Many Americans view Boris Johnson as the U.K.’s answer to Donald Trump––a perception that the prime minister desperately wants to dispel. “I’m laboriously trying to convey to an American audience that this is a category error that has been repeatedly made,” Johnson says in a revealing and fascinating new profile on the cover of The Atlantic’s July/August issue.
London-based Atlantic staff writer Tom McTague had rare and extensive access to the prime minister this spring for a series of interviews in which Johnson seeks to explain himself, discussing what Johnsonism looks like in 2021, his intellectual justification for nationalism, and why he’s a “kind of very, very bad Christian.” The cover story, “The Minister of Chaos,” is available now at The Atlantic.
As Johnson leads his country through a radical reshaping of its economy, electoral map, and role in the international order, McTague’s profile offers an intimate look at Johnson as a storyteller, focused on the narrative of the country, and himself. The prime minister objects to the American assessment of Brexit, telling McTague: “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. It’s not at all.” Emphatically denying the perception that he’s a clone of Trump, Johnson points to his record on immigration, and adds: “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, or autarkic economic nationalists.”
The prime minister tells McTague that he doesn’t want the European Union to fragment—he just doesn’t want Britain to be a part of it. McTague writes: “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.’”
Johnson’s uncle, the journalist Edmund Fawcett, tells McTague that his shambolic manner helps him connect with people. “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,” according to the pollster Frank Luntz, who was friends with Johnson at Oxford. “People are more patient with him, they are more forgiving of him, because he’s not a typical politician.” And, as McTague observes, Johnson is the only prime minister in his career of covering Parliament who genuinely appears to be having a good time.
Elsewhere in the profile, Johnson tells McTague why he was so adamantly opposed to a new elite Europe-wide soccer league, despite not knowing anything about the sport. The European Soccer League, Johnson told McTague, represents “a deracination of the community fan base.” As McTague writes: “Johnson intuited something important about English anxiety, and he turned it into a parable for the 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.” Johnson doesn’t view everything through the prism of progress, saying, “I think that history––societies and civilizations and nations––can rise and fall, and I think that things can go backwards.” To him, Brexit is the fuel for Britain’s rise, and he tells McTague that the country today has far more “oomph, impetus, mojo” than before it left the EU. But whether Johnson really believes what he’s saying, or whether he’s just an opportunist, remains an open question. McTague: “As ever with Johnson, it’s difficult to discern true belief from narrative skill.”
“The Minister of Chaos” is online at TheAtlantic.com today and on the cover of the July/August issue.