Not many senior Conservative Party figures are well known outside the UK, but former London mayor Boris Johnson definitely has the recognisability factor. Part of this is due to the fact that he was London mayor during the London Olympics but it’s mostly because he comes across as such an eccentric and entertaining Englishman.
This persona is one that Johnson has portrayed through his writings in his many years as a journalist and a columnist, and has also cultivated very effectively through his deeds and appearance: blonde, unkempt hair, slightly shabby dishevelled clothes, and an amusing habit of being outspoken and saying controversial things.
Political commentators have long asserted that Johnson’s ambition is to become party leader and prime minister, and that all of his decisions and political actions are made in accordance with this goal.
Indeed, through the Cameron years, there was always the sense that Johnson, despite his denials, was eying up the situation ready to pounce in case Cameron fell. And before the 2016 referendum his announcement that he was to join the Leave camp came just hours after he had pretty much confirmed to the prime minister that he would join him on the Remain campaign.
His decision was widely regarded as being a way of putting himself centre stage as an alternative to Cameron. His plan was thwarted by his ‘friend’ and Leave campaigner, Michael Gove, who just before Johnson was to announce he was running for the leadership after Cameron, announced his resignation following the referendum result.
A shaken Johnson again made an announcement different from the one that was expected: he said he would not stand and Theresa May swept to the leadership and became the prime minister.
May included Johnson in her cabinet but gave him a portfolio that would give little exposure in domestic politics and media: she made him foreign minister even though diplomacy was never considered one of his strong skills. Presumably, May was acting on the adage ‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer’.
As a result Boris Johnson was slightly tamed. Whereas as mayor he had had lots of press through entertaining photo ops — Boris cycling through the city, Boris exercising in hilariously oversized shorts, Boris stuck dangling from a harness waving two Union Jack flags etc etc — as foreign minister his photo ops were staid and boring even though he maintained his distinctive messy mop-like hairstyle.
But last weekend he stirred things up again with an article in the Daily Telegraph, which appeared to be critical of the prime minister’s Brexit policy and directly contradicted the chancellor. This came just days before the prime minister’s attendance of the UN General Assembly, and barely a week before her speech in Florence which is regarded important in outlining Britain’s post-Brexit situation.
Following the publication of his piece, there were furious calls from senior Conservatives for Johnson’s dismissal. But May had no intention of releasing him from his diplomatic prison. Speaking of him as one might of a naughty schoolboy, she said simply, “Boris will be Boris”.
But Boris being Boris, he had succeeded in stirring things up and getting himself back in the limelight. During the UN visit, he “just happened to” return from a jog, his hair dishevelled and sweaty, wearing a red shirt, just when a group of British reporters were in his NYC lobby: good photo op…, good publicity.
Perhaps, the prime minister is right and Boris will be Boris — but surely that’s the danger?
There is now so much uncertainty surrounding Britain’s EU divorce that additional insecurity around leadership is not a welcome prospect. But… Boris, it seems, is back.