London: BBC presenter Jeremy Viner tells a story that last year, he and Boris Johnson had been booked to do after-dinner speeches at a prestigious gathering. Viner prepared his down to the last comma whereas the former mayor of London showed up, wrote two words on a piece of paper, and bumbled his way through, apologising and cracking jokes.
“I was struck then by how casual and chaotic he was,” Viner says.
A year later, the two were booked to do a similar set of speeches.
“Boris turned up, wrote the same two words on a piece of paper and gave the exact same self-depreciating speech with the same apologies and wisecracks in the same places,” Viner says. “Then I realised that he had this bumbling public persona that people love honed to a ‘t’. He’s far more clever than people realise or give him credit for. It’s completely disarming.”
It’s a telling anecdote, one that goes to the heart of the personality of the journalist-cum-politician who becomes the 56th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Like Johnson, 18 other of those leaders have been educated at prestigious Eton College, and he was an alumni of David Cameron at Oxford University where both were members of the debaucherous Bullington Club.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson turned 55 last month, born in New York to parents who were diplomats and consequently was educated for a while at the European School of Brussels. It’s a beginning that seems at odds to his opposition to UK’s membership of the European Union, leading the Leave campaign to the unexpected referendum win in June 2016. That’s a result that led to the immediate resignation of Cameron, and while Johnson had his sights set then on 10 Downing Street, he backed out of the race with a humiliating declaration that he was not the right fit for the office at that time. He was, however, appointed Foreign Secretary by Theresa May. His record was chequered, his time in office beset by issues caused by his brusque and decidedly undiplomatic habit of going off script.
Johnson’s opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May’s government with the EU led to his resignation from cabinet a little over a year ago — and since then he has focused on succeeding May once it became clear she was a lame-duck leader with a short shelf life atop the Conservative party.
When May did announce her decision to step aside, Johnson was the clear leader in a crowded field of 12 candidates, with the party’s 313 Members of Parliament whittling that field down to two — he and the current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
While Hunt did try to hold Johnson to account over the five weeks of the campaign, the result wasn’t even close, with Johnson winning the support of 66 per cent of almost 160,000 Conservative party members eligible to vote.
But Johnson takes the party still struggling to come to grips with what Brexit means, when and how it should happen.
Campaigning, Johnson endeared himself with right-wing party supporters who want the UK out of the EU come the October 31 deadline. He said that he is willing to prorogue — suspend — parliament to ensure that happens, and he will leave without a deal in a hard Brexit if necessary.
That’s a daunting prospect for the new Prime Minister, with moderate and pro-EU figures in the party saying they will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening.
As things stand right now, thanks to a confidence and supply arrangement with 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs from Northern Ireland, the Conservatives hold a slender three-vote majority in the House of Commons. A by-election in early August is expected to reduce that to two, and a half-dozen of his party’s MPs have said they are willing to quit the party and join the opposition Social Democrats to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
May’s downfall was failing to find any common ground over Brexit in the ranks of her divided party and indeed in a the divided Commons as a whole. While the Conservatives now have a new leader and the nation has a new Prime Minister in Johnson, those fundamental and intractable divisions remain. If anything, given Johnson’s single-minded pursuit of the party leadership, those divisions are only heightened all the more.
In Johnson, the Conservatives have a popular figure capable of making headlines. Whether that’s a skill set that’s applicable for the longer term behind the most famous black hall door in the world remains to be seen.