnson had said that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. He told me that he doesnt think of himself as a nationalist, but he argued that individuals need to feel that they belong, and they shouldnt be patronized for worrying that their traditions and connections are being eroded. Was this why he opposed the European Super League?
Absolutely, he said. This is about the deracination of the community fan base. Soccer clubs, he continued, had turned into global brands and were leaving their supporters behind, taking off like a great mother ship and orbiting the planet.
I was struck by his use of the word deracinated to describe the peculiar dynamics of English soccer partisanship. To be deracinated is to be uprooted from your customs, your culture, your homein this instance, from England. Here, Johnson was offering himself as the peoples tribune, defender of the national game from the threat of alien imposition. He was channeling a cry of anger and turning it against globalization.
Read: Boris Johnson can remake Britain like few before him
Johnson is a strange figurehead for such a movement. The prime minister is, at least nominally, a free-marketeer and the chief proselytizer of Global Britain. He plays to the rootedness of Middle Englandto its anxieties, traditions, and national pridebut he is also a very obvious transient.
He was born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson on Manhattans Upper East Side, in a hospital that served poor New Yorkers. Johnsons father, Stanley, then 23, had moved to the U.S. on a creative-writing scholarship but quit and enrolled in an economics program at Columbia University instead. The first few months of Boriss life were spent in a single-room apartment opposite the Chelsea Hotel. He was officially a dual U.S.U.K. citizen until 2016, once telling David Letterman that he could, technically speaking, be elected president. Some wondered whether he meant ithe had, after all, said as a child that his ambition was to be world king. (Johnson renounced his U.S. citizenship after being chased by the IRS for a tax bill on the sale of a London home.)
Johnsons intricate name suggests the cosmopolitanism of his background. Boris honors a Russian émigré whom Stanley and Johnsons mother, Charlotte, met in Mexico shortly before his birth. The man bought them plane tickets back to the U.S. so the heavily pregnant Charlotte wouldnt have to endure the Greyhound bus. De Pfeffel comes from Johnsons half-French grandmother, Irène, who was born in the grand Pavillon du Barry, in Versailles, which belonged to her grandfather, Baron Hubert de Pfeffel.
Even the Johnson is less English than it might seem. Boriss great-grandfather was a Turkish journalist and politician who was murdered in the chaos of the Ottoman empires collapse. He was denounced as a traitor for his opposition to Kemal Atatürk and was attacked and hanged by a nationalist mob wielding stones, sticks, and knives. According to Sonia Purnells biography, Just Boris, his body parts were said to have been stuffed in a tree. His half-English, half-Swiss wife, Winifred, gave birth to their son Osman in England, but died soon after. Osman was brought up by his English grandmothermaiden name Johnsonand went by the name Wilfred Johnson. (In 2020, at the age of 55, Boris Johnson named his new baby boy Wilfred.)
Over the first 14 years of Johnsons life, his family moved 32 times, including to Washington, D.C., where Stanley worked at the World Bank. Some of Johnsons fondest early memories are of his tree house in their yard on Morrison Street, just off Connecticut Avenue. In 1974, Charlotte had a nervous breakdown while the family was living in Brussels. The next year, Johnson and his younger sister, who were then 11 and 10, were sent to a boarding school in England, traveling there each term unaccompanied by their parents.
Before leaving for school, the young Alexander was a quiet, introspective boy. He had been partially deaf until age 8 or 9, because of a condition known as glue ear, in which fluid builds up behind the eardrum. At school, he transformed himself into the confident, insouciant extrovert we see today. It was at Eton that Alexander became Boris, a fully-fledged school celebrity, according to Purnellhead boy, editor of the school magazine, president of the debating society. Sir Eric Anderson, who was a housemaster to Tony Blair in Scotland and to Johnson at Eton, was once asked to name the most interesting pupil hed ever had, and replied: Without a doubt, Boris Johnson.
Johnson was a quiet, introspective child who was partially deaf until he was 8 or 9, but he transformed himself after his parents sent him off to boarding school. Above, Johnson at age 8 (top left), at 21 at Oxford (top right), and with Allegra Mostyn-Owen, whom he would soon marry.
( Sophie Baker / Arenapal; Brian Smith / Reuters; Dafydd Jones )
After graduating from Eton and then Oxfordthe finishing schools of Englands elite, where he was close friends with Princess Dianas brother, Charles SpencerJohnson married young, returned to Brussels, divorced, married again, moved back to London, conducted numerous affairs, divorced again, got engaged again, and all the while steadily made his professional ascent.
Throughout, Johnson has stood apart from any clique, whether the modernizers who have sought to remake the Conservative Party or the Thatcherite resistance against them. Johnson has, in fact, tended to avoid the formal ties of obligation that come with being part of any group. In many ways he himself is the definition of deracinated. (A friend of his once told me he suspected that Johnson subscribed to a pre-Christian morality system, with a multitude of gods and no clear set of rules. I put this to the prime minister, but he dismissed the notion. Christianity is a superb ethical system and I would count myself as a kind of very, very bad Christian, he told me. No disrespect to any other religions, but Christianity makes a lot of sense to me.)
The one group he is associated with are the Brexiteers. Johnson largely avoids the nativist rhetoric of the groups more extreme elements, but he does believe that Britains discomfort with its power and its history has gone too far. (George Orwell once observed that Britain is the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.) On Englands national day last summer, Johnson released a video message urging the country to raise a glass without embarrassment, without shame. Imagine a U.S. president needing to make the same qualification on Independence Day.
But while Johnsons patriotic message is powerful in Englandby far the largest of the U.K.s four nationsit does not readily translate elsewhere, particularly in Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU. The great irony is that although Johnson led the campaign to take back control from Europe, his success has intensified calls in Scotland for control to be wrested from London. This is where Johnsons legacy is most at risk. If he were to preside over the breakup of the country, whatever else he did would forever be overshadowed. He would be the Lord North of the 21st century: not the prime minister who lost America, but the one who lost Britain itself.
A few days after Johnsons tram ride, I saw him again in Hartlepool, a coastal town in Englands struggling, industrial northeast. Johnson had threatened to drop a legislative bomb on the English soccer clubs planning to join the new Super League. Within hours all six had pulled out, and the league had collapsed. Newspapers across Europe hailed Johnsons influence. Italys La Gazzetta Dello Sport, apparently a newspaper given to hyperbole, likened Johnsons intervention to Churchills stand against the Nazis.
Keen to squeeze more political capital from the episode, Johnson stopped by a soccer stadium in town. I grew up only a short drive from Hartlepool. The region was once rock-solid Labour Party territory, but Conservatives have been making inroads there. It was heavily in favor of Brexit, and it has a long tradition of contempt for the political establishment. In 2002, the town elected its soccer clubs mascot, HAngus the Monkey, as mayor. The man who wore the costume served the term and was twice reelected.
When Johnson arrived to be interviewed by the regional press, I showed him the Gazzetta article. Grabbing my phone, he read the headline aloud in exaggerated Italian as an aide urged him to get to the business at hand, which was to ensure that the town moved into the Conservative column.
Talking to a TV reporter, Johnson kept referring to a previous Labour MP for Hartlepool, Blairs close ally Peter Mandelson, as Lord Mandelson of Guacamole. Mandelson is reputed to have once confused mushy peasa side dish served with fish and chipsfor guacamole. The story isnt true, but the populist in Johnson enjoyed it so much that he deployed the nickname three more times before leaving the stadium. The joke would be hypocritical but for the fact that the prime minister doesnt try to hide his own class status: When David Cameron was mocked for admitting that he didnt know the price of a loaf of bread, a reporter confronted Johnson with the same question. He got it right, but then added: I can tell you the price of a bottle of champagnehow about that?His electoral genius lies in his ability to stop his opponents from thinking straight: In their hatred for him, they cannot see why he is popular.
After the interview, Johnson joined a group of players passing a ball around. Another chapter in my epic of football humiliation, he said, alluding to a much-watched YouTube video of a charity soccer match in which Johnson charged at an opposing player before stumbling and crashing headfirst into the players groin, leaving him collapsed in pain on the ground. In Hartlepool, Johnson told the players that he was better with an oval ball than a round one, referring to rugby, the sport of Britains elite schools. He added that he knew how to play the wall game, an obscure sport played only at Eton. The Hartlepool players didnt seem to know what he was talking about.
Johnson and his team then set off to knock on doors on a quiet suburban street. Prime-ministerial campaigning is more homespun and spontaneous than the American presidential sort, and Johnson knew next to nothing about the people whose doors hed be knocking on. At one home, a retired couple told him they were furious about his handling of the pandemic, especially his failure to close the border as emerging strains of the coronavirus ravaged India.
Johnsons political ascent began with a run for Parliament in 2001 (top) and culminated with his becoming prime minister in 2019.
( The Independent / Alamy ; Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty )
Before the virus was brought under control in the spring, Johnson had overseen one of the worst responses in Europe; more than 125,000 Britons have died. His own former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has publicly accused Johnson and his team of botching the governments response to the pandemic and then lying about it.
Read: How the pandemic revealed Britains national illness
Johnson stood silently and took the couples haranguing. A few days later, he would take another; it was reported that in the depths of the pandemic, faced with announcing a second lockdown, he had declared: No more fucking lockdownslet the bodies pile high in their thousands. He has denied saying this.
At the other houses, however, the prime minister was treated like a lovable celebrity, and it was almost taken for granted when he asked people if he could count on their support. He was twice stopped and thanked for everything youve done. (Although Britains death count is appalling, Johnson has also overseen a rapid vaccine rollout; by March, Britain had administered first doses to half its adult populationmore than the U.S., Germany, and France.) Two women came out clutching toddlers. Johnson elbow-bumped the little ones and asked how old they were, then struggled to remember precisely when his own son would turn 1. The mothers laughed as he fumbled for the right dateguessing three times before he got it right.
Johnsons uncle, the journalist Edmund Fawcett, told me the prime ministers shambolic manner helps him connect with people. One of Johnsons closest allies in government, his Brexit negotiator, David Frost, said the technique was deliberate but unconscious. Johnson, however, seems to know exactly what hes doing. He said as much in an interview with CNBC in 2013, when he was asked whether his performative incompetence was typical in a politician. No, I think its a very cunning device, he said. Self-deprecation is all about understanding that basically people regard politicians as a bunch of shysters.
According to his allies, Johnson goes out of his way to suggest that hes more flawed than he really is. He claims, for instance, not only that he has smoked pot quite a few times but also that he once tried cocaine and accidentally sneezed it out. Andrew Gimson, who wrote Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, doesnt believe it. Noting that the prime minister once described sex as the supreme recreation, Gimson argued that where others might reach for the bottle, or the needle, he is more likely to embrace some warm and attractive woman.
Johnsons ability to invite underestimation seems to shield him from the usual rules of politics. Theres a magic to Boris which allows him to escape some of the political challenges that hes had since he became prime minister, Frank Luntz, an American pollster who was friends with Johnson at Oxford, told me. People are more patient with him, they are more forgiving of him, because hes not a typical politician.
And theres been a lot to forgive.
Johnson has written about Africans with watermelon smiles and described gay men as tank-topped bumboys. As foreign secretary, he put a fellow citizen at risk when he mistakenly claimed that she was in Iran to teach journalism, giving Tehran an excuse to charge her with spreading propaganda. As prime minister he has erected a trade barrier within his own country as the price of Brexitsubjecting Northern Ireland to EU regulations while the rest of the country is free to do its own thing.
That nothing ever seems to stick drives his opponents mad. He won the Conservative leadership just weeks after it was reported that an argument with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, became so heated, neighbors called the police. He won the biggest parliamentary majority in a generation despite breaking promises over when and how he would secure a Brexit deal. Time and again, when controversy has engulfed him, he has emerged unscathed.
Read: Boris Johnson keeps defying gravity
Part of his electoral genius lies in his ability to stop his opponents from thinking straight: In their hatred for him, they cannot see why he is popular, nor what to do about it.
What am I doing this for? Johnson asked his aides, looking at his schedule for the day and seeing a slot carved out to talk to me.
Its for the profile I advised you not to do, James Slack, Johnsons thendirector of communications, said.
In the year since Id first asked Johnsons team for time with the prime minister, his director of communications had changed twice, and much of the rest of Johnsons early team had been replaced, partly over interoffice rivalries that had spun out of control. In the end, Johnson himself gave the green light. When I finally got to see him, it was March 2021 and the country was just starting to come out of its most stringent lockdown.
Visiting Downing Street is a strange business: You have to be precleared to enter and you pass through airport-style metal detectors, but then you simply walk up the street as if it were any other and knock on a door to be let in. It is not a single building, but a warren of Georgian townhouses that have been connected, extended, fixed up, and perpetually tinkered with. At the heart of the complex is No. 10, the prime ministers official residence and place of work.
Behind the smart black bricks and polished front door, an air of shabbiness hangs over the place. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a high-ceilinged entrance hall where the house cat, Larry, is often asleep. Discarded modems sit on windowsills; thick red carpets lie worn and uneven with bits of tape stuck to them. (This spring, Johnson was caught up in an ethics investigation over allegations that hed sought political donations to help pay for redecorating the Downing Street apartment he shares with Symonds, who was blamed in the British tabloids and nicknamed Carrie Antoinette. Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.)
Downing Street is extraordinarily ill-suited to its function as the nerve center of a modern bureaucracy. Its rooms are either small and disconnected or big and impracticalthe dining rooms, libraries, and servants quarters of a different England. It manages to be both modest and cavernous, iconic and underwhelming. It is outdated and dysfunctionaland yet somehow it works. It is a physical incarnation of 21st-century Britain.
Johnson believes the British state showed unforgivable weakness in its Brexit negotiations, and some of his advisers told me it also exhibited fatal incompetence during the pandemic. Britains bureaucracy, they argue, is in need of an overhaul. Johnsons critics would point out that it was he who negotiated Britains exit from the EU, and the state was not to blame for his pandemic decision making. It is also true, however, that Britain was notably ill-equipped to cope with the coronavirus, and that by the time Johnson took over in 2019, he faced a devils bargain in how to leave the EU, the terms on offer largely having been set beforehand.
Britains only real success fighting COVID-19 came when Johnson turned down the opportunity to join the EUs vaccine-procurement program and handed the countrys own effort to a venture capitalist with a virtually unlimited budget outside the usual rules of government. As a result, Britons were being vaccinated in the millions long before the rest of Europe. But this way of working has created layers of complexity and confusion that have left no clear lines of accountability. Even some of those at the top feel a sense of powerlessness, telling me that the only way to get anything done is to declare, Ive spoken to the prime minister about this, and he wants it to happen.
Read: John le Carré Knew Englands Secrets
In his office, Johnson steered the conversation to a subject he raised nearly every time I saw him. Hed read an article Id written, a kind of eulogy for the late British novelist John le Carré. Id praised le Carrés observations about England and its failing ruling classprivately educated charlatans whom the author mocked as the greatest dissemblers on Earth. And Id listed Johnson as an example.
He told me hed taken a completely different lesson from the novelist. To Johnson, le Carré had exposed not the fakery of the British ruling class, but its endemic passivity, and acceptance of decline. I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at school, he said. It presented to me this miserable picture of these Foreign Office bureaucrats For me, they were the problem. Johnson told me this was exactly what he was determined to fight.
You lump me together with various other peopleand you say we are all products of these decadent institutions and this culture, an inadequate and despairing establishment. Thats not me! He said he was trying to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have.
Johnson believes there remains a world-weariness in the government that has to be squeezed out, one of his ministers told me. Johnsonism, an aide said, was partly about puffing our chest out and saying, Were Britain. (Several of Johnsons advisers agreed to be candid in exchange for anonymity.) In an early phone call with Joe Biden, an aide told me, Johnson said he disliked the phrase special relationship after the president used it. To Johnson it seemed needy and weak.Johnson made a name for himself with outlandish stories about European regulations governing the flavors of potato chips, the bendiness of bananas, the size of condoms.
The one member of le Carrés establishment whom Johnson does not hold in contempt is the hero, George Smiley, who is jaded like his colleagues but plods on nonetheless, catching traitors and serving Britain. He was a patriot, Johnson said.
To Johnson, Smiley might be a cynic, but he is also a romantica believer. Isnt that you? I asked. Johnson is a romantic who urges the country to believe in itself, but who plays the political game, stretches the truth, stands against his friends, and deposes his colleagues. After an initial show of mock evasion, the prime minister replied: All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up.
Here was Johnson offering a rare moment of self-reflection. During the time I spent with him, whenever we got close to anything approaching self-analysis, he would parry, swerve, or crack a joke. At one point, when I brought the conversation back to le Carré, Johnson fell into a series of impersonations of the novelists characters. One of Johnsons aides told me the prime minister loathed anything that smacked of overintellectualizing politics.
At Downing Street, I heard Johnson repeat a saying his maternal grandmother was fond of quoting. Darling, he said, mimicking her, remember, its not how youre doing; its what youre doing. Johnson said this was the key advice. I asked Johnsons sister, Rachel, about it. She told me their mother was also fond of the saying. Its about being in the moment, she said, rather than worrying about how things will turn out.
Get on with it is the Johnson mantra.
Johnson often carries a notepad around, a habit from his days as a journalist. A former aide told me that you know he has taken your point seriously if he writes it down. He runs meetings like an editor, surveying his staff for ideas, always looking for the linecutting through dry and occasionally contradictory facts to identify what he sees as the heart of the matter, the story.
The prime ministers journalism career, however, got off to an ignominious start. In 1988, one year out of Oxford, he was fired from The Times, the newspaper of the establishment, for making up a quote in a front-page story and attributing it to his godfather. He has since apologized, sort of, while also complaining about the sniveling, fact-grubbing historians who called him out.
Despite getting sacked from The Times, he quickly landed at its rival, The Daily Telegraph, and rose through the ranks of British media, eventually becoming the editor in chief of The Spectator, Britains premier conservative magazine. In 1992, Johnson was the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph when the Maastricht Treaty was signed, laying the foundation for the modern incarnation of the European Union and sending British politics into one of its perennial tailspins over Londons relationship with Europe. It was the perfect time and place for a man of Johnsons talents.
Johnson in his office at The Spectator magazine, where he served as editor in chief from 1999 to 2005 ( Edd Westmacott / Alamy )
He made a name for himself with outlandish, not-always-accurate stories about European regulations ostensibly being imposed on Britonsrules governing the flavors of potato chips, the bendiness of bananas, the size of condoms. Margaret Thatcher, whose battles over European integration had cost her the premiership in 1990, reputedly enjoyed Johnsons columns. He later described his life in Brussels as chucking these rocks over the garden wall and [listening] to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England.
But rereading Johnsons work today, what jumps out is that he appears far less hostile to Europe than one might imagine: In a January 1992 article, for example, he writes that while the principal charges against the EUthat it was wasteful and bureaucraticwere true, these problems were dwarfed by the benefits of membership. He goes on to say that the EU was run by an undemocratic Brussels machine, full of faceless busybodies, but that it also gave Britain a new purpose: to run Europe.
I asked Johnson about his change of mind. He famously wrote two drafts of a columnone in favor of Leave, the other for Remainbefore announcing which side he supported in the 2016 referendum. Critics allege that he only backed Brexit because it provided him with a path to power. Johnson rejects that characterizationhis aides say he often plays devils advocate to pressure-test his arguments and ideas. And Johnson told me Britain had never been able to lead the EU in any case, because it was too hamstrung by division and doubt over the project to be anything but a brake. This seemed anathema to him: better momentum, whatever the direction, than playing the role of spoiler.
Anyway, he said, do we have to talk about Brexit? Weve sucked that lemon dry.
So we turned instead to Horace.
In 2005, Johnson gave a lecture about the Roman poet, in which he reflected on the lasting influence that poets and historians and journalists have over how people are remembered. Horace writes all these bum-sucking poems about his [patrons] saying how great they are, Johnson told me, but the point he always makes to them is Youre going to die and the poem is going to live, and who wrote the poem?
I told him that sounded like a cynical view of the world.
Its a defense of journalism! he said.
So youre saying Im more powerful than you? I asked.
Exactly, exactly, he replied, laughing.
I said I didnt buy it. But Johnson very clearly appreciates the importance of shaping perceptions. To him, the point of politicsand lifeis not to squabble over facts; its to offer people a story they can believe in.
In the prime ministers view, those who wanted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum didnt have the courage to tell the real story at the heart of their vision: a story of the beauty of European unity and collective identity. Instead, they offered claims of impending disaster were Britain to leave, most of which havent come to pass, at least not yet. The story voters believed in was fundamentally differentin Johnsons words, that this is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right.
People live by narrative, he told me. Human beings are creatures of the imagination.
So youre noT Trump? I asked Johnson. I had just been treated to a long monologue about his liberal internationalism and support for free trade, climate action, and even globalism.
Well, self-evidently, he replied.
It might be self-evident to him, but not to othersthe former president himself embraced Johnson as Britain Trump, and Biden once called him a physical and emotional clone of Trump.
This is the central argument against Johnson: For all his positivity and good cheer, the verses of Latin and ancient Greek he drops into conversation, he is much closer to Trump than he lets on. Johnson spearheaded the Leave campaign the same year the U.S. voted for Trump, and the two campaigns looked similar on the surfacepopulist, nationalist, anti-establishment. What, after all, is Brexit but a rebellion against an ostensibly unfair system, fueled by the twin angers of trade and immigration, that aims to restore to Britain a sense of something lost: control.
Read: Why Britains Brexit mayhem was worth it
The prime minister certainly understands that this perception has taken hold. A lot of people in America, a lot of respectable liberal opinion in AmericaThe Washington Post and The New York Times, etc.thinks that Brexit is the most appalling, terrible aberration and a retreat into nationalism, he told me. Its not at all.
As for Johnson himself, his past language about members of minority groups is, to some, evidence of a kinship with Trump. Johnson has compared Muslim women in burkas to mailboxes, written of flag-waving piccaninnies, and recited a nostalgic colonial-era poem while in Myanmar. His partisans note, defensively, that his first finance minister was the son of a Pakistani bus driver; his second is a British Indian. The business secretary is a fellow Eton alum whose parents came to Britain from Ghana, and Britains president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, this year, was born in India. The man Johnson charged with overseeing Britains vaccine rollout is an Iraqi-born British Kurd, and the home secretary, responsible for policing, is the daughter of Ugandan Indians.
There is also the issue of immigration. During the Brexit campaign, Johnson did call forand has since deliveredstronger controls on migration from Europe. But in contrast to Trump, he has supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants; offered a path to British citizenship to millions of Hong Kongers; and refashioned Britains immigration system to treat European and non-European migrants equally. As mayor of London, he said that Trumps claim that the British capital had no-go areas because of Islamic extremists betrayed stupefying ignorance and that Trump was out of his mind for seeking to ban Muslim immigration.
Even so, the Trump question is the first thing many Americans will want to know, I told him.
Well, how ignorant can they be? he said. I ventured that the curse of international politics is that each country looks at others through its own national prism.
They do, they do, he admitted, before continuing: Im laboriously trying to convey to an American audience that this is a category error that has been repeatedly made.
The point Im trying to get over to you and your readers is that you mustnt mistake this government for being some sort of bunch of xenophobes, he added, or autarkic economic nationalists. (Here even Johnsons critics would have to concede one difference: Donald Trump is unlikely to have ever used the word autarkic in conversation.)
The first attempt at pulling together a coherent intellectual framework for Johnsonism was the governments integrated review of foreign, economic, and defense policy, published in March. It emphasized the importance of deepening alliances outside Europe and the need to more robustly defend democratic values. Its driving force was John Bew, Johnsons chief foreign-policy adviser and the author of Realpolitik, a book published four years before Johnson came to power that now reads like a primer for Johnsonism. According to Bew, realpolitik is based on four interlocking principles: politics is the law of the strong; states are strong when they are domestically harmonious; ideas matter because people believe them, not because they are true; and finally, the zeitgeist is the single most important factor in determining the trajectory of a nations politics.
Johnsons blueprint for governing can be found in these principles. His pitch to voters is that he will unite and level up the country, which starts from the premise that Britain cannot be a decisive, confident international actor as long as it is divided, economically imbalanced, and as vulnerable to global financial and health crises as it has shown itself to be.
He also believes that the global zeitgeist has radically changed since the 2008 financial crisis, and therefore so too must Britains foreign policy. This is not an ephemeral, insubstantial thing: Voters will not accept a laissez-faire attitude toward free trade, deindustrialization, or the rise of China any longer. Whether voters demands on these issues are reasonable or constructive is beside the pointthey are reality.
Johnson and his allies emphasize that Brexit did not happen in a vacuum. In The Globalization Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik notes that the more tightly the worlds economies intertwine, the less influence national governments can have over the lives of their citizens. For a long time, governmentsincluding Britainsbelieved that the economic benefits of globalization outweighed that cost. But when this bargain began to reveal its emptiness, particularly after 2008, voters demanded more control. In Britain this was particularly acute, because the country was more exposed than most, with its oversize financial sector and open economy. It was ripe for a revolt to take back controlthe Leave campaigns central promise.
Johnson has vowed to use the power of government to reinvigorate industry and boost growth outside London, using levers that he says wouldnt be available if the country were still in the EU. One aide told me Johnson had ordered civil servants to reject conservative orthodoxies about government intervention being bad and to be more creative and more confident around who we choose to back. Its an unusual approach for someone caricatured as a right-wing ideologue; on the American political spectrum, Johnsons policies would fall well to the left of center.Whenever you talk to Johnson, you bump up against an all-encompassing belief that things will be fine.
The prime minister told me he doesnt want the EU to fragmenthe just doesnt want Britain to be a part of it. For too long, Johnson and his team believe, Britain has been living out a foreign policy of a world that has gone, one of his closest advisers said. Beijing and Moscow have shown us the limits of the rules-based order. Britain can no longer afford to be a status quo power naively trying to resurrect a defunct system. The world is moving faster, the adviser said, and therefore we have got to get our shit together and move faster with it.
To do so, Johnson insists, Britain must be independent, united, and nimble. (His foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told me that instead of some big cumbersome whale, the country needed to be a more agile dolphin.) The prime minister has already indicated what this might look like, imposing human-rights sanctions on Russia, using the presidency of the G7 to turn the group into a wider alliance of democracies, and trying to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The world is messy, and Johnson likes mess. He believes the key is to adapt. He has spent a lifetime turning ambition, opportunism, and ruthless self-promotion into extraordinary personal success. Why cant a country do the same?
Johnson in 2019 campaigning on the Isle of Wight (top) and at a session of the UN Security Council on climate and security in London in 2021
( Dominic Lipinski / WPA Pool / Getty; Stefan Rousseau / WPA Pool / Getty )
Whenever you talk to Johnson, you bump up against an all-encompassing belief that things will be fine. He believes, for example, that the threat of Scottish independence will melt away over time, with Brexit acting as a centripetal force pulling the U.K. back together.
Yet Johnson understands the art of politics better than his critics and rivals do. He is right that his is a battle to write the national story, and that this requires offering people hope and agency, a sense of optimism and pride in place. He has shown that he is a master at finding the story voters want to hear.
Whether he succeeds or fails matters beyond Britains borders. As democratic states look for ways to answer the concerns of voters without descending into the authoritarian Orbánism of Eastern Europe or the Trumpian populism that has consumed the Republican Party, Johnson is beginning a test run for a conservative alternative that may prove attractive, or at least viable.
But with Britain finally outside the European Union, Johnson must now address problems that cannot be dealt with by belief alone. If his domestic economic project fails, some fear the country will turn toward xenophobic identity politics. If he cannot unify the country at home, his bid to make Britain more assertive on the world stage may prove impossible. If he cannot fend off demands for Scottish independence, the state will fracture. Telling everyone everything is fine is not the same as everything is fine, Tony Blair told me.
Now that Johnson has won his revolution, does he have the focus to see it through? Even one of his closest aides expressed worry that the prime minister doesnt think systematically about Britains problems, that he is too reliant on unshakable faith.
The last time I saw Johnson was back in the northeast of England. Super Thursday had come and gone and he had scored thumping victories in England, though not in Scotland, where pro-independence parties won a small majority. We met in Sedgefield, long Blairs constituency. When I was a child, the joke was that Labour votes there were not so much counted as weighed. Now its Conservative territory.
Johnson admitted a certain grudging admiration for Blair, who won three parliamentary majorities in the 1990s and 2000s. I said that the difference between the two men, as far as I could tell, was that Blair saw everything through a prism of progress: those on the right side of history, such as himself, and those like Johnson who were trying to hold back the inevitable.
He felt the hand of history on his shoulder, didnt he? Johnson said, mocking a famous Blair quote shortly before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Johnson doesnt see the world that way. I think that historysocieties and civilizations and nationscan rise and fall, and I think that things can go backwards, he said.
This might sound like a warning. But to Johnson, Brexit is the fuel for Britains rise, not its fall. He believes the country today has far more oomph, impetus, mojo than before it left the EU.
As ever with Johnson, its hard to discern true belief from narrative skill. I kept coming back to something hed told me earlier, in our discussion of le Carré: All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up. The duality of his character continued to fascinate me. There is the light and the color he wants the world to seehis jokes and unclouded optimism. But there is a shadow, too, the darker side that most people who know him acknowledge, the moments of introspection and calculation.
Hoping for another glimpse of the more reflective Johnson, I repeated the quote to him and began to ask him what hed meant.
I wondered was all I was able to get out before Johnson cut in.
Did I say that? he asked. How pompous of me.
This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline Boris Johnson Knows Exactly What Hes Doing. When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.