The Minister of Chaos
Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing.
This article was published online on June 7, 2021.
“Nothing can go wrong!” Boris Johnson said, jumping into the driver’s seat of a tram he was about to take for a test ride. “Nothing. Can. Go. Wrong.”
The prime minister was visiting a factory outside Birmingham, campaigning on behalf of the local mayor ahead of “Super Thursday”—a spate of elections across England, Scotland, and Wales in early May. These elections would give voters a chance to have their say on Johnson’s two years in office, during which quite a lot did go wrong.
Johnson was, as usual, unkempt and amused, a tornado of bonhomie in a country where politicians tend to be phlegmatic and self-serious, if not dour and awkward. Walking in, he had launched into a limerick about a man named Dan who likes to ride trams. The mayor, Andy Street, looked horrified, tomorrow’s disastrous headlines seeming to flash before his eyes. (The limerick, I’m sorry to say, was not at all filthy.)
Johnson’s aide told me the prime minister had been excited about his tram ride all morning. He loves infrastructure, mobile infrastructure especially—planes, trains, bicycles, trams, even bridges to Ireland and airports floating in the sea. And he loves photo ops. There would be no point in displaying action and intent and momentum if no one were present to document it.
“All aboard!” he yelled, though there were no passengers. News photographers crowded around and men in hard hats stood by. The tram (British for “streetcar”) inched forward, only to jerk and shudder to a halt. That’s £2.5 million worth of vehicle, the chief executive of the tram company told me with a nervous laugh. When Johnson finally made it around the bend and neared the end of the circuit, he slammed on the brakes and blasted the horn. “Nothing went wrong!” he said gleefully.
Nothing, really, could have gone wrong. The tram was limited to three miles an hour and had an automatic-override system to protect it from reckless prime ministers, among others. No matter. It provided Johnson with the chance to do what he loves: to put on a show, to create a little tumult where there is none. He became famous in the late 1990s and early 2000s for his appearances on a popular satirical news program, Have I Got News for You. Each time, he was the butt of the jokes and also the center of attention. After he was first elected to Parliament, in 2001, his colleagues told him that he would have to become serious to succeed in politics. To spend time with Johnson, as I have done over the past several months, is to watch a politician completely indifferent to such advice.
Johnson is nothing like the other prime ministers I’ve covered. Tony Blair and David Cameron were polished and formidable. Gordon Brown and Theresa May were rigid, fearful, cautious. Johnson might as well be another species. He is lively and engaged, superficially disheveled but in fact focused and watchful. He is scruffy, impulsive, exuberant. He is the first British leader I’ve seen who genuinely appears to be having a good time. His conversations with members of the public are peppered with “That’s amazing!” and “You’re joking!” and “Wonderful!” and “Fantastic, fantastic!”
His mission, he says, is to restore Britain’s faith in itself, to battle the “effete and desiccated and hopeless” defeatism that defined the Britain of his childhood. He believes that if you repeat that it is morning in Britain over and over again, the country will believe it, and then it will come to pass. His critics, however, say he is just leading the country “sinking giggling into the sea.”
By now, every British subject is an expert on the matter of Boris Johnson. We know that he has an extraordinary gift for extramarital affairs, that he has (at least) six children by three women, and that his personal finances are a regular subject of press gossip. We know that he has been fired twice for lying (once as a journalist, once as a politician); that he was the Conservative mayor of Britain’s left-wing capital city; that he helped engineer the defenestration of two prime ministers from his own party; and that he very nearly died during the pandemic. For three decades, we’ve followed his writing, his ambition, his outrages, his scandals. Yet the truth, for a professional Boris-watcher such as myself, is maddeningly elusive.
To many, Johnson is a clown—the embodiment of the demise of public standards and the face of international populism, post-truth politics, even British decline itself. He is the man who got stuck on a zip line during the London Olympics, dangling above the crowds in a harness and helmet, helplessly waving British flags while people cheered below. The French newspaper Libération used this image on its front page after Britain voted to leave the European Union, with the headline “Good Luck.”
Johnson’s sense of humor regularly gets him into trouble. In 2017, as foreign secretary, he joked about the Libyan city of Sirte having a bright future, as soon as its residents “clear the dead bodies away.” Announcing further COVID-19 restrictions in October 2020, he reportedly told lawmakers that at least they wouldn’t have to spend Christmas with their in-laws. He has likened Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and the Conservative Party’s infighting to “Papua New Guinea–style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.”
To his most vehement critics, he is worse than a clown: a charlatan who lied his way to the top, who endangers democracy and traffics in racism, and who believes in nothing but his own advancement. He has been accused of triggering a wave of populist anger that he then rode to 10 Downing Street, leaving Britain weakened and in very real danger of dissolution. (Scotland once again is considering making its own exit.) He is leading his country through the most radical reshaping of its economy, electoral map, and international role since World War II. To Johnson’s cry of faith that nothing can go wrong, critics say: No, a lot can go wrong—and very well might.
When I began meeting with Johnson early this year, I didn’t know precisely how he would take to interrogation. His exuberance worked in my favor; the fact that he is a former journalist, familiar with our wicked ways, did not.
In Northern Ireland once, he looked over at me as I scribbled in my notebook. “Ah, Tom,” he said, “you’re picking up color or something, aren’t you?” The answer, of course, was yes—color being the journalist’s term for anything that goes beyond straight facts or quotes, the details used to paint a scene for the reader. But I was after more than that.
I wanted to understand whether Johnson was truly a populist, or just popular. His argument for patriotic optimism has obvious appeal, but I wondered whether it masked more cynical impulses. Was he working in the country’s interest, or his own? And I wanted to see up close if he truly was—as his enemies charge—the British equivalent of Donald Trump. On this question, Johnson would have an emphatic answer for me.
Later, in his office, I asked Johnson to imagine that he was a journalist again. How would he open this profile? What is the key, I asked, to understanding Boris Johnson? After a few ums and ahs, Johnson replied: “Sheer physical fitness. And hard work.”
I laughed, as he’d surely hoped I would. “Look, Tom, that is your challenge,” he said (pronouncing challenge as if it were French), shutting down this line of inquiry. Here was the uncrackable Johnson: the amiability, the self-deprecation, the evasion.
On the day of Johnson’s visit to the tram factory, the big national story was the formation of an elite European soccer league, modeled on its steroidal American cousin, the NFL. The plan would draw at least six English clubs and six from the continent into a “European Super League.” It was announced the night before, and Johnson had come out against it, arguing that it would yank England’s grandest clubs from their traditional environment against the wishes of their fans. It was unfair, he said, and the government would fight it. His opposition led the news that morning.
I wondered why he cared so much. He doesn’t know anything about soccer, and in fact delights in his ignorance.
But Johnson intuited something important about English anxiety, and he turned the issue into a parable for a sense of powerlessness and dislocation felt by many in Britain, precisely the sort of feelings that had energized the Brexit movement and carried him to 10 Downing Street. In one of our conversations, Johnson had said that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. He told me that he doesn’t think of himself as a nationalist, but he argued that individuals need to feel that they belong, and they shouldn’t be patronized for worrying that their traditions and connections are being eroded. Was this why he opposed the European Super League?
“Absolutely,” he said. “This is about the deracination of the community fan base.” Soccer clubs, he continued, had turned into global brands and were leaving their supporters behind, “taking off like a great mother ship and orbiting the planet.”
I was struck by his use of the word deracinated to describe the peculiar dynamics of English soccer partisanship. To be deracinated is to be uprooted from your customs, your culture, your home—in this instance, from England. Here, Johnson was offering himself as the people’s tribune, defender of the national game from the threat of alien imposition. He was channeling a cry of anger and turning it against globalization.
Johnson is a strange figurehead for such a movement. The prime minister is, at least nominally, a free-marketeer and the chief proselytizer of “Global Britain.” He plays to the rootedness of Middle England—to its anxieties, traditions, and national pride—but he is also a very obvious transient.
He was born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in a hospital that served poor New Yorkers. Johnson’s father, Stanley, then 23, had moved to the U.S. on a creative-writing scholarship but quit and enrolled in an economics program at Columbia University instead. The first few months of Boris’s life were spent in a single-room apartment opposite the Chelsea Hotel. He was officially a dual U.S.–U.K. citizen until 2016, once telling David Letterman that he could, “technically speaking,” be elected president. Some wondered whether he meant it—he had, after all, said as a child that his ambition was to be “world king.” (Johnson renounced his U.S. citizenship after being chased by the IRS for a tax bill on the sale of a London home.)
Johnson’s intricate name suggests the cosmopolitanism of his background. Boris honors a Russian émigré whom Stanley and Johnson’s mother, Charlotte, met in Mexico shortly before his birth. The man bought them plane tickets back to the U.S. so the heavily pregnant Charlotte wouldn’t have to endure the Greyhound bus. De Pfeffel comes from Johnson’s half-French grandmother, Irène, who was born in the grand Pavillon du Barry, in Versailles, which belonged to her grandfather, Baron Hubert de Pfeffel.
Even the Johnson is less English than it might seem. Boris’s great-grandfather was a Turkish journalist and politician who was murdered in the chaos of the Ottoman empire’s collapse. He was denounced as a traitor for his opposition to Kemal Atatürk and was attacked and hanged by a nationalist mob wielding stones, sticks, and knives. According to Sonia Purnell’s biography, Just Boris, his body parts were said to have been stuffed in a tree. His half-English, half-Swiss wife, Winifred, gave birth to their son Osman in England, but died soon after. Osman was brought up by his English grandmother—maiden name Johnson—and went by the name Wilfred Johnson. (In 2020, at the age of 55, Boris Johnson named his new baby boy Wilfred.)
Over the first 14 years of Johnson’s life, his family moved 32 times, including to Washington, D.C., where Stanley worked at the World Bank. Some of Johnson’s fondest early memories are of his tree house in their yard on Morrison Street, just off Connecticut Avenue. In 1974, Charlotte had a nervous breakdown while the family was living in Brussels. The next year, Johnson and his younger sister, who were then 11 and 10, were sent to a boarding school in England, traveling there each term unaccompanied by their parents.
Before leaving for school, the young Alexander was a quiet, introspective boy. He had been partially deaf until age 8 or 9, because of a condition known as “glue ear,” in which fluid builds up behind the eardrum. At school, he transformed himself into the confident, insouciant extrovert we see today. It was at Eton that Alexander became Boris, a “fully-fledged school celebrity,” according to Purnell—head boy, editor of the school magazine, president of the debating society. Sir Eric Anderson, who was a housemaster to Tony Blair in Scotland and to Johnson at Eton, was once asked to name the most interesting pupil he’d ever had, and replied: “Without a doubt, Boris Johnson.”
After graduating from Eton and then Oxford—the finishing schools of England’s elite, where he was close friends with Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer—Johnson married young, returned to Brussels, divorced, married again, moved back to London, conducted numerous affairs, divorced again, got engaged again, and all the while steadily made his professional ascent.
Throughout, Johnson has stood apart from any clique, whether the modernizers who have sought to remake the Conservative Party or the Thatcherite resistance against them. Johnson has, in fact, tended to avoid the formal ties of obligation that come with being part of any group. In many ways he himself is the definition of deracinated. (A friend of his once told me he suspected that Johnson subscribed to a pre-Christian morality system, with a multitude of gods and no clear set of rules. I put this to the prime minister, but he dismissed the notion. “Christianity is a superb ethical system and I would count myself as a kind of very, very bad Christian,” he told me. “No disrespect to any other religions, but Christianity makes a lot of sense to me.”)
The one group he is associated with are the Brexiteers. Johnson largely avoids the nativist rhetoric of the group’s more extreme elements, but he does believe that Britain’s discomfort with its power and its history has gone too far. (George Orwell once observed that Britain is “the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.”) On England’s national day last summer, Johnson released a video message urging the country to raise a glass “without embarrassment, without shame.” Imagine a U.S. president needing to make the same qualification on Independence Day.
But while Johnson’s patriotic message is powerful in England—by far the largest of the U.K.’s four nations—it does not readily translate elsewhere, particularly in Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU. The great irony is that although Johnson led the campaign to “take back control” from Europe, his success has intensified calls in Scotland for control to be wrested from London. This is where Johnson’s legacy is most at risk. If he were to preside over the breakup of the country, whatever else he did would forever be overshadowed. He would be the Lord North of the 21st century: not the prime minister who lost America, but the one who lost Britain itself.
A few days after Johnson’s tram ride, I saw him again in Hartlepool, a coastal town in England’s struggling, industrial northeast. Johnson had threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” on the English soccer clubs planning to join the new Super League. Within hours all six had pulled out, and the league had collapsed. Newspapers across Europe hailed Johnson’s influence. Italy’s La Gazzetta Dello Sport, apparently a newspaper given to hyperbole, likened Johnson’s intervention to Churchill’s stand against the Nazis.
Keen to squeeze more political capital from the episode, Johnson stopped by a soccer stadium in town. I grew up only a short drive from Hartlepool. The region was once rock-solid Labour Party territory, but Conservatives have been making inroads there. It was heavily in favor of Brexit, and it has a long tradition of contempt for the political establishment. In 2002, the town elected its soccer club’s mascot, H’Angus the Monkey, as mayor. The man who wore the costume served the term and was twice reelected.
When Johnson arrived to be interviewed by the regional press, I showed him the Gazzetta article. Grabbing my phone, he read the headline aloud in exaggerated Italian as an aide urged him to get to the business at hand, which was to ensure that the town moved into the Conservative column.
Talking to a TV reporter, Johnson kept referring to a previous Labour MP for Hartlepool, Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson, as “Lord Mandelson of Guacamole.” Mandelson is reputed to have once confused mushy peas—a side dish served with fish and chips—for guacamole. The story isn’t true, but the populist in Johnson enjoyed it so much that he deployed the nickname three more times before leaving the stadium. The joke would be hypocritical but for the fact that the prime minister doesn’t try to hide his own class status: When David Cameron was mocked for admitting that he didn’t know the price of a loaf of bread, a reporter confronted Johnson with the same question. He got it right, but then added: “I can tell you the price of a bottle of champagne—how about that?”
After the interview, Johnson joined a group of players passing a ball around. “Another chapter in my epic of football humiliation,” he said, alluding to a much-watched YouTube video of a charity soccer match in which Johnson charged at an opposing player before stumbling and crashing headfirst into the player’s groin, leaving him collapsed in pain on the ground. In Hartlepool, Johnson told the players that he was better with an oval ball than a round one, referring to rugby, the sport of Britain’s elite schools. He added that he knew how to play the wall game, an obscure sport played only at Eton. The Hartlepool players didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.
Johnson and his team then set off to knock on doors on a quiet suburban street. Prime-ministerial campaigning is more homespun and spontaneous than the American presidential sort, and Johnson knew next to nothing about the people whose doors he’d be knocking on. At one home, a retired couple told him they were furious about his handling of the pandemic, especially his failure to close the border as emerging strains of the coronavirus ravaged India.
Before the virus was brought under control in the spring, Johnson had overseen one of the worst responses in Europe; more than 125,000 Britons have died. His own former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has publicly accused Johnson and his team of botching the government’s response to the pandemic and then lying about it.
Johnson stood silently and took the couple’s haranguing. A few days later, he would take another; it was reported that in the depths of the pandemic, faced with announcing a second lockdown, he had declared: “No more fucking lockdowns—let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” He has denied saying this.
At the other houses, however, the prime minister was treated like a lovable celebrity, and it was almost taken for granted when he asked people if he could count on their support. He was twice stopped and thanked for “everything you’ve done.” (Although Britain’s death count is appalling, Johnson has also overseen a rapid vaccine rollout; by March, Britain had administered first doses to half its adult population—more than the U.S., Germany, and France.) Two women came out clutching toddlers. Johnson elbow-bumped the little ones and asked how old they were, then struggled to remember precisely when his own son would turn 1. The mothers laughed as he fumbled for the right date—guessing three times before he got it right.
Johnson’s uncle, the journalist Edmund Fawcett, told me the prime minister’s shambolic manner helps him connect with people. One of Johnson’s closest allies in government, his Brexit negotiator, David Frost, said the technique was “deliberate but unconscious.” Johnson, however, seems to know exactly what he’s doing. He said as much in an interview with CNBC in 2013, when he was asked whether his performative incompetence was typical in a politician. “No, I think it’s a very cunning device,” he said. “Self-deprecation is all about understanding that basically people regard politicians as a bunch of shysters.”
According to his allies, Johnson goes out of his way to suggest that he’s more flawed than he really is. He claims, for instance, not only that he has smoked pot “quite a few” times but also that he once tried cocaine and accidentally sneezed it out. Andrew Gimson, who wrote Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, doesn’t believe it. Noting that the prime minister once described sex as “the supreme recreation,” Gimson argued that “where others might reach for the bottle, or the needle, he is more likely to embrace some warm and attractive woman.”
Johnson’s ability to invite underestimation seems to shield him from the usual rules of politics. “There’s a magic to Boris which allows him to escape some of the political challenges that he’s had since he became prime minister,” Frank Luntz, an American pollster who was friends with Johnson at Oxford, told me. “People are more patient with him, they are more forgiving of him, because he’s not a typical politician.”
And there’s been a lot to forgive.
Johnson has written about Africans with “watermelon smiles” and described gay men as “tank-topped bumboys.” As foreign secretary, he put a fellow citizen at risk when he mistakenly claimed that she was in Iran to teach journalism, giving Tehran an excuse to charge her with spreading propaganda. As prime minister he has erected a trade barrier within his own country as the price of Brexit—subjecting Northern Ireland to EU regulations while the rest of the country is free to do its own thing.
That nothing ever seems to stick drives his opponents mad. He won the Conservative leadership just weeks after it was reported that an argument with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, became so heated, neighbors called the police. He won the biggest parliamentary majority in a generation despite breaking promises over when and how he would secure a Brexit deal. Time and again, when controversy has engulfed him, he has emerged unscathed.
Part of his electoral genius lies in his ability to stop his opponents from thinking straight: In their hatred for him, they cannot see why he is popular, nor what to do about it.
“What am I doing this for?” Johnson asked his aides, looking at his schedule for the day and seeing a slot carved out to talk to me.
“It’s for the profile I advised you not to do,” James Slack, Johnson’s then–director of communications, said.
In the year since I’d first asked Johnson’s team for time with the prime minister, his director of communications had changed twice, and much of the rest of Johnson’s early team had been replaced, partly over interoffice rivalries that had spun out of control. In the end, Johnson himself gave the green light. When I finally got to see him, it was March 2021 and the country was just starting to come out of its most stringent lockdown.
Visiting Downing Street is a strange business: You have to be precleared to enter and you pass through airport-style metal detectors, but then you simply walk up the street as if it were any other and knock on a door to be let in. It is not a single building, but a warren of Georgian townhouses that have been connected, extended, fixed up, and perpetually tinkered with. At the heart of the complex is No. 10, the prime minister’s official residence and place of work.
Behind the smart black bricks and polished front door, an air of shabbiness hangs over the place. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a high-ceilinged entrance hall where the house cat, Larry, is often asleep. Discarded modems sit on windowsills; thick red carpets lie worn and uneven with bits of tape stuck to them. (This spring, Johnson was caught up in an ethics investigation over allegations that he’d sought political donations to help pay for redecorating the Downing Street apartment he shares with Symonds, who was blamed in the British tabloids and nicknamed “Carrie Antoinette.” Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.)
Downing Street is extraordinarily ill-suited to its function as the nerve center of a modern bureaucracy. Its rooms are either small and disconnected or big and impractical—the dining rooms, libraries, and servants’ quarters of a different England. It manages to be both modest and cavernous, iconic and underwhelming. It is outdated and dysfunctional—and yet somehow it works. It is a physical incarnation of 21st-century Britain.
Johnson believes the British state showed unforgivable weakness in its Brexit negotiations, and some of his advisers told me it also exhibited fatal incompetence during the pandemic. Britain’s bureaucracy, they argue, is in need of an overhaul. Johnson’s critics would point out that it was he who negotiated Britain’s exit from the EU, and the state was not to blame for his pandemic decision making. It is also true, however, that Britain was notably ill-equipped to cope with the coronavirus, and that by the time Johnson took over in 2019, he faced a devil’s bargain in how to leave the EU, the terms on offer largely having been set beforehand.
Britain’s only real success fighting COVID-19 came when Johnson turned down the opportunity to join the EU’s vaccine-procurement program and handed the country’s own effort to a venture capitalist with a virtually unlimited budget outside the usual rules of government. As a result, Britons were being vaccinated in the millions long before the rest of Europe. But this way of working has created layers of complexity and confusion that have left no clear lines of accountability. Even some of those at the top feel a sense of powerlessness, telling me that the only way to get anything done is to declare, “I’ve spoken to the prime minister about this, and he wants it to happen.”
In his office, Johnson steered the conversation to a subject he raised nearly every time I saw him. He’d read an article I’d written, a kind of eulogy for the late British novelist John le Carré. I’d praised le Carré’s observations about England and its failing ruling class—privately educated charlatans whom the author mocked as the greatest dissemblers on Earth. And I’d listed Johnson as an example.
He told me he’d taken a completely different lesson from the novelist. To Johnson, le Carré had exposed not the fakery of the British ruling class, but its endemic passivity, and acceptance of decline. “I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at school,” he said. “It presented to me this miserable picture of these Foreign Office bureaucrats … For me, they were the problem.” Johnson told me this was exactly what he was determined to fight.
“You lump me together with various other people—and you say we are all products of these decadent institutions and this culture, an inadequate and despairing establishment. That’s not me!” He said he was trying “to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have.”
Johnson believes there remains a “world-weariness” in the government that has to be “squeezed out,” one of his ministers told me. Johnsonism, an aide said, was partly about “puffing our chest out and saying, ‘We’re Britain.’ ” (Several of Johnson’s advisers agreed to be candid in exchange for anonymity.) In an early phone call with Joe Biden, an aide told me, Johnson said he disliked the phrase special relationship after the president used it. To Johnson it seemed needy and weak.
The one member of le Carré’s establishment whom Johnson does not hold in contempt is the hero, George Smiley, who is jaded like his colleagues but plods on nonetheless, catching traitors and serving Britain. “He was a patriot,” Johnson said.
To Johnson, Smiley might be a cynic, but he is also a romantic—a believer. Isn’t that you? I asked. Johnson is a romantic who urges the country to believe in itself, but who plays the political game, stretches the truth, stands against his friends, and deposes his colleagues. After an initial show of mock evasion, the prime minister replied: “All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up.”
Here was Johnson offering a rare moment of self-reflection. During the time I spent with him, whenever we got close to anything approaching self-analysis, he would parry, swerve, or crack a joke. At one point, when I brought the conversation back to le Carré, Johnson fell into a series of impersonations of the novelist’s characters. One of Johnson’s aides told me the prime minister loathed anything that smacked of overintellectualizing politics.
At Downing Street, I heard Johnson repeat a saying his maternal grandmother was fond of quoting. “Darling,” he said, mimicking her, “remember, it’s not how you’re doing; it’s what you’re doing.” Johnson said this was “the key advice.” I asked Johnson’s sister, Rachel, about it. She told me their mother was also fond of the saying. “It’s about being in the moment,” she said, rather than worrying about how things will turn out.
Get on with it is the Johnson mantra.
Johnson often carries a notepad around, a habit from his days as a journalist. A former aide told me that you know he has taken your point seriously if he writes it down. He runs meetings like an editor, surveying his staff for ideas, always looking for “the line”—cutting through dry and occasionally contradictory facts to identify what he sees as the heart of the matter, the story.
The prime minister’s journalism career, however, got off to an ignominious start. In 1988, one year out of Oxford, he was fired from The Times, the newspaper of the establishment, for making up a quote in a front-page story and attributing it to his godfather. He has since apologized, sort of, while also complaining about the “sniveling, fact-grubbing historians” who called him out.
Despite getting sacked from The Times, he quickly landed at its rival, The Daily Telegraph, and rose through the ranks of British media, eventually becoming the editor in chief of The Spectator, Britain’s premier conservative magazine. In 1992, Johnson was the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph when the Maastricht Treaty was signed, laying the foundation for the modern incarnation of the European Union and sending British politics into one of its perennial tailspins over London’s relationship with Europe. It was the perfect time and place for a man of Johnson’s talents.
He made a name for himself with outlandish, not-always-accurate stories about European regulations ostensibly being imposed on Britons—rules governing the flavors of potato chips, the bendiness of bananas, the size of condoms. Margaret Thatcher, whose battles over European integration had cost her the premiership in 1990, reputedly enjoyed Johnson’s columns. He later described his life in Brussels as “chucking these rocks over the garden wall and [listening] to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England.”
But rereading Johnson’s work today, what jumps out is that he appears far less hostile to Europe than one might imagine: In a January 1992 article, for example, he writes that while the principal charges against the EU—that it was wasteful and bureaucratic—were true, these problems were “dwarfed by the benefits” of membership. He goes on to say that the EU was “run by an undemocratic Brussels machine, full of faceless busybodies,” but that it also gave Britain a new purpose: to run Europe.
I asked Johnson about his change of mind. He famously wrote two drafts of a column—one in favor of “Leave,” the other for “Remain”—before announcing which side he supported in the 2016 referendum. Critics allege that he only backed Brexit because it provided him with a path to power. Johnson rejects that characterization—his aides say he often plays devil’s advocate to pressure-test his arguments and ideas. And Johnson told me Britain had never been able to lead the EU in any case, because it was too hamstrung by division and doubt over the project to be anything but a brake. This seemed anathema to him: better momentum, whatever the direction, than playing the role of spoiler.
“Anyway,” he said, “do we have to talk about Brexit? We’ve sucked that lemon dry.”
So we turned instead to Horace.
In 2005, Johnson gave a lecture about the Roman poet, in which he reflected on the lasting influence that poets and historians and journalists have over how people are remembered. “Horace writes all these bum-sucking poems about his [patrons] saying how great they are,” Johnson told me, “but the point he always makes to them is ‘You’re going to die and the poem is going to live, and who wrote the poem?’ ”
I told him that sounded like a cynical view of the world.
“It’s a defense of journalism!” he said.
“So you’re saying I’m more powerful than you?” I asked.
“Exactly, exactly,” he replied, laughing.
I said I didn’t buy it. But Johnson very clearly appreciates the importance of shaping perceptions. To him, the point of politics—and life—is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in.
In the prime minister’s view, those who wanted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum didn’t have the courage to tell the real story at the heart of their vision: a story of the beauty of European unity and collective identity. Instead, they offered claims of impending disaster were Britain to leave, most of which haven’t come to pass, at least not yet. The story voters believed in was fundamentally different—in Johnson’s words, “that this is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right.”
“People live by narrative,” he told me. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”
“So you’re noT Trump?” I asked Johnson. I had just been treated to a long monologue about his liberal internationalism and support for free trade, climate action, and even globalism.
“Well, self-evidently,” he replied.
It might be self-evident to him, but not to others—the former president himself embraced Johnson as “Britain Trump,” and Biden once called him a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
This is the central argument against Johnson: For all his positivity and good cheer, the verses of Latin and ancient Greek he drops into conversation, he is much closer to Trump than he lets on. Johnson spearheaded the “Leave” campaign the same year the U.S. voted for Trump, and the two campaigns looked similar on the surface—populist, nationalist, anti-establishment. What, after all, is Brexit but a rebellion against an ostensibly unfair system, fueled by the twin angers of trade and immigration, that aims to restore to Britain a sense of something lost: control.
The prime minister certainly understands that this perception has taken hold. “A lot of people in America, a lot of respectable liberal opinion in America—The Washington Post and The New York Times, etc.—thinks that Brexit is the most appalling, terrible aberration and a retreat into nationalism,” he told me. “It’s not at all.”
As for Johnson himself, his past language about members of minority groups is, to some, evidence of a kinship with Trump. Johnson has compared Muslim women in burkas to mailboxes, written of “flag-waving piccaninnies,” and recited a nostalgic colonial-era poem while in Myanmar. His partisans note, defensively, that his first finance minister was the son of a Pakistani bus driver; his second is a British Indian. The business secretary is a fellow Eton alum whose parents came to Britain from Ghana, and Britain’s president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, this year, was born in India. The man Johnson charged with overseeing Britain’s vaccine rollout is an Iraqi-born British Kurd, and the home secretary, responsible for policing, is the daughter of Ugandan Indians.
There is also the issue of immigration. During the Brexit campaign, Johnson did call for—and has since delivered—stronger controls on migration from Europe. But in contrast to Trump, he has supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants; offered a path to British citizenship to millions of Hong Kongers; and refashioned Britain’s immigration system to treat European and non-European migrants equally. As mayor of London, he said that Trump’s claim that the British capital had “no-go areas” because of Islamic extremists betrayed “stupefying ignorance” and that Trump was “out of his mind” for seeking to ban Muslim immigration.
Even so, the Trump question is the first thing many Americans will want to know, I told him.
“Well, how ignorant can they be?” he said. I ventured that the curse of international politics is that each country looks at others through its own national prism.
“They do, they do,” he admitted, before continuing: “I’m laboriously trying to convey to an American audience that this is a category error that has been repeatedly made.”
“The point I’m trying to get over to you and your readers is that you mustn’t mistake this government for being some sort of bunch of xenophobes,” he added, “or autarkic economic nationalists.” (Here even Johnson’s critics would have to concede one difference: Donald Trump is unlikely to have ever used the word autarkic in conversation.)
The first attempt at pulling together a coherent intellectual framework for Johnsonism was the government’s “integrated review” of foreign, economic, and defense policy, published in March. It emphasized the importance of deepening alliances outside Europe and the need to more robustly defend democratic values. Its driving force was John Bew, Johnson’s chief foreign-policy adviser and the author of Realpolitik, a book published four years before Johnson came to power that now reads like a primer for Johnsonism. According to Bew, realpolitik is based on four interlocking principles: politics is the law of the strong; states are strong when they are domestically harmonious; ideas matter because people believe them, not because they are true; and finally, the zeitgeist is “the single most important factor in determining the trajectory of a nation’s politics.”
Johnson’s blueprint for governing can be found in these principles. His pitch to voters is that he will “unite and level up” the country, which starts from the premise that Britain cannot be a decisive, confident international actor as long as it is divided, economically imbalanced, and as vulnerable to global financial and health crises as it has shown itself to be.
He also believes that the global zeitgeist has radically changed since the 2008 financial crisis, and therefore so too must Britain’s foreign policy. This is not an ephemeral, insubstantial thing: Voters will not accept a laissez-faire attitude toward free trade, deindustrialization, or the rise of China any longer. Whether voters’ demands on these issues are reasonable or constructive is beside the point—they are reality.
Johnson and his allies emphasize that Brexit did not happen in a vacuum. In The Globalization Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik notes that the more tightly the world’s economies intertwine, the less influence national governments can have over the lives of their citizens. For a long time, governments—including Britain’s—believed that the economic benefits of globalization outweighed that cost. But when this bargain began to reveal its emptiness, particularly after 2008, voters demanded more control. In Britain this was particularly acute, because the country was more exposed than most, with its oversize financial sector and open economy. It was ripe for a revolt to “take back control”—the “Leave” campaign’s central promise.
Johnson has vowed to use the power of government to reinvigorate industry and boost growth outside London, using levers that he says wouldn’t be available if the country were still in the EU. One aide told me Johnson had ordered civil servants to reject conservative orthodoxies about government intervention being bad and to be “more creative and more confident around who we choose to back.” It’s an unusual approach for someone caricatured as a right-wing ideologue; on the American political spectrum, Johnson’s policies would fall well to the left of center.
The prime minister told me he doesn’t want the EU to fragment—he just doesn’t want Britain to be a part of it. For too long, Johnson and his team believe, Britain has been “living out a foreign policy of a world that has gone,” one of his closest advisers said. Beijing and Moscow have shown us the limits of the rules-based order. Britain can no longer afford to be a “status quo power” naively trying to resurrect a defunct system. “The world is moving faster,” the adviser said, “and therefore we have got to get our shit together and move faster with it.”
To do so, Johnson insists, Britain must be independent, united, and nimble. (His foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told me that instead of “some big cumbersome whale,” the country needed to be “a more agile dolphin.”) The prime minister has already indicated what this might look like, imposing human-rights sanctions on Russia, using the presidency of the G7 to turn the group into a wider alliance of democracies, and trying to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The world is messy, and Johnson likes mess. He believes the key is to adapt. He has spent a lifetime turning ambition, opportunism, and ruthless self-promotion into extraordinary personal success. Why can’t a country do the same?
Whenever you talk to Johnson, you bump up against an all-encompassing belief that things will be fine. He believes, for example, that the threat of Scottish independence will melt away over time, with Brexit acting as a centripetal force pulling the U.K. back together.
Yet Johnson understands the art of politics better than his critics and rivals do. He is right that his is a battle to write the national story, and that this requires offering people hope and agency, a sense of optimism and pride in place. He has shown that he is a master at finding the story voters want to hear.
Whether he succeeds or fails matters beyond Britain’s borders. As democratic states look for ways to answer the concerns of voters without descending into the authoritarian Orbánism of Eastern Europe or the Trumpian populism that has consumed the Republican Party, Johnson is beginning a test run for a conservative alternative that may prove attractive, or at least viable.
But with Britain finally outside the European Union, Johnson must now address problems that cannot be dealt with by belief alone. If his domestic economic project fails, some fear the country will turn toward xenophobic identity politics. If he cannot unify the country at home, his bid to make Britain more assertive on the world stage may prove impossible. If he cannot fend off demands for Scottish independence, the state will fracture. “Telling everyone everything is fine is not the same as everything is fine,” Tony Blair told me.
Now that Johnson has won his revolution, does he have the focus to see it through? Even one of his closest aides expressed worry that the prime minister doesn’t think systematically about Britain’s problems, that he is too reliant on unshakable faith.
The last time I saw Johnson was back in the northeast of England. “Super Thursday” had come and gone and he had scored thumping victories in England, though not in Scotland, where pro-independence parties won a small majority. We met in Sedgefield, long Blair’s constituency. When I was a child, the joke was that Labour votes there were not so much counted as weighed. Now it’s Conservative territory.
Johnson admitted a certain “grudging admiration” for Blair, who won three parliamentary majorities in the 1990s and 2000s. I said that the difference between the two men, as far as I could tell, was that Blair saw everything through a prism of progress: those on the right side of history, such as himself, and those like Johnson who were trying to hold back the inevitable.
“He felt the hand of history on his shoulder, didn’t he?” Johnson said, mocking a famous Blair quote shortly before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Johnson doesn’t see the world that way. “I think that history—societies and civilizations and nations—can rise and fall, and I think that things can go backwards,” he said.
This might sound like a warning. But to Johnson, Brexit is the fuel for Britain’s rise, not its fall. He believes the country today has far more “oomph, impetus, mojo” than before it left the EU.
As ever with Johnson, it’s hard to discern true belief from narrative skill. I kept coming back to something he’d told me earlier, in our discussion of le Carré: “All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up.” The duality of his character continued to fascinate me. There is the light and the color he wants the world to see—his jokes and unclouded optimism. But there is a shadow, too, the darker side that most people who know him acknowledge, the moments of introspection and calculation.
Hoping for another glimpse of the more reflective Johnson, I repeated the quote to him and began to ask him what he’d meant.
“I wondered—” was all I was able to get out before Johnson cut in.
“Did I say that?” he asked. “How pompous of me.”
This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Boris Johnson Knows Exactly What He’s Doing.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.