Boris Johnson: The UK’s deeply polarising next prime minister

Cherished by older Conservatives, he is viewed by others as a liar and opportunist

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will be in Birmingham today in the first of 16 hustings before some of the Conservative members who will shortly choose between them as their next party leader and, therefore, as the United Kingdom's new prime minister. And unless the contest produces one of the biggest upsets in British political history, Johnson is on an unstoppable course to enter Downing Street a month from now.

He will do so as a deeply polarising figure, cherished by many older Conservatives but viewed by others as a serial liar and an amoral opportunist who sold Brexit to the British people on the basis of false promises. And he will face an immediate political crisis as he seeks to navigate the UK's departure from the European Union by October 31st at the head of a minority government that is itself divided over Brexit.

Launching his leadership campaign last week, Johnson made no mention of his three years as foreign secretary, which were punctuated by gaffes and worse

The Conservatives are currently fourth in the opinion polls, squeezed between Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, and Johnson’s promise to the membership is that he can revive the party’s fortunes. His pitch to the broader electorate is that he will govern from the ideological centre and heal the divisions over Brexit by negotiating a better deal with the EU that will allow the UK to leave on schedule.

Launching his leadership campaign last week, Johnson made no mention of his three years as foreign secretary, which were punctuated by gaffes and worse. Johnson claimed this week that his actions had made no difference to the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a joint British-Iranian citizen jailed in Tehran.

Boris Johnson, the favourite to be the next British prime minister, says that party members are not interested in why police were called to investigate concerns for the welfare of a woman in his home. Video: Reuters

But her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said Johnson's mistaken assertion that she was training journalists had been used to justify further charges. And he said the former foreign secretary briefed a newspaper that the UK would repay a £400 million debt to Iran from the 1970s but then failed to follow through.

“Expectations were raised. He said no stone was going to be left unturned, and obviously that did not happen. She remains in prison and others have been arrested, and so we have gone from ‘no stone unturned’ to ‘not my fault’,” Ratcliffe said.

At his launch, Johnson focused on his eight years as London’s mayor, from 2008 to 2016, pointing to his achievements in improving transport, building houses and cutting crime. He said the experience had shown him to be capable of managing short-term difficulties in confident expectation of long-term success.

“I took this city through riots and strikes and all the teething problems of the Olympic Games, which was actually no picnic as I remember. And with a team of stars we brought the city together – with new infrastructure, with renewed and relentless emphasis on education, and technology, we shrank that opportunity gap,” he said.

“And, to sum up my mission in a sentence, I want now to do for the whole country what we did in London, releasing the creative energies of our country and its peoples and healing its divisions.”

The first months of Johnson's mayoralty were a shambles, but things improved with his appointment of a number of competent deputies, notably Simon Milton, who was in charge of policy and planning. Johnson's biographer Andrew Gimson believes he has learnt from that experience at City Hall that he will need to build a strong team quickly.

“He likes people who are very intelligent. He’s not frightened of employing brilliant people,” Gimson says. “His first set of appointments, both to cabinet posts and No 10, will be absolutely crucial. He can’t afford to have six wasted months, because Brexit needs immediate and expert attention.”

Unstoppable?: Boris Johnson is on course to enter Downing Street in July. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty

Johnson has called for the Northern Ireland backstop to be removed from the withdrawal agreement, describing it as a "monstrosity" that cannot win parliamentary approval at Westminster. His proposal is to approve the withdrawal agreement without the backstop and to work out how to keep the Border open during the post-Brexit transition period.

Johnson will need the support of the Democratic Unionist Party's 10 MPs for his government to survive, and they will resist any move towards a Northern Ireland-only backstop that would allow the rest of the United Kingdom to avoid a customs union and regulatory alignment with the EU.

Johnson spoke at the DUP's conference earlier this year, but his strongest link to the party will be the former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who played a key role in managing this week's leadership-election votes by Conservative MPs.

As Conservative chief whip, Williamson negotiated the confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP, and he will be able to tell Johnson just how much room for manoeuvre he has on the backstop. EU leaders, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, have already ruled out reopening the withdrawal agreement, apparently setting the UK on course to leave without a deal on October 31st.

A no-deal Brexit would be hugely disruptive and costly for Ireland, but Dublin’s calculation is that the risks are so much greater for the United Kingdom that Johnson will draw back from a no-deal Brexit.

Theresa May's approach was to work out the best position and then to be very, very obstinate in defence of it. Boris won't be obstinate in defence of positions which turn out to be unsustainable or out of date

Gimson predicts that, whatever choice Johnson makes in October, he will bring a new approach to the negotiations. "Theresa May's approach was to work out the best position and then to be very, very obstinate in defence of it. He won't be obstinate in defence of positions which turn out to be unsustainable or out of date and simply not worth expending a lot of political capital defending," he says. "But, supposing[, say,] something suddenly goes really badly wrong in Italy, he would try to take advantage of unfolding and apparently unpredictable circumstances."

Like David Cameron, the former Conservative Party leader who as prime minister called the Brexit referendum, Johnson was educated at Eton College and Oxford University, after winning scholarships to both, but his background was very different. Johnson's parents moved house 32 times before they divorced, when Johnson was 14, and his mother spent long spells in hospital because of mental illness.

“There was a lot of insecurity, and then his parents splitting up was a grievous blow, but obviously one which he has survived,” Gimson says. “A lot of things have gone wrong for him and have given him practice for things going wrong, which the more conventional career politician probably has less of.”

Johnson's personal life is unusually disorderly for a contemporary politician, and his political adversaries claim he cannot give a public answer to the question of how many children he has. He and his second wife, Marina Wheeler, announced last year that they had parted; Johnson's new partner, Carrie Symonds – he is 55, she is 31 – is a former Conservative Party official who is playing an important role in his leadership campaign.

Gimson maintains that Johnson’s personal morality informs a kind of “Merry England” Conservatism that is the closest he comes to a political philosophy. “Life is for living. You don’t pay any attention to censorious people who want to stop you having a good time. You’re not censorious about other people yourself. You tell every possible joke in any particular circumstance.

"A lot of Conservatives like David Cameron believe very strongly in the values of the Christian church, although they don't say it very explicitly nowadays, and they believe that marriage is very important. And Boris doesn't really. His mind is more attracted by ancient Greece, where you could have sex without any kind of guilt," Gimson says.

“That’s a real, hidden division within the Conservative Party between moral conservatives who believe that it’s very important to behave properly in your private life and people like Boris, who are much more freedom-loving.”

Boris's personal interest in the greater glory of Boris is aligned with the national interest of having a prime minister who can sort the incredibly intractable Brexit problem out

Johnson has written a biography of Winston Churchill, and he clearly believes they have much in common. But Churchill had served in a number of wars before the age of 22, was a brilliant parliamentary speaker, and was a writer of greater distinction than Johnson.

Johnson is leaner and more disciplined than before, and he has avoided mistakes in his rare public appearances since his campaign began. But there are signs that some of the magic that helped him to victory twice in London has gone and that the new, cautious Johnson lacks the impish charm of the old one.

His central role in the 2016 referendum has made him a hate figure for many centrists who voted for him in London but view Brexit as a calamity that strikes at part of their identity. Gimson believes Johnson is aware of the way his position has changed and that he will seek to prove himself in No 10.

“He may be a total failure as prime minister, but he won’t want to be a total failure. He’ll be, if anything, more ambitious than anyone else who becomes prime minister to make a success of it. So, to that extent, Boris’s personal interest in the greater glory of Boris is aligned with the national interest of having a prime minister who can sort this incredibly intractable problem out,” he says.

"And part of sorting it out will be at some point telling the Tory Eurosceptics that they can't have everything which in an ideal world they would like. You do that and say, 'Look, we've got some progress on the Irish Border,' or whatever it may be. 'Now we've got to settle this and get on with the next thing. And we're going to have some tax cuts to make you all feel good about life.'"

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times