Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist, and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s next prime minister, is a pragmatist, and having been born in the United States, understands America as well as perhaps no other politician since Winston Churchill. He recognizes the paramount importance of the post-Brexit relationship between the United States and the UK. He has worked hard to forge a positive relationship with President Donald Trump at a time when other world leaders have found that difficult or impossible to do.
Indeed, when people liken Boris Johnson to Trump, the comparisons are often either overblown or superficial (the hair). But the two, undeniably, do have this in common: They are politicians who are communicators first and foremost, unafraid to speak their minds.
Of course, Johnson is a journalist who often reaches for the metaphor, the peroration, the 800-word opinion article, rather than the raging, blunt tweet. But both men are direct. They cut through.
The Tory Johnson has cut through against Republicans from time to time, whether as foreign secretary, making clear his policy disagreements with Trump on Iran, or his rapier pushback against Trump’s claims of “no-go” areas in London. Mitt Romney, after suggesting London would not be ready to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, found himself on the receiving end of Johnson’s rhetoric as well.
But it’s not just in pushing back on otherwise like-minded American politicians where Johnson the communicator thrives.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some of this up close, having spent time with Johnson both in London and Washington. In a meeting we had in the mayor’s office in 2015, Johnson displayed a keen knowledge of the US political system and its cast of characters, asking incisive questions, and not dismissing Trump’s chances in the Republican primary.
But more noteworthy is his demonstrated ability to not so much win over a room, but to have won the room over before he even stepped on stage, as was the case with a 2015 Politico Playbook breakfast conversation with Johnson. Not to mention his keen wit, on display on his visit to “Late Night with David Letterman” and BBC’s car-oriented “Top Gear” and the comedy panel show “Have I Got News for You,” shows mayors appear on, but not prime ministers.
Indeed, this rare ability has saved Johnson before. When promoting the Olympics, Johnson became stuck on a zip line, waving Union Jacks as he waited for rescue. The clip went viral, but far from this becoming a “Dukakis in the tank” humiliation, viewers laughed right along with Johnson.
Johnson rises to the prime ministership at an extremely difficult time for the United Kingdom. Despite the best efforts of Theresa May, Britain remains without a deal to leave the European Union – and none in sight – and an October 31 deadline Johnson has committed to, with or without a deal. Meanwhile, the British public remains bitterly divided over Brexit, while struggling with the same left-right and urban-rural divides that America faces.
Sure, Johnson is controversial. Combine his outsized personality with an eager British tabloid press, and – as we’ve seen – it’ll draw a lot of headlines. But what politician seeking top office has gotten there without overcoming controversy, as so many US presidents and British prime ministers have shown?
Having watched Johnson operate up close, I’ve witnessed his unique talent of combining wit – often self-deprecating – and knowledge to charm admirers and disarm critics (or enrage them, when he finds that advantageous). These qualities should serve him well. He will need them. If the American president has the most important job in the world, in 2019, the next UK prime minister may well have the toughest.