One of the few things I find duller than the sport of soccer is the question of whether the United Kingdom will vote tomorrow to leave the European Union: the so-called Brexit. If it leaves, will Britain negotiate a way to maintain access to the Common Market, like Norway, while losing any say in EU governance? Will average Britons really lose 5 percent of their future wealth? Will leaving do anything to reduce immigration in the U.K., as Brexit’s most rabid xenophobe supporters wish? Will Brexit set off a chain reaction that sees Scotland, Northern Ireland, and even Wales depart from the kingdom to rejoin the EU? If there’s no Brexit, how long will England still be England? What does the Queen think? How many corgis does she have again? Does the EU regulate dogs?
A more interesting question is what effect the referendum result will have on the leadership of the Conservative Party and whether the vote will unseat David Cameron just a year into his second term as prime minister. If that happens — as many believe it will in the case of a Brexit win or a narrow victory for the “remain” camp — it’s quite possible that the U.K.’s next prime minister will be Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London.
I never liked living in London, but I like the idea of a country where an erstwhile journalist (not to mention an author of books on Rome, Shakespeare, and a corny-sounding thriller) can become head of state. Imagine, however, if Stephen Glass were a plausible candidate for president of the United States, and that’s not far from what we have in Johnson. Perhaps he’s not an outright fabulist (although some have alleged that), but he is a reporter known for a cavalier relationship with the facts given to publishing rumors as truth. But what would probably have been firing offenses in the U.S. only hastened Johnson’s ascent and were viewed as a harmless byproduct of his infectious, impish charm. For several years, he was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels and, when he left that beat, one of his rivals, James Landale of the Times, published a doggerel tribute:
Boris told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
His desk, which from its earliest youth
Had kept a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe each scoop
Until they landed in the soup.
The moral, it is indeed,
It might be wrong but it’s a damn fine read.
The rest of the parody, quoted by Nigel Cawthorne in Blond Ambition: The Rise and Rise of Boris Johnson, is about Johnson making up a phony story about the U.K. leaving the EU that then–Prime Minister John Major has to deny. If Britain does leave the EU tomorrow, it will be in large part thanks to Johnson, who this winter broke with his party’s leadership to join forces with UKIP leader Nigel Farage and became a top booster of the Brexit campaign. It was a brazen display of opportunism and an action entirely commensurate with what we know about Johnson’s character.
Johnson’s biography is an amusing read. It happens that he was born in New York in a loft across the street from the Chelsea Hotel, where his parents were living at the time because of a fellowship his father, Stanley, had won (a prize-winning poet as a student at Oxford, Stanley also attended the Iowa Writers Workshop for a time). Boris was deaf until an operation on his ears at age eight — thus his love of reading. His blond hair comes from ancestors in a remote Turkish village where his great-great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave. His father was fired from a job at the World Bank in 1968 by Robert McNamara for an April Fool’s Day joke: He submitted a proposal for a grant of $100 million to build three new pyramids in Egypt to boost the tourist trade. Johnson’s parents divorced, his mother suffered from depression, and his father was elected a member of the European Parliament. (It’s not uncommon for MEPs to be hostile to the European Union; UKIP is disproportionately represented among Britain’s contingent.) Young Boris’s childhood ambition was to become “world king.”
He was known for his charm and fecklessness at Eton, where like Cameron he was “head boy,” and Oxford, where he was president of the Union and a member of the Bullingdon Club (that’s the one in which Cameron allegedly fucked a dead pig in the mouth). Though he came to these institutions as a scholarship boy, he often wrote in praise of privilege, a habit he would continue into adulthood, penning columns under titles like “Long Live Elitism.” He married rich, but his first marriage ended in divorce and a nasty item about his cheapness in Private Eye, sourced to his ex-wife, who has since told the press that she still loves him. A second marriage has yielded four children. From the Telegraph, he went on to become editor of the Spectator, a position that allowed him frequent opportunities to appear on television, where he shined. From there, it was on to a seat in Parliament while the Tories were in opposition to the Blair and Brown governments, and then to the mayoralty of London. That post is a relatively recent invention, dating from 2000. London’s government is largely decentralized, and its mayors aren’t the figures of power we’re used to in New York. Johnson was in office the whole time I lived in London, and the only thing I associate with his rule are the ubiquitous blue “Boris bikes,” as they’re nicknamed. Johnson liked to take credit for them, but they were the result of a proposal from his predecessor, the socialist “Red” Ken Livingstone.
Ladbrokes has 9-4 odds on Johnson becoming the next Tory leader. It could happen sooner if the Brexit referendum results in a no-confidence vote for Cameron, or later if Cameron holds on until the next scheduled general election in 2020. I have a friend who won thousands of pounds betting on last year’s election, and she thinks Johnson has blown his chances during the Brexit debate by, well, being Boris. He’s winged it onstage and made up details like his claim that EU regulations prevent bananas from being sold in bunches of more than two or three, but under fire he has stuck to his guns and pointed out that the EU does have “four directives on bananas, including a directive on the curvature of bananas.” My friend is putting her money on Theresa May, Cameron’s home secretary, who has largely stayed out of the Brexit debate. The Theresa May I remember made big speeches about increasing the government’s powers of surveillance and went on Desert Island Discs to combat her image as a robot by attesting to love ABBA. If Johnson beats her, the political-entertainment factor will be significantly higher. Who wants to be governed by a robot when you could be governed by a clown?