It was just after 8:30 p.m., and Boris Johnson was with a group of about 20 politicians and donors at a private dinner in central London. At the time—June 6, 2018—Britain was mired in what seemed like an unending Brexit deadlock, and Johnson, then the country’s foreign secretary, was unhappy with the way Prime Minister Theresa May was handling it.
Away from the public glare, among friends and allies, he let his real feelings spill out.
“Imagine Donald Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson said, according to an audio recording published by BuzzFeed News the following day. “He’d go in bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.”
Implicit in Johnson’s assessment was a damning verdict on May’s cautious handling of the negotiations to take Britain out of the European Union. Yet a year on, having now unseated May as prime minister, Johnson’s comments may also have been crucial in cementing his place in the U.S. president’s mind as a brother-in-arms across the Atlantic. That in 2015, as London mayor, Johnson publicly criticized Trump as “out of his mind” and “unfit to hold the office of president of the United States” appears to have mattered little. To Trump, the leaked private praise is what has stuck—the surest path to Trump’s affection being arrant flattery. The American leader has more recently rewarded Johnson with rare praise for a British politician, calling him “tough” and “smart,” and the pair, in their first conversation since Johnson became prime minister, have extolled the possibilities of bolstering economic ties.