Meet Boris Johnson: The controversial figure who could become the UK’s next prime minister
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images(LONDON) — There is a peculiarly British phrase for all those things that split opinions to the extent that no one, no matter how indifferent, has to pick a side.
Named after a particularly divisive condiment to spread on your breakfast toast, the saying goes: “It’s like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it.”
Boris Johnson, the Conservative lawmaker who is the overwhelming favorite to replace Theresa May as United Kingdom’s prime minister, is without a doubt the “Marmite” candidate in the current leadership race.
Johnson has only one more candidate to beat, the comparatively less colorful lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, when around 160,000 Conservative members vote for the next leader some time at the end of July.
Here’s everything you need to know about Johnson, who, if the latest polling is to be believed, should beat his only rival left standing Jeremy Hunt, to walk into Number 10 Downing Street after the vote.
After being educated at the elite boarding school Eton College and the University of Oxford, where he was a contemporary of former prime minister David Cameron, Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became a political journalist after graduating in the late 1980s.
He became a prominent political journalist in the 1990s, mainly for his work at the Times of London and Daily Telegraph newspapers. While at the Telegraph he served as a Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994, where he is credited for creating an atmosphere of the skepticism toward the European Union (EU) in British public life.
This phenomenon simmered beneath British politics for the next two decades, coming to the boil when the U.K. voted to leave the EU in 2016.
But it was in the late 1990s that Johnson burst into the public eye when he appeared on the satirical panel TV show “Have I Got News For You.”
His floppy blonde hair, sense of humor and bumbling persona made him an instantly recognizable public figure.
Yet controversy have followed Johnson wherever he has gone, mainly because he’s been accused of having trouble telling the truth.
In 2001, he was elected as a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. But three years later, he was sacked from as the Shadow Arts Minister for lying to the party leader about an extramarital affair.
Johnson returned to the front line of politics when he was elected mayor of London in 2008. During his first term as mayor, Johnson oversaw the capital’s responses to such key events as the 2011 London riots and the 2012 Olympics.
He was re-elected for a second term in office, proving himself as a charismatic and popular campaigner.
Johnson then led Vote Leave, the official campaign to leave the EU, during the 2016 Brexit referendum in one of the most divisive campaigns in U.K. political history. After the event, where Leave won by the margin of 52% to 48%, the campaign was later found guilty of breaching spending laws.
It is that controversy that makes him such a divisive political figure – loved by some, loathed by others. British newspapers are equally divided on whether to endorse his leadership of the country at such a crucial moment in history.
The Evening Standard has backed him as “the prime minister to turn Britain around,” while the Telegraph, which employed Johnson as a columnist, says he has “infectious optimism that his supporters hope will overwhelm the questions concerning character.”
The Times of London, meanwhile, recently described him as a “philanderer,” albeit one with “remarkable resilience.” It highlighted criticism leveled at Johnson over his personal life and allegedly racist comments in newspaper columns.
The newspaper also pointed to a major mistake during his time as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs over his handling of the case of a British-Iranian woman detained over spying charges in Iran. The woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whom Johnson said was there to “teach journalism,” remains in prison to date.
Abroad, his reputation is equally checkered. His time as a young journalist and his Brexit stance has won him few friends among EU leaders, whom he will have to engage with extensively if he became prime minister. However, he has received the endorsement of Donald Trump – crucial in the eyes of many in the Brexit camp, who see an improvement in US-UK ties as a key opportunity once it leaves the EU.
What to expect
Throughout his campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party, Johnson has maintained a hard line stance on Brexit. His position is unequivocal: the U.K. will leave the EU with or without a deal on the October 31, the new deadline for leaving after May failed to pass her Brexit deal through Parliament.
Yet, with most lawmakers intensely fearful of the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit, and his ability to turn his back on previous promises, it is impossible to predict what a Johnson premiership will truly look like.
But one thing’s for sure when it comes to Britain’s “Marmite” candidate: love him or hate him, he appears to be the candidate to beat.
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