Johnson Goes From Court Jester to Crown Prince After Brexit Win

Johnson: U.K. Will Continue to be a Great European Power
  • Former London mayor took ‘massive gamble’ that paid off
  • ‘No need for haste’ on EU, Johnson says in victory speech

Boris Johnson, the bookmakers’ favorite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister after Britain voted to leave the European Union, will have to complete a transition from “court jester” to statesman to step into the role. His first task is to articulate what a Brexit will actually mean.

The former mayor of London, who helped shape Britain’s cynicism about the EU when he was a journalist based in Brussels, will need to harness the populist support he rode as a leading figure in the “Leave” campaign. To do that, he needs to show he can deliver on the promises made of a future of “sunlit meadows” that won over voters across swathes of England and Wales -- though not in Scotland or London.

Boris Johnson at the Vote Leave headquarters on Friday, June 24.
Boris Johnson at the Vote Leave headquarters on Friday, June 24.
Photographer: Mary Turner/Pool via Bloomberg

“He’s ridden this wave but he’s not demonstrated the capacity to do difficult politics, he’s only ever told people what they want to hear,” said Steve Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “He’s a politician for the good times and these are not good times. This is a financial Dunkirk potentially and I don’t think that he’s Winston Churchill.”

During the acrimonious campaign, Johnson was repeatedly asked to spell out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain and brushed over the details, preferring to speak of independence, sovereignty and “huge amounts of money” that would be freed up to spend on “our priorities.”

In a statement to reporters on Friday hailing the “Leave” side’s victory, he stressed there was still time to work out the details of the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. “There’s no need for haste,” he said. “Nothing will change over the short term.”

Runners and Riders

The frontrunner has not won a Conservative leadership contest since Anthony Eden in 1955 and Johnson’s elevation to the premiership is not a foregone conclusion.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, once a leadership favorite, is too closely tied to Cameron to still be considered a serious contender, leaving the field open for Home Secretary Theresa May and Johnson’s “Leave” campaign colleague, Michael Gove. Other leadership challengers could include Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, both from the “Remain” wing of the party.

For Johnson, 52, stepping into the top job at a time of crisis -- even if it is one of his own making -- would be a challenge he’s convinced he is ready for, even if his Tory colleagues are less sure. “He’s the life and soul of the party but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening,” Energy secretary Amber Rudd said during one of the referendum debates.

Most famous for his appearances on a comedy TV show before becoming London mayor in 2008, Johnson established himself as a cheerleader for the U.K. capital and his popularity with rank-and-file Conservatives is cemented every year with his performances as the star turn at the party’s annual conference.

‘Massive Gamble’

But before party members get the chance to vote for him as leader, Johnson will need to win the support of the Conservative lawmakers who, like Rudd, took the opposite side in the referendum campaign. Many see his decision to campaign for “Leave” as a piece of cynical opportunism aimed at propelling him into the premiership and will be reluctant to see his name go forward as one of two candidates offered to the membership.

Johnson has had two spells as a House of Commons lawmaker, as member for Henley-on-Thames from 1999 to 2008 and, after two terms as mayor, he was elected for the west London district of Uxbridge last year, enabling him to make a bid for the party leadership.

“Boris Johnson took a massive gamble and won,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “He would be odds-on the next leader of the Conservative Party and if he’s sensible he’ll hold as early an election as possible.”

Former Prime Minister John Major, whose time in office was dogged by splits in the Conservatives over Europe, warned that Johnson was stirring up difficulties for himself by the way he was conducting the “Leave” campaign.

“He’s a very engaging and charming court jester, and a very engaging and charming public figure, and he’s very likeable,” Major said in an interview with BBC TV. “But I would offer him this piece of advice: If the Leave campaign led by Boris continue to divide the Conservative Party as they are doing at the present time, and if Boris has the laudable ambition to become prime minister, he will find if he achieves that he will not have the loyalty of the party he divided.”

Euroskeptic Columns

As recently as January, Johnson said his “preference” was to stay in the EU, and he wrote two versions of the article that declared which side he would be backing in the referendum when he declared his hand in February. He told the BBC on Wednesday that the other column had said he would support staying in the bloc “to support my party and the prime minister. In the end that wasn’t a good enough reason.”

Johnson’s opposition to the EU, where his father worked for the European Commission, developed when he was posted to be Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1989. He made his name with a line in euroskeptic stories poking fun at the bloc’s bureaucracy, some of which he now admits were not true. Newspapers demanded the same from other reporters and the tide of public opinion was set.

A contemporary of Cameron’s at Eton, Britain’s most exclusive private school, and then Oxford University, Johnson still writes his Telegraph column and used it as a campaigning tool in the run up to Thursday’s vote.

Sacked from the Times newspaper as a cub reporter for making up a quote, and fired as a Conservative spokesman for lying over an extra-marital affair in 2004, Johnson has a colorful past which might have fatally damaged other politicians. But his use of humor and Latin quotations to get out of sticky situations has endeared him to voters. 

During the campaign, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described him as “Donald Trump with a Thesaurus.”’

While he is popular in the southeast of England, Johnson is not widely liked among the electorate in the north whose votes helped deliver the referendum result. Former Tory leader Michael Howard once ordered him to travel to Liverpool when he was editor of the Spectator to apologize for an op-ed insulting the city.

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