Even if you don’t pay much attention to what goes on in the UK, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard the name Boris Johnson before.
A former mayor of London, former British foreign secretary and current media personality, Johnson finally launched his official campaign to replace Theresa May as prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on Monday.
He joins a crowded field – but he’s probably the only candidate whose name resonates outside of the UK.
Johnson posted a slickly produced video on social media a few minutes after US President Donald Trump stepped off Air Force One at the start of a state visit to the UK. Johnson received the tacit approval of Trump over the weekend.
The timing – which can’t possibly have been coincidental – ensures that coverage of Day 1 of the Johnson campaign will be muted. That may well be part of the strategy – Johnson is acutely aware that being the frontrunner at the start of any leadership campaign doesn’t always work out well.
It may also have the effect of defusing the impact of the Trump endorsement. Under normal circumstances, the approval of a US president would be a boon to any leadership hopeful. But Johnson, already often described as the British Trump, knows that he cannot afford to appear any more divisive if he is to succeed in winning the Conservative leadership. The backing of Trump is not likely to win him the friends he needs from moderates.
Seen by many as the man who most influenced the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, Johnson is loved by Brexiteers and loathed by Remainers. But if his launch video is anything to go by, it’s clear that Johnson understands that whoever takes over from May needs to unite a country still badly divided by the Brexit referendum.
In the video, Johnson is seen talking to people from ethnically diverse background and to voters across the political divide. He talks about uniting the country and hammers home the need for the UK to be positive and confident. It’s fair to say that this is miles away from the Trumpian way of doing politics.
Johnson’s international name recognition has not always been achieved for good reasons.
His extensive list of controversies includes such hits as calling people across the commonwealth “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” saying that women who wear Islamic face veils look “like letter boxes” and writing a poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having sex with a goat.
It’s not just gaffes: Johnson has been criticized for saying that a British citizen who is serving a jail term in Iran for alleged espionage was in the country to teach people journalism. The Iranian authorities jumped on this and used Johnson’s statement as evidence against her.
So, it might come as a surprise that such a controversial figure is the frontrunner to be the next PM.
Johnson’s history as a two-term mayor of London – a city that skews heavily towards voting for the opposition Labour party – has always been seen as the Conservative’s not-so-secret weapon.
However, since the referendum he has become one of the most divisive political figures in the country. Leavers see him as a hero of the Brexit campaign; Remainers think that he lied his way to victory and is to blame for the mess the nation is in.
As recently as October, most Conservative MPs recognized that Brand Boris had become too toxic and that he wasn’t a viable option to replace May, whenever the moment came.
It’s not just in the UK that Johnson divides opinion. The Brussels elite, with whom the UK has been negotiating Brexit, remember his time there as a journalist covering the EU, where he wrote dubious stories about how Brussels operated. That, combined with his antics since the referendum, makes it very unlikely that he would be seen as a credible negotiating partner by the powers-that-be.
Given that one of the key tasks for any new PM will be to convince Brussels to renegotiate May’s Brexit blueprint – the very thing that Johnson resigned from her Cabinet over – crowning Johnson as prime minister seems a strange choice.
So why on earth is he the Conservative favorite?
It’s all about Brexit
Much has changed since October. First, May’s deal is all but dead and her leadership is drawing to a close. Brexit hasn’t been delivered, which means that a number of options are back on the table. For many Conservatives, this means the prospect of a harder Brexit, or even leaving the EU without a deal – something May was ultimately unwilling to do.
Brexiteers believe that Johnson would be happy with letting the clock run down and not requesting a Brexit extension. More importantly, they believe that the EU believes he would do this.
They also believe that Johnson is the only Conservative who is charismatic enough to take on the unique electoral challenges facing party at the moment. Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party is gunning for an election, calculating that a Conservative party in chaos would be easy to pick off. The Conservatives are also facing a new electoral threat in Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party. The longer Brexit doesn’t happen, the more support this new, openly no-deal supporting group, is likely to get.
It’s definitely a risk. The Conservative party is badly divided and many in the party believe that Johnson isn’t up to the job. He is seen as untrustworthy and lazy by some of his fellow MPs. And being popular with Conservative members is very different to being popular with the country at large – especially among Remain voters.
It could backfire badly for the Conservatives and ultimately hand the keys to 10 Downing Street to Corbyn, a man they see as a risk to national security. But, unfortunately for the Conservatives, their bungling of Brexit has left them with very few options.