Boris Johnson profile: His single-mindedness proved his undoing

Man who would be ‘king’ watched his ambitions crumble before his eyes

Boris Johnson is among a handful of public figures to be known by his first name. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Boris Johnson is among a handful of public figures to be known by his first name. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA


Boris Johnson seemed glassy-eyed and lacking his usual ebullience when he began to speak at St Ermin’s Hotel near St James’s Park in London on Thursday morning. As the few scripted gags in his speech fell flat, most of those listening put it down to the shock of Michael Gove’s betrayal of his erstwhile ally a couple of hours earlier.

What we did not know until the very last moment of Johnson’s remarks was that the Brexit leader, who as a child had set his sights on becoming “world king”, was watching his ambitions crumble before his eyes.

In what may have been a sly dig at Gove, Johnson had paraphrased the words of Brutus in Julius Caesar, saying it was a time “not to fight the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune”.

On Thursday, Johnson’s father Stanley compared Gove’s surprise decision to seek the conservative leadership to the assassination of Caesar – “Et tu Brute,” he said. But Johnson himself is no stranger to treacherous behaviour, as David Cameron and many others can testify.

Asked once if he had any convictions, Johnson replied: “Only one, for speeding, but a very long time ago.” He has, however, throughout his life been true to a single purpose – the advancement of his personal ambition.

This single-mindedness was to prove his undoing, as this clever, witty, enormously talented politician found himself at the moment of truth on Thursday morning, friendless and abandoned by those he needed most.

Call him Al

The ex-mayor of London is among a handful of public figures to be known by his first name. But Boris, the name by which the world knows him, is not what he is called by those who know him best. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is known to his family and closest friends as Al, as the shy boy from a troubled home was called before he chose the name and persona of “Boris” while attending Eton.

Born in New York on June 19th, 1964, Johnson had a peripatetic childhood, moving home every few months as his father took one job after another before landing a position in 1973 with the European Commission in Brussels, where the family stayed for six years.

Johnson won a scholarship to Eton and blossomed during his schooldays, discovering his gift for making people laugh and becoming captain of the school. He read Classics (he still glories in reciting passages from The Iliad – in Greek) and became president of the Oxford Union, long a nursery for politicians.

Shortly after graduating, Johnson began work as a trainee journalist on the Times, but was sacked for fabricating a quote in a piece about Edward II. He soon found refuge at the Daily Telegraph, which sent him to Brussels to enliven the paper’s coverage of the European institutions.

Johnson did not disappoint, delighting readers with stories about outrageous plans by the European Commission to standardise everything from the curvature of bananas to the size of condoms. Many of these stories were either exaggerated or untrue, as Johnson later acknowledged, but they did him no harm at all.

“Everything I wrote from Brussels,” he recalled, “I found, was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall. And I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England, as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”

On his return to London, Johnson was appointed editor of the Spectator, promising owner Conrad Black that he would not run for parliament. He did anyway, winning the safe seat of Henley in 2001 while maintaining a prodigious output as a journalist and becoming a comic star on Have I Got News for You.

Sacked from the front bench by Michael Howard (for lying), Johnson was in the wilderness until David Cameron asked him to run against Ken Livingstone for London mayor in 2008. Johnson won and became a popular mayor, his unorthodox antics helping to extend his appeal beyond the Conservative base.

Going up

On his return to parliament last year, Johnson soon began plotting his ascent to Downing Street after Cameron announced that he would step down before the next scheduled election in 2020.

The EU referendum offered an opportunity to accelerate the plan. Johnson shocked Cameron by backing Brexit and becoming the most prominent figure in the Leave campaign.

Last week’s referendum outcome appeared to take Johnson by surprise, but he moved quickly to gather support for his leadership bid, recruiting Gove as his effective running mate.

Always something of a loner, Johnson relied on allies to win pledges of support from MPs. But when Gove betrayed him on Thursday morning, he discovered just how shallow his support at Westminster was.