Boris’s Blundering Brilliance

Brexit has given the U.K’s self-seeking Prime Minister the opportunity to show he actually knows what he’s doing.

Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

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It’s hard to take the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, completely seriously. Just look at him: a chubby, permanently disheveled toff with an accent that comes off as a parody of an upper-class twit, topped off by that trademark mop of silver-blond hair he deliberately musses up before venturing into the public eye. Then there are those photo-op moments in his long career that seem designed to make him look supremely silly — stuck dangling in midair on a zip line with little Union Jacks waving in his hands; rugby-tackling a 10-year-old in Japan; playing tug-of-war in a publicity stunt and collapsing, suited, onto the grass; or declaring at one point that he was more likely to be “reincarnated as an olive,” “locked in a disused fridge,” or “decapitated by a flying Frisbee” than to become prime minister.

And yet he has. And more than that: This comic figure has somehow managed to find himself at the center of the populist storms sweeping Britain and the West — first by becoming the most senior politician in Britain to back Brexit in 2016, and now by plotting a course that might actually bring the United Kingdom out of the epic, years-long, once-impossible-looking mess he helped make. Just over four months into office as PM, he appears poised to win an election he called and, if the polls are anywhere near correct, score a clear victory and take Britain out of the E.U. by the end of January.

Not so long ago, this Brexit scenario seemed inconceivable: What the E.U. demanded and the British Parliament could support seemed irreconcilable, and no single resolution to the Brexit referendum had enough support to budge the country’s politics out of a maddening stall. But here we are, with Boris having budged it.

In the politics of this, he has been helped by the British winner-takes-all electoral system; by a very unpopular Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn; and by an opposition split down the middle on Brexit. But he deserves credit for getting the E.U. to change (if somewhat marginally) a final deal it long said was absolutely nonnegotiable and for seeing an opportunity that others didn’t — in the U.K., across Europe, and in the U.S. — to become not more ideological in a tumultuous era of uncorked populism but less so. And more nakedly opportunistic.

This “lovable buffoon,” as he’s called now by journalists and politicos as well as former Labour voters turning Tory in focus groups in the Midlands, has skillfully maneuvered toward a full term as prime minister and perhaps toward an era in British politics when the Conservative Party is defined less by Thatcherism than Borisism. Through complete lack of principle, endless charm, and ruthless ambition, he has managed to bring about a possibility that, not too long ago, probably only he allowed himself to fantasize about: that he would become not just prime minister but a significant one.

How has he pulled all this off? His critics argue that he has cynically become the British Trump, whipping up xenophobia and ugly racism, lying with abandon, and reinventing the British Tory party as a hard-right populist engine for the worst instincts of the deplorable masses. He is now attacked as a racist and reckless Little Englander, gleefully wrecking the British economy, polarizing the country, and threatening to break up the U.K.
solely to advance his own narcissistic ambitions. Shallow, lazy, incompetent, and bigoted, this clown has somehow leveraged the fears of the many to advance the only thing he has ever genuinely believed in: his own destiny.

But there is another story to be told about him: that he has been serious all along, using his humor and ridiculousness to camouflage political instincts that have, in fact, been sharper than his peers’. He sensed the shifting populist tides of the 2010s before most other leading politicians did and grasped the Brexit issue as a path to power. But he also understood how important it was not to be fully captured by that raw xenophobic energy. He saw Brexit discontent as something the political Establishment needed to engage and co-opt rather than dismiss and demonize, and he approached the opportunity in a very different way from his sometime ally Nigel Farage, whose provincial extremism veered into outright racism and whose political career Johnson has now all but ended.

As a longtime liberal Tory, Boris, as he’s invariably called in the press and by the public, saw the deep unpopularity of his party’s legacy of fiscal austerity and the need to shift left in economic and social policy. So he is quietly forging a new conservatism — appealing to the working poor and aspiring middle classes, tough on immigration and crime, but much more generous in spending on hospitals and schools and science. Or so he says for now. And if he succeeds — by no means a sure thing, though at this point it almost seems foolish to bet against him — he won’t just be charting a new future for the U.K. but pioneering a path for other Western parties of the center right confronted by the rise of populist extremism.

1982: Johnson at Eton. Photo: Richard Shymansky/Gillman & Soames/News Licensing

The parallels with Donald Trump are at first hard to resist: two well-off jokers with bad hair playing populist. But Trump sees himself, and is seen by his voters, as an outsider, locked out of the circles he wants to be in, the heir to a real-estate fortune with no political experience and a crude sense of humor, bristling with resentment, and with a background in reality television. He despises constitutional norms, displays no understanding of history or culture, and has a cold streak of cruelty deep in his soul. Boris is almost the opposite of this, his career a near-classic example of British Establishment insiderism with his deep learning, reverence for tradition, and a capacity to laugh at himself that is rare in most egos as big as his. In 2015, after Trump described parts of London as no-go areas because of Islamist influence, Johnson accused him of “a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president.” Even as president, Trump is driven primarily by resentment. Boris, as always, is animated by entitlement. (The vibe of his pitch is almost that people like him should be in charge.)

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was educated at Eton (like at least 20 prime ministers before him), then at Oxford (like 27). He was president of the Oxford Union, the university’s legendary debating society, like prime ministers Heath, Asquith, and Gladstone. From 1999 to 2005, he was the editor of the 191-year-old Spectator, the eclectic, Tory-leaning magazine, a position that has often been a stepping-stone to high political office. He has been a member of Parliament twice, from 2001 to 2008 and since 2015. He was mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, presiding over the Olympics. Then he was foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018. This résumé is close to a parody of the British elite — about as far from Trump as it is possible to imagine.

That Johnson sometimes appears as an outsider is largely a function of his personality and how he has skillfully marketed it: extremely smart but constitutionally lazy; upper class with a real feel for and delight in ordinary life; sexually promiscuous to an almost comical degree; a defender of rules as long as he is entitled to break them from time to time; a humorist and pun merchant who has succeeded in making his own aristocratic idiosyncrasies part of the joke; a ruthless careerist with a capacity for deceit and forgiveness; and a narcissist no one should even begin to trust. But of course, as loath as aristocrats of previous generations would have been to admit it, all of this may be even more characteristic of the country’s ruling class than a stiff-upper-lip sense of propriety.

It’s all there at the beginning at Eton. In his sparkling 2006 biography, his friend Andrew Gimson dug up Boris’s old school reports. They might have been written by his often-frustrated colleagues in politics: “Boris’s favored pace is the amble (with the odd last-minute sprint), which has been good enough so far, and I suppose enables him to smell the flowers along the way. It’s time, though, that with a greater commitment to the real business of scholarship … Boris could turn himself into a classicist of real distinction.” It didn’t quite turn out that way. A year later, this gentle critique harshened: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

And yet somehow Boris leveraged this indolence and incompetence to gain popularity. Gimson’s biography notes that he couldn’t be bothered to remember his lines in a school play, so he posted them around the stage and rushed from prompt to prompt, garbling most of them, evoking howls of laughter from the crowd and intense frustration from his fellow actors. He acted in a Molière play in French but with an atrocious English accent that also stole the show. He made his laziness into a joke — and discovered that this made people laugh and warm to him. It was at Eton too that he first honed his signature look with his blond mop and scruffy, ill-fitting clothes. And it was at Eton that his ferocious bursts of energy, optimism, and enthusiasm became better known: “On the rugby field Boris was an absolute berserker,” one report noted. “There was a lot of yelling and hurling of himself reckless of life and limb, both his own and other people’s.” Even as a teenager, he wanted to be remembered for his passion for sex. In the equivalent of a yearbook, Boris posted a picture of himself with two scarves and a machine gun and a pledge to make “more notches on my phallocratic phallus.” It remains a rather staggering fact today that no one actually knows how many children Boris has, and he point-blank refuses to discuss any details of his private life in public.

At Oxford, it was the same performance. I overlapped with him for a year (1983–84) and, like him, was president of the Oxford Union. Compared with most of the toffs, he seemed to me endearing. So many other Etonians downplayed their upper-class origins, became lefties, smoked pot, softened their accents, and wore clothes indistinguishable from anyone else.
But Boris wore his class as a clown costume — never hiding it but subtly mocking it with a performance that was as eccentric as it was self-aware. He made others feel as if they were in on a joke he had created, which somewhat defused the class resentment he might otherwise have been subject to and which, like many from the lower ranks of British society, I mostly shared.

But I gave him a pass because he was so splendidly colorful. In the Union, he routinely cracked everyone up, his debating technique less forensic than simply funny — saying something in an absurdly aristocratic and formal way and then adding some pop-culture reference as a punch line. He has never let go of that rhetorical formula. Not everyone liked him, of course, and he had a hard time getting elected. In his first attempt to become president, he lost to an earnest middle-class student who mocked his Etonian Toryism. So Boris, with his usual disaffected aplomb, reinvented himself as a Social Democrat, got elected and then declared his Tory allegiance.

He seemed to have come to Oxford fully formed, a handsome blond who joined the Bullingdon Club, a selective, upper-class, all-male clique that held dinner parties in various restaurants and was known for getting plastered and vandalizing the joint. It represented to me the worst elements of private-school privilege and exclusion. That I didn’t reflexively despise Boris — as I did most of them — is testimony to his personal charm. His chums — Viscount Althorp (now Charles Spencer), Princess Diana’s brother; and the eccentric British-Iranian Darius Guppy (later jailed for fraud) — seemed to have little in common besides going to Eton.

He did not, however, achieve a first-class degree, a rare occasion in his life when winging it failed. In his chosen profession as a journalist, he worked for the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph, often finding stories where others didn’t but also just making stuff up. In one Times story, he invented a quote to sex up the piece, then lied to his editors about it. He was fired when the person he “quoted” complained, but, using his connections, he managed to get a second job, at the Telegraph, the solid Tory non-tabloid. In a stroke of editing genius, he was assigned to cover the E.U. in Brussels, where his environmentalist father had been one of the first British officials to work for the European bureaucracy (assigned to controlling pollution), where boy Boris thereby attended elementary school for two years and where, as a journalist, he also proceeded to just make stuff up.
But this time, the stuff he embellished or concocted — about the overweening ambitions of the E.U. and the absurdities of various E.U. regulations, on, say, the size of condoms — was almost designed to tickle Tory Telegraph readers.

Johnson had demonstrated no previous hostility to Europe and in fact was a passionate enthusiast for many aspects of European culture and history. In this way, he was a somewhat typical British elite of his generation, a comfortable cosmopolitan. Indeed, his great-grandfather Ali Kemal was a high-ranking Turkish politician who opposed the rise of Atatürk and was thrown to the mercies of a bloodthirsty mob as a result. So there was some irony in Boris’s becoming the xenophobic, Euroskeptic right’s favorite writer. He did it not with anger or polemic but with unrelenting scorn and humor. In time, his editor, Max Hastings, saw Boris’s antics for what they were, calling him a “cavorting charlatan” and lamenting that “we can scarcely strip the emperor’s clothes from a man who has built a career, or at least a lurid love life, out of strutting without them.” Still, Hastings didn’t fire one of the most popular writers in his paper.

But in 1999, Conrad Black, the Trump-pardoned fraudster, lured him to be editor of the Spectator, which Black owned. The core question before Boris got the job was whether he would stick to journalism and stay out of elected office. Even for a lively magazine like the Spectator, there was an obvious concern that an elected politician as editor would severely cramp the independence it had long prided itself on. “He gave us his solemn word of honor that he would not seek selection for any party, including the Conservatives,” Black subsequently told Gimson. But about two weeks after this promise, without telling Black, Boris applied to be the Tory candidate for two different seats. Somehow he charmed his way out of a pink slip.

It was during his editorship that the Spectator became known as the Sextator in the tabloids, an august old journal suddenly rife with scandalous affairs involving no fewer than five staffers and the home secretary. By this time, Boris had already had two wives (he committed adultery on his first with his second) and four young children and was still very busy adding many more “notches.” Even now, he is living in No. 10 Downing Street with a girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, who is slightly older than his children, while fending off stories of past trysts with an American model and tech consultant, Jennifer Arcuri.

In all this, he is no socially conservative hypocrite and rather a bon vivant. Boris defended Bill Clinton’s shenanigans in the 1990s, blaming Monica Lewinsky for the affair, excoriating the press for its prurience, and defending the desirability of lying about extramarital dalliances. And he did indeed lie about his. Confronted by rumors of an affair with Petronella Wyatt while he was editing the Spectator, he denounced the story as “an inverted pyramid of piffle.” It wasn’t. Wyatt had one abortion and one miscarriage, and the affair soon became public knowledge. At the same time, his attempt to be in Parliament while being a journalist began to crumble under the weight of its contradictions. When he was promoted to become Tory spokesman for the arts, his own magazine tripped him up. An unsigned 2004 editorial — not written by him — lamented the tendency of the inhabitants of Liverpool to be overly sentimental: “They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it.” As editor, Boris nobly took full responsibility for the piece and never outed its actual author, a reactionary blowhard named Simon Heffer.

But the Tory leader of the time, Michael Howard, demanded Boris go to Liverpool and apologize personally. He did … and he didn’t. In scenes reminiscent of Veep, Boris dutifully went to Liverpool but couldn’t help himself and, when pressed, defended the editorial. In a subsequent column, he called his endeavor “Operation Scouse-Grovel” — scouse being a slang word for a Liverpudlian. An angry Howard soon fired him for the Wyatt affair, and the press turned viciously against Boris. It wasn’t long before he was also fired from the Spectator despite having grown its circulation substantially. And when David Cameron — a younger fellow Etonian — won the leadership of the Tories in 2005, Boris was left out of the top tier of his opposition team. His political and journalistic future looked dim.

1986: At Oxford. Photo: ©Dafydd Jones

The smooth moderation of Cameron, who as prime minister oversaw an austerity response to the financial crisis, wasn’t very compatible with Boris’s berserker temperament, but his politics were rarely to Cameron’s right until Brexit, despite the way they’ve been described in both Britain and the U.S. over the past few years. It’s an understandable misreading: In that time, Boris has allied himself with many of the most hard-core Euro-obsessives and social conservatives in the Tory party and seemed prepared earlier this year to lead the U.K. out of the E.U. without a deal — the most extreme Brexit position available then. He expelled from the party 21 moderate, rebellious Conservative MPs (who refused to entertain a “no deal” outcome) in the Brexit battle and formed a Cabinet that included many hard-core social conservatives. On top of which, he has been lambasted for a number of passages from his long journalistic career that suggest racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia — and that he viewed as satirical excesses. Trump deploys the same defense, but outside of Boris’s purple prose — “tank-topped bum-boys,” burka-wearing women looking like “letter boxes” — the evidence of his bigotry is a little thin. A bigot would be unlikely to win two elections as mayor of London, a vast multiracial, multicultural metropolis. And his Cabinet is the most ethnically diverse in British history.

Or take gay rights. Back in 2003, Johnson was one of a handful of Tories who rebelled against Conservative Party policy, voting for an end to the Thatcherite ban on teaching about homosexuality in state schools. Like many pols, he couldn’t handle marriage equality at first, but then he adjusted, becoming in 2010 one of the first senior Tory politicians to entertain it. As London mayor, he marched in several Pride parades, and as foreign secretary, he reversed a ban on rainbow flags at British embassies. On a trip to Russia, he defended gay rights, saying at a press conference with Sergei Lavrov that “we speak up for the LGBT community in Chechnya and elsewhere.”

Islamophobia? Johnson had previously favored the entry of Turkey, with 81 million Muslims, into the E.U. He is hostile to the illiberalism in contemporary Islam but has defended the religion as a whole: “Everything that most shocks us about Islam now — the sexism, the intolerance of dissent, the persecution of heresy and blasphemy, the droning about hell and shaitan, the destruction of works of art, the ferocious punishments — all of them have been characteristics of Christian Europe. It wasn’t so long ago that we were burning books and heretics ourselves.”

Boris also appreciated the moderation of Barack Obama: “He is patently not the Marxist subversive loony lefty that some of his detractors allege.” And, of course, he has shown a deep contempt for Donald Trump. In 2016, he said he was “genuinely worried that [Trump] could become president … I was in New York and some photographers were trying to take a picture of me and a girl walked down the pavement towards me and she stopped and she said, ‘Gee, is that Trump?’ It was one of the worst moments.”

The truth is Johnson has a record as a liberal Tory: a conservative who can celebrate “our fantastic National Health Service” and has no interest in politicians’ preaching about morality. And it was this conservatism that enabled him to become mayor of London, a largely Labour city, where he thrived. He brought back the double-decker bus; launched a successful, if unprofitable, bike-sharing scheme, “Boris Bikes”; backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants; banned booze on the tube; raised the recommended living wage in London; and presided over an Olympics that became a public-relations coup for the entire country. Crime declined — as it did everywhere. And Boris became one of the most famous cyclists in the city, careening back and forth, often on his mobile phone. By the end of his term, a YouGov poll found that almost twice as many Londoners thought he did a good job as mayor as those who didn’t.

As always, Johnson’s ideological flexibility was key — so much so that it led him to resist the more doctrinaire forces in his own party. As mayor, Johnson complained about the austerity measures of the Tory Cameron government. And as prime minister, he has immediately ramped up public spending on the police, schools, and hospitals. He shelved a previous proposal to lower the corporation tax and has focused on raising the income threshold at which Brits pay the equivalent of the Social Security tax and on raising the minimum wage nationwide. He has urged people to “Buy British” — a slogan anathema to market economics. Whether this is posturing or serious, no one knows exactly, but it sure is a sharp move rhetorically left for the Tories, away from the wealthy and austerity and toward the working poor and debt.

This encodes a very clear understanding that, in the wake of the 2008 crash, the global elite in London has thrived but the working and middle classes in the rest of the country have been, at best, treading water. Johnson has defended the bankers in the City of London (they pay a large amount of Britain’s taxes) and, as mayor, presided over the glitterification of the city. But he also understands that, in this new era, there is widespread support for nationalism rather than internationalism and for social welfare rather than unrestricted capitalism. Johnson intuited what the polling now shows: The “left-right” axis has morphed into an “open-closed” divide. On the one hand, there are those who have been winners in the 21st century and who favor the E.U. and international institutions, globalization, free trade, and mass immigration. On the other, there’s a rising non-elite group that defends the nation-state, opposes global capitalism, and wants to reduce immigration and put native-born workers first. Boris has definitely shifted the Tories into the latter camp, specifically through Brexit, a stance that appeals to more working-class voters — in exactly the same way that the GOP’s base has shifted to the less educated.

The public has noticed. In 2019, the polling shows that 48 percent of working-class voters now back the Tories, while only 31 percent back Labour. This means that, in the current election, the Conservatives find themselves competitive in northern seats, where Labour was once close to a religion, even as some prosperous Tory seats in the South have become vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. Brexit cemented this. But as the former chancellor George Osborne told me, “trading Oxford West for a shot at Hartlepool is a hell of a gamble in the medium term.”

Boris’s play for nationalist votes may be calculated and opportunistic — “He’s entirely focus-group driven,” says a former colleague — but it has befuddled and angered old friends and many in his liberal family, who still see him as merely playacting his support for the ERG, the most pro-Brexit faction among the Tories. “He thinks the ERG are nutters,” one prior Cabinet minister told me. His brother Jo quit Boris’s Cabinet when it became clear that a no-deal Brexit was on the table. His sister, Rachel, quit the Tories in 2011 and joined the “remain” party, the Liberal Democrats, in 2017. “His brothers and sister don’t believe him on Europe,” said the minister. “There’s a lot of pain in the family … He’s not the Boris I knew. He’s harder.”

2012: Promoting the London Olympics as mayor. Photo: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In speaking with multiple school and college contemporaries of Boris’s and with colleagues and former colleagues, including Cabinet ministers, I soon discovered no deep friendships or political networks. Compared with the elaborate social political network of, say, David Cameron, he is a loner. “He doesn’t value his friends the way I do. He doesn’t care,” says a former colleague, who also says, “It was lovely to work with him.” “People attach themselves to him,” says the minister. But it rarely feels as if he attaches to them. He was anchored for a long time by his marriage to his second wife, Marina Wheeler, but constantly rocked the marriage with countless affairs. Some who know him suggest his attachment to consecutive lovers is the only way he can securely feel intimacy. Others simply believe that Boris has had one endless love affair with himself and that everything else is politics. Some see him as a persona rather than a person: “He has no purpose,” says an embittered old ally. “For someone so prodigiously talented to have no moral core is heartbreaking.”

What struck me in these conversations is how little he seems to have changed over the years since I knew him — as if his emotional development were arrested in college. What’s different now is that a series of lies and betrayals has alienated many. “The British people are going to have the same experience with Boris that everyone who has known him have understood,” says the former ally. “They will feel hugely let down.”

Johnson was brought up with three siblings by a father, Stanley Johnson, whose braggadocio and humor rival his son’s, and by a mother, Charlotte Fawcett, an artist with a liberal background. Stanley’s career came first, which led to constant upheaval (the family moved 32 times while the marriage lasted, according to Fawcett) and to Boris’s being born in New York City and brought up in the U.S., Belgium, and England. (Boris was a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K. until a couple of years ago.) Stanley treated his marriage vows as seriously as Boris would his, and this, along with the constant moving and not-so-secure finances, likely contributed to Fawcett’s nervous breakdown in 1974. She would be in and out of hospital with severe depression for some years before she divorced. Extremely close to her children, she was suddenly gone from their lives, and Boris was devastated.

There remains a hint of pathos in those droopy blue eyes of his. “He’s a much more introspective person than most people assume,” his former ally told me. “That strange look behind those brows is a vulnerability. People want to mother him.” And forgive him. Political rivals he has betrayed or fired have shockingly positive things to say about him. He’d follow up a sacking or a public row with texts begging forgiveness or making amends.

He seems most emotionally comfortable in front of an audience, cracking jokes. On television, even as he was a journalist and an MP, he became something of a star in his own right. He regularly went on a satirical quiz show on current events called Have I Got News for You? and was as funny as the professional comedians who were permanent guests. In turn, he was invited back to guest host. He began cracking people up on various interview shows and became a very rare politician with true pop-cultural appeal. He was the kind of celebrity figure who could advise the readers of GQ that under a Conservative government, “your wife will get bigger breasts and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase.”

Near the end of his second term as London mayor, Johnson broke yet another promise that he would not seek a parliamentary seat while mayor and reentered Parliament in the 2015 election, when Cameron shocked himself and everyone else by winning handily. This was not good for Boris’s career, as Cameron’s right-hand man, George Osborne, was widely regarded as the successor-in-waiting, and Boris was, in the words of one pol, “desolate” at the result. But the victory ensured that Cameron’s election promise of an E.U. referendum couldn’t be avoided, and almost all the political elite rallied around the “remain” camp, with most assuming that Boris would join them and Cameron having no idea he would be betrayed. In the end, after much dithering, Boris famously wrote two drafts of his announcement, one favoring “remain” and one “leave.” “I am a European. I lived many years in Brussels. I rather love the old place,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his pro-Brexit column. “And so I resent the way we continually confuse Europe — the home of the greatest and richest culture in the world, to which Britain is and will be an eternal contributor — with the political project of the European Union. It is, therefore, vital to stress that there is nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave on June 23.” Ultimately, he would campaign against his own government, becoming at once the most formidable politician behind the “leave” cause.

The “leave” campaign deceived voters. It famously claimed a rebate for Brexit of £350 million a week to spend on the NHS, a sum that represented the gross amount of money Britain gave to the E.U., and not the net, which was less than half that amount. A notorious poster raised fears of mass immigration by showing a trail of dark-looking migrants with the slogan “Breaking Point.” There were also ugly last-minute scare stories that Turkey was going to be admitted to the E.U. and millions of Turks would be arriving soon — a position diametrically opposed to Boris’s long championing of Turkish E.U. membership. In a campaign he didn’t personally run, Boris can’t be faulted for things he didn’t say or do, but he didn’t protest or stop the lies coming. (It is also true that the “remain” campaign grossly overstated the immediate economic consequences of voting “leave.”) But the shock surprise of the “leave” victory and the almost as shocking decision by Cameron to quit the day after suddenly gave Boris a shot at No. 10.

The day after Cameron resigned, Boris went to play cricket with his old chum Charles Spencer, rather than rally his allies for a leadership contest. Some of his fellow Tories found the idea of this reckless joker as prime minister too absurd, and his closest ally on the “leave” campaign, Michael Gove, stuck the knife in: “Boris is a big character with great abilities, and I enjoyed working with him in the referendum campaign … But there is something special about leading a party and leading a country, and I had the opportunity in the last few days to assess whether or not Boris could lead that team and build that unity. And I came reluctantly but firmly to the conclusion that, while Boris has many talents and attributes, he wasn’t capable of building that team.”

The backstabbing alienated most Tory MPs, and they gave Theresa May the job. She hugged Boris close and made him foreign secretary, but when her Brexit deal emerged as a supersoft one, Boris took a second big risk and quit the Cabinet in July 2018. May’s deal then flapped like a fish out of water on the floor of the Commons until it eventually expired.

2019: At the NATO summit. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When May resigned, Johnson easily won the Tory leadership contest to succeed her. But it was a decimated party. May had backed “remain” in the referendum, and her failure to get Brexit done had made the Tory base furious and suspicious and the Conservatives almost a laughingstock. Public support tumbled from around 40 percent to 22 percent in the first half of 2019, its lowest share in recent history. Boris pledged he would get a new deal by credibly threatening to pull the country out of Europe with no deal — saying he would rather “die in a ditch” than let Britain’s E.U. membership go past October 31. He also promised there would be no compromise on the Irish border, which would remain open after Brexit, even though he offered no solution as to how this wouldn’t open a huge hole in the E.U. customs union. He attempted to prevent Parliament from intervening by proroguing it for a longer time than usual, a move swiftly ruled unconstitutional by the relatively new “supreme court” of the U.K.

As usual, he broke almost all his promises. Britain is still in the E.U. long after October 31, with an election on December 12. But on the one promise no one believed he could fulfill — a new deal with the E.U. — he succeeded. It turned out that a credible threat to leave without a deal (which May never made) concentrated minds considerably. And a burst of intense personal diplomacy with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar — when Boris deployed his maximal charm — delivered a solution to the core Irish problem: a customs pseudo-border in the Irish Sea, an idea Boris had dismissed a year before. Emmanuel Macron congratulated the new prime minister: “He may be a colorful character sometimes, but we all are at times. He’s got a temper, but he’s a leader with a real strategic vision. Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong.”

It was quite a coup, proof that Johnson could deliver, and the Tories rallied in the polls as the upstart Brexit Party plummeted. More important, the deal, unlike May’s, won its first procedural vote in Parliament, by a big majority of 30, as some Labourites had backed it. It seemed within Boris’s grasp to get the deal passed by a slightly extended deadline — some time into November of this year. And then he made a strategic gamble. Rather than pressing on, he feared Parliament could still frustrate it down the line, so he decided to call an election for a new mandate to “get Brexit done.”

The decision was driven by Dominic Cummings, the controversial but brilliant guru who had engineered the Brexit vote. Boris brought him in to No. 10. Cummings understood that Brexit was the Conservatives’ best issue and that they were vulnerable on other domestic issues, especially on austerity and public spending. If Boris delivered Brexit and then called an election, he argued, the campaign would be on Labour’s terms: domestic economic and social policy. But if the election was called quickly, before Brexit, it would be on Conservatives’ terms: “Get Brexit Done,” as Boris has repeated endlessly while campaigning. The fear was a rerun of the Churchill 1945 election, when a victorious war leader was thrown out once he was no longer needed and the Brits voted en masse for a socialist revolution. He also saw that Boris had a chance to unite the “leave” vote by winning back Brexit-party supporters but that the “remain” vote remained hopelessly divided between the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. He saw a chance to create a new Tory coalition based on the “leave” vote. Some Brexiteers resisted, seeing a chance to get Brexit passed without any election potentially messing things up.

So far, the gamble appears to be paying off. A huge poll of over 100,000 Brits by YouGov last month, using the same methods that had rightly predicted a hung Parliament in 2017, showed a possible Tory majority of 68 seats. In the poll, the Tories held on to their traditional base in the South but made striking gains in the North, turning long-held Labour seats into Tory ones overnight. It is the same dynamic that saw the Democrats lose the Rust Belt swing states in 2016. The poll shows Labour at 32 percent with the Lib Dems at 14, while the Tories have 43 percent support and the Brexit Party has collapsed to 3 percent. Boris’s strategy destroyed both the former U.K.
Independence Party and then the Brexit Party — the two parties of the far right. Divide and conquer was how Thatcher won three times in a row in parliamentary seats despite never having majority support in the country as a whole. If Boris wins, it will be by the same strategy.

But his appeal is very different from Thatcher’s. Far from confronting people with hard economic choices and threatening ever-deeper austerity amid soaring unemployment, as she did, Boris is promising much more public spending than his Tory predecessors, in an era of very low unemployment, while trimming tax for the working and middle classes. The cut in corporation tax, planned by Theresa May, was scrapped. He plans big increases in spending on the National Health Service and schools and doubling the government science budget, while also getting tougher on crime and terrorism. Much of this appeals more to traditional Labour voters than to the London Tories who read The Economist.

And, of course, Brexit will not be “done,” as Boris promises. The Withdrawal Agreement is just the first step in a long and agonizing process of trade talks. Boris has promised these will be over by the end of 2020 and said so in the first televised debate between him and Corbyn. But no one can possibly believe that (and most people don’t). What Boris seems to be counting on is that he will conclude a withdrawal agreement by the end of January, make a huge fuss over it, declare the matter finished, and hope that most Brits will not want to immerse themselves in the mind-numbing details of trade talks. He’s gambling that Brexit is largely a symbolic issue — a new statement of British sovereignty and independence — and that the details of future trade don’t really matter. And he may be cynical about this but also right.

One sign of this possibility is the immigration issue. It was critical to the Brexit vote but disappeared as a major issue in the polls as soon as the referendum was over. The question has played almost no part in the current campaign even though Britain’s immigration system hasn’t changed significantly since 2016. The xenophobic ugliness that appeared before the referendum largely subsided afterward. It’s as if people just wanted to be heard on the subject and broadly shift away from mass immigration but actually didn’t care that much. It may be a function of the fact that E.U. migration to Britain has fallen drastically since the referendum, and Boris is pledging to transform the entire system toward the Australian model of selection based on proven abilities and skills. But the ability of most people to move on from difficult subjects once they feel they’ve been listened to should not be underestimated.

It is this aspect of Boris’s politics that some of his close allies insist has been misunderstood. He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

Consider, by contrast, Germany, where the center right is reeling and the extreme-right AfD has 91 seats in the Bundestag. Or, for that matter, France, where the mainstream right has collapsed and Marine Le Pen won 34 percent in the last presidential election. Compare it with the U.S., where the GOP has been overthrown by a far-right insurgency and turned into a disturbingly fascistic personality cult. Or Hungary and Poland, where reactionaries control the entire system. The Tories under Boris, helped in part by the winner-takes-all electoral system, have kept the far right at bay, now favor tax cuts for the poor, have a strong program for climate change, and have proposed an Australian-style immigration policy to defuse native panic. They are not socially conservative in the American sense. And all of this has been made possible by Boris Johnson’s shameless ability to shift and reinvent his politics, betray his allies, lie to the public, and advance his own career. One of those close to him told me that the next group he will betray is the ERG, the hard-right Tory Brexiteers. And if he wins this election by a solid margin and seizes the center, he may force the Labour Party to reexamine how far left it has traveled in the past few years.

What Boris is offering as an alternative is a Tory social democracy rooted in national pride and delivered with a spoonful of humor and entertainment. In some ways, his personality is part of the formula. His plummy voice and silly hair and constant jokes are deeply, even reassuringly, British even as demographic change has made Britishness seem fragile. And if you still believe in the nation-state, in liberal democracy, and have qualms about the unintended consequences of neoliberal economics, it’s about as decent a conservative political blend as is on offer in the West. It makes the GOP look deranged by contrast.

Yes, Boris has shifted and lied and betrayed on his path to this moment. But he will gladly point out that the same criticisms were made of Churchill, who switched parties, alienated almost everyone in the Establishment, and was regarded long into the 1930s as a crank and a joke with a funny way of speaking. But Churchill was right about the one thing that mattered, and Johnson not so subtly implies the same is true about him and Brexit. It takes a large ego to use Churchill as an analogy, and Brexit is hardly the Battle of Britain (and Churchill famously wanted a united Europe after the war). But in defense of Britain’s independence from foreign power and its unbroken national sovereignty, without foreign invasion, for a thousand years, you can see, or rather feel, the parallel. And when it comes to chances for political analogies, Boris the opportunist will take what he can get.

*This article appears in the December 9, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Blundering Brilliance of Boris Johnson