Conservative Party leader and prime minister in waiting Boris Johnson speaks after being announced leader. (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

12 eye-watering facts about the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson

Funny, charismatic, erudite – what could possibly go wrong?

First published in July 2019

The votes are in and the people have decided – correction: the Conservative Party membership has decided – that the new prime minister of the United Kingdom shall be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. The former journalist, former mayor of London and former foreign secretary took more than 92,000, or 66%, of the members’ ballots, and now just awaits the formalities, for Theresa May to square things off with the Queen so that he can get the royal nod.

A master of the arts of charming, posh, Wodehousian bafflement, the Dulux Dog of world politics, Johnson takes charge of a country neck deep in a steaming Brexit turd. Johnson has pledged to forge a path out.

In his victory speech, Johnson acknowledged that many might “question the wisdom” of the decision, which came at “a pivotal moment in our country’s history”. But, “we know that we will do it,” he said.

He went on to say that the mantra for the moment was “Deliver, Unite, Deliver Brexit, Energise.” He declared, freestyling already: “I say to all the doubters, Dude, we are going to energise the country … Like some rising giant, we are going to ping off the guy-ropes of self doubt.”

So who the hell is he?

He’s a hardline Brexiteer

Well, he wasn’t always – and more on that later – but Johnson’s arrival at Downing Street is propelled by a pledge to get Britain out of Europe, to make Brexit happen in accordance with the referendum result. He’ll seek to secure a better deal than that achieved by his predecessor Theresa May, but if he can’t do it by the deadline of October 31, he’s promised to evacuate the country without a deal. That’s a terrifying prospect.

Just yesterday three of the four living former British prime ministers condemned the idea of a no-deal Brexit. Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the Conservatives’ John Major all wailed that it would presage grave social and economic damage, in the service of what Major called “one hard-line faction only”.

Johnson asserts that he’ll be able to negotiate a much rosier exit deal and has made powerful arguments about kippers – yes, kippers – which draw heavily on limitless reserves of bluster and bullshit. God have mercy on us all.

He’s popular, and divisive

His win in the run-off between the two candidates picked by Tory MPs has never really been in doubt – polling showed him way out ahead among the 160,000-strong party membership, who regard him as the only hope to rescue Britain from its Brexit pickle. And opinion polls put him well ahead of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the popularity stakes.

Yet a number of the most senior and experienced Tory MPs, including the chancellor (equivalent of New Zealand’s finance minister) and the justice minister have said they won’t serve in a Johnson cabinet because they regard a no-deal Brexit as utter idiocy. Another opponent of a no-deal Brexit is Jeremy Hunt, who has said he’d only accept such a scenario “with a heavy heart”. Johnson’s vanquished opponent and the current foreign minister, Hunt is currently in the midst of dealing with a diplomatic crisis with Iran.

It’s not a pretty sight. And the Conservative-led government has a majority in the 650-seat Commons of, erm, two.

A lot of his colleagues current and former basically hate him

Like any good bitchy teen movie, the Conservative parliamentary party is a lava pit of grudge, envy and vendetta, with much of the recent am-dram dating back to a coterie that puffed adolescently at one another at Eton, and then Oxford, and then, so goes the natural order of things, parliament.

The fourth living former prime minister David Cameron, whom we should angrily blame for the entire accursed shitstorm of Brexit, was frenemies with Boris from way back, in the Bullingdon club, a collection of the worst imaginable elements of Toff Britain.

Toby Morris for RNZ

To cut a long story short, Dave became PM and offered a sop to his Europhobe hardline MPs in the form of promising if he were to win an election he didn’t think he’d win that he’d stage a referendum which he didn’t think could succeed.

Boris pretended to want Brexit to happen, assuming it could never happen, to fuck up his rival Dave while pumping his own stocks but then, egad, his side actually won. Dave had to quit and Boris stuck his hand up but he got royally stabbed in the liver at the eleventh hour by Michael. Michael being Michael Gove, a former Boris loyalist and now environment secretary, who decided to stand against Boris and more or less gave the premiership to Theresa May, whose entire prime ministership, to be honest, felt like a resignation speech. Hope that’s all clear.

As for the ex-colleagues, form an orderly queue.

He’s ‘unfit for national office’, according to a former boss

At the head of that queue let’s put Sir Max Hastings, the man of many military histories and Johnson’s editor many decades ago at the Daily Telegraph. Johnson was the Brussels correspondent for the broadsheet, and became renowned for fertilising the footnotes of regulation into massive, seething, hyperbolic comedy – take one minor EU rule on, say, condom sizes, or potato chip flavours, add an imperial ton of bullshit and you had a front-page story. They were, as he would later admit, “foam-flecked hymns of hate to the latest Euro-infamy.”

Hastings lapped it up at the time, but repented, repeatedly, later.

This year, Hastings wrote: “While he is a brilliant entertainer … he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification … He supposes himself to be Winston Churchill, while in reality being closer to Alan Partridge.”

If anything Hastings was even more eviscerating seven years earlier, when he wrote of Johnson: “His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.”

And: “I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday.”

And: “If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike, because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

Taxi for Sir Max, please.

He hardly wanted Brexit to happen at all

Certainly he wasn’t a committed Brexiteer. He ummed and ahhed about whether to back Remain or Leave. He even filed one of his Telegraph columns, for which he’s paid £5,000 a pop, championing the Remain cause, only to change his mind, demand they spike it and file another arguing the opposite. It’s a safe bet his motivation was, to repeat, self-promotion and generally fucking over Dave.

Satirist Kaya Mar holds his painting of Boris Johnson riding a donkey ahead of the announcement of a new leader for the Conservative party, and Prime Minister. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

He’s written some books

Including a novel, whose protagonist is a mendacious and philandering politician (just in case this point isn’t clear: so is Boris Johnson!!!) hounded by scandal, and who, after being exposed by a tabloid newspaper, finds “there was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed.”

The novel, called Seventy-Two Virgins, uses the following phrases to describe women, according to one summary: “tits out”, “a mega-titted six-footer”, an “unambiguously exuberant bosom”, having “premenstrual irrationality”, and looking “like a lingerie model, only cleverer and, if anything, with bigger breasts”.

He got fired that time

Before he was picked up by the Telegraph Johnson worked for the Times as a cadet reporter. He was fired after making up a quote which he attributed to his godfather, an Oxford historian.

He got fired that other time

In a combination of two of the things for which he is most infamous, fibbing and philandering, he was sacked by Tory leader Michael Howard after lying about an affair.

He’s a clown

Whether innate or contrived or somewhere in between, his ability to bluster and extemporise has become an essential part of his character, and his charm. That has its physical manifestations, too: wobbling along on a bicycle, or falling into the Thames, or dangling hopelessly from a zip wire as London mayor in celebration of the Olympics, or bulldozing a 10-year-old in a touch-rugby match.

He’s said some things

Including writing that Muslim women in burqas look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.

Including writing by way of parody that people in African commonwealth countries are “the tribal warriors” and “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.

And including characterising gay people as “tank-topped bumboys”.

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He was a hopeless foreign secretary

Not even the counsel of private secretary Jonathan Sinclair, the admired former high commissioner to New Zealand, could salvage a term “stained by a litany of blunders and poor diplomacy”.

The most telling example of his slapdash approach was a casual misstatement that led to a British citizen getting an extended jail sentence in Iran.

The most evocative is a poem he wrote about the Turkish president having sex with a goat.

He helped plot an assault on a journalist

No, really he did. A recording was unearthed in which his former Eton pal Darius Guppy asked for details about a tabloid journalist, Stuart Collier, so that he could be beaten up. After being assured that the assault would amount to nothing more than “a couple of black eyes” and a “cracked rib”, the man who is minutes away from becoming prime minister of Britain agreed to help out.


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