Backstory: Becoming Boris Johnson: His rise to PM in four acts


We have all known A Boris. He was or is your inept boss. Or the flirt who sticks his hand down his pants at the bosses party. Or the clown who falls asleep in the middle of 2001 and covers up by telling everyone that it was a robust, moving motion picture depicting monkeys who discovered fire. He is also the guy who knows exactly what question or compliment to make to ensure he appears superior to everyone and anyone. 

The impish, intelligent, self-righteous buffoon who knows more about everything than anyone in the room, no matter the room, and he is not afraid to tell everyone in the room that this is The Truth.

Like those who oppose Trump, there are many who mock Boris who will no doubt think that they can shame him or convince him to be something or someone else, but it is not to be. Who would buy a car from this man. Or give him a smoke. Or apologise if you were to spill a pint in his lap. 

He will never answer a straight question. He will never give a flying fuck if you detest him. Or mock him. Why should he! He has become Prime Minister of a once-vibrant country for doing little more than Being Boris.

He is a portly inane Svengali, leading stray underlings to the centre of the highway and then leaving them there to fend for themselves. 

The only good thing you can say about his anointment is that The People cannot be held accountable for turning over the keys to The Class Clown. That honour belongs solely to his pathetic, equally inane party. 

And the only good way out of this horrid mess is if he is ousted before he can ever advance to the dispatch box. Even once. And make no mistake, he could face a vote of no confidence in September. And it might be led by members of his own party!

And finally, no matter how this plays out, keep an eye on Scotland. There are indications that they may have had enough of this nonsense. He would not take credit for such a move but Lord knows he should. 

James Porteous

Please check Sky News for an excellent doc on this topic which at this moment has not been posted online. 

23 July 2019 | Jason Farrell | Sky News

He is the biggest pre-existing celebrity to walk into Number 10 as a new prime minister, so at first this question might seem absurd – but who is Boris Johnson?

And how exactly did he become prime minister?

His biographer Sonia Purnell told me there are “many different Borises”.

His co-star on Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop, describes his persona as “an act,” adding: “The only thing that interests Boris is Boris.”

But others, such as his long-standing communications director Will Walden, say “what you see is what you get”.

Like any big personality, there was a development of his character.

Having spoken to those who have known him or worked with him behind the scenes, you could boil that process down to three acts: Oxford University, London mayor and Vote Leave.

Christened Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, he was born in New York.

A natural competitor, he always wanted to beat his three siblings Rachel, Jo and Leo in a race.

Video footage of him aged five shows the intrepid young Boris, drifting off in a dinghy on a river that runs through his family farm in Somerset, charting his own course with a stick.

He was raised never to doubt that he could achieve anything.

But he had a complicated childhood.

His father Stanley was an environmentalist mostly based in Brussels, often on the move.

His mother Charlotte was an artistic genius who suffered from Parkinson’s and mental health problems.

The couple divorced while he was at the boarding school of Eton College.

His biographer Sonia Purnell says it was at the exclusive school where he began to “reinvent himself,” choosing to be known by his middle name, Boris – “a more striking, conspicuous, flamboyant name.”

According to his contemporaries at Oxford, this eccentric character was fully developed by the time he obtained his scholarship to the university’s Balliol College.

ACT 1: Blonde Ambition

Journalist and university friend Toby Young says: “I don’t know the age at which he decided to kind of put on the mask of a kind of Woodhouseian, pantomime toff.

“Probably, I suspect a very young age, before I ever met him.

“But by the time he got to Oxford, the mask was fully attached to his face and he wasn’t able, I don’t think, to remove it.”

His college tutor, Oswyn Murray, says despite his obvious ability he did not focus on his studies as a classicist in Oxford and once fell asleep in class after a heavy night.

It is well known that he and former Prime Minister David Cameron were members of the notorious, hard-drinking Bullingdon Club.

But actually Johnson’s main focus was generating a reputation at the world-famous Oxford Union debating society.

His force of character and ability to switch sides in a debate and argue convincingly either way became talk of the town.

But what he really wanted was to become president of the union – a position held by former prime ministers and a potent symbol of potential greatness to have on one’s CV.

The man Johnson had to beat in his first attempt to become president was Neil Sherlock, a left-wing grammar school boy.

According to Sherlock, Johnson felt he was entitled to the job without really considering how to campaign for it.

Here we see Mr Johnson and sister Rachel at Viscount Althorp's 21st birthday party. Pic: Richard Young/Shutterstock
Image:Mr Johnson and sister Rachel at Viscount Althorp’s 21st birthday party. Pic: Richard Young/Shutterstock

Sherlock portrayed him as “an entitled, elitist, Bullingdon club type” and beat him.

“He boxed himself in,” says Sherlock.

Here was an important lesson.

In the mid 1980s with the miner’s strike in full flow, Thatcherite Conservatism and the establishment did not have broad support in student politics.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was emerging – his politics needed to adapt to win.

The next time Johnson stood, he was smarter.

He formed an alliance with the more centrist Limehouse group, which was aligned to the SDP.

This time he was successful.

Mr Johnson, now Oxford Union society president, speaks with the visiting Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri
Image:Mr Johnson, now Oxford Union society president, speaks to the visiting Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri

Johnson would later write about student politics, stressing the importance of attracting a “disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” in order to build a machine.

With stooges of the opposite sex he wrote “the candidate will flirt with grim extravagance”.

But, he added, the brutal fact of the relationship was that it is “founded on duplicity”.

His Oxford college of Balliol has already produced three prime ministers: Herbert Asquith, Harold MacMillan and Edward Heath – the man who took us into Europe.

Its fourth prime minister will take us out.

From Oxford, Johnson had developed his popular persona and learned how to adapt to win – useful lessons.

ACT 2: London Mayor

In his roller coaster early career, Johnson was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, then propelled to The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent.

Then editor of the Spectator magazine.

He gained a wider audience on the BBC’s Have I Got News for You.

Then became an MP.

He was made a junior shadow minister but was sacked for lying about an affair.

While his junior from Eton, David Cameron, became prime minister, he emerged to become mayor.

David Cameron had “a long term economic plan” but Boris Johnson was not really part of it.

He was an outlier, riding the chaos.

This was exemplified during the London riots when – late from returning from holiday – he finally accompanied Theresa May to scenes of destruction in Clapham and was confronted by an angry crowd.


His director of communications, Will Walden, remembers the scene.

“The then-home secretary Theresa May is standing very close to him.

“And when things get agitated you see the home secretary walk backwards and you see him walk forwards, toward the crowd.

“And I think that’s very Boris.

“It’s about saying ‘you know I’m not going to shy away from the responsibility here, I’m going to take you on head on’…. It’s very instinctive.”

Moments later he is handed a broom – one of many props Boris Johnson would go on to hold while making a speech.

By the time he had finished telling the crowd how admiring he was of London’s resilience, the jeers had turned to cheers.

The man whose elitism lost him his first attempt at Oxford Union president had developed a common touch.

His liberal conservatism won over Labour-minded Londoners to get him elected twice as London mayor.

Never shy of a bus-based photo op, here is Mr Johnson after being named the Tory candidate for next year's London mayoral contest
Image:Mr Johnson after being named the Tory candidate for next year’s London mayoral contest

During the 2012 Olympics, he practically became poster boy for the campaign.

Again, it came from a moment of instinct when he was called to the stage at a concert in Hyde Park, just after US presidential candidate Mitt Romney said London was not ready for the games.

“We’ve not been told he had to say anything,” says his communications director of the time Will Walden.

“It was completely off the cuff and classically Boris managed to turn things around very, very quickly and he just marched on the stage and he basically had a proper go at Romney.

“And it made headlines all around the world. I think that’s just pure political instinct.”

The crowd in Hyde Park went wild.

His other former director of communications, Guto Harri, describes the scene: “He held the crowd saying ‘There’s some guy called Romney. He wonders if we’re ready. Are we ready? We’re ready. Tell Mitt Romney again. Are we ready? We’re ready.”

It was a big year for London, and here is Mr Johnson addressing a huge crowd at the 2012 Olympic torch relay concert in Hyde Park
Image:Mr Johnson addressed a huge crowd at the 2012 Olympic torch relay concert in Hyde Park

“That was for me, peak Boris.”

Harri adds: “The connection with people has got to be an advantage when you are trying to decide which way to go and that perhaps explains why he tapped into something with Brexit that eluded other politicians.

“Somehow his political antennae were sharper.”

“Much as I disagree with the idea of Brexit, I have to acknowledge that maybe he is in tune with the population and I’m not.”

ACT 3: Vote Leave

Launched in Truro, Vote Leave’s battle bus greatest had in it the country’s greatest political salesman and, of course, one of the most controversial, disputed messages in campaigning history

This was a transformation for Brand Boris.

For those supporting Leave, he was becoming more heroic.

But for Remain supporters – many of them Londoners who elected him mayor – the 350 million figure on his bus was misleading.

The UK had a rebate and money returned in subsidies – £350m could not go to the NHS.

Boris Johnson had written two articles to help him decide whether to back Leave or Remain.

Some questioned whether re-positioning himself was just a political calculation, creating the very chaos in which only he thrives.

Will Walden says: “I know Boris wrote the two articles to compare the arguments because that’s what all great writers do – they have a look at the arguments and I think it’s just sensible preparation.

Weeks after announcing he would be backing Vote Leave, Mr Johnson delivered his first keynote speech at a haulage firm in Dartford, Kent
Image:Mr Johnson delivered his first Vote Leave keynote speech at a haulage firm in Dartford, Kent

“Did I ever think that that other article that you wrote was going to be the one that ended up in The Daily Telegraph?

“Not a chance.

“And I think you could argue that it was probably a career-limiting move doing what he was doing at the time.

“I think everybody felt that it wasn’t possible that Leave could win.”

But Johnson’s co-star on Have I Got News For You sees it differently.

Ian Hislop says: “I think he made an absolute decision.

“What would benefit him more – Leave or Remain.

“And he went for the maximum self-interest, which at that point was to be seen as someone who’d voted on the Leave side, but with any luck they wouldn’t actually win the referendum.

“Then he wouldn’t have to do anything and he could play the martyr and destabilise his old school buddy and get rid of Cameron, then come in as the person who’d always had the right views and could have that side of the party.

“So I think it was naked political calculation.”

But after winning the referendum, Johnson pulled out of the immediate leadership race having lost the support of his ally Michael Gove.

Later he would destabilise Cameron’s successor Theresa May by resigning as foreign secretary when she pitched her deal to leave the EU.

The implication, as with Cameron’s EU negotiations, was that he could have done better.

That is now the expectation of his supporters – that he can jump the bar he has helped set and deliver Brexit

ACT 4: Jumping the Bar

Act Four is still to come.

It could be argued that in quieter times, the Conservatives would not have dared back Boris Johnson to lead them.

But in chaos, he bobs to the surface.

Boris Johnson has not just created his own persona but helped create the conditions for Boris Johnson to become prime minister.

With that comes his risk-taking style – what he is offering to the EU negotiations is pure brinkmanship.

He will forcefully threaten no-deal with the belief that the EU will swerve first in this game of chicken.

He has been raised with the confidence to think he can achieve anything.

Be that beating his siblings in a race as a child, conquering the Oxford Union, becoming mayor, or opposing his prime minister in the referendum.

But there are questions now as to whether that confidence is over-inflated.

“He has the same deck of cards that Theresa May had,” says Guto Harri.

“He’s obviously a much better political player. He’s more persuasive. He’s more ruthless, more charismatic. He’s more creative.

“But none of us know how the Brexit story ends.”

Johnson gained a wider audience after appearing on Have I Got News For You
Image:Johnson gained a wider audience after appearing on Have I Got News For You

His biographer Sonia Purnell fears his limitations.

“They (the Conservative members) think he has a magic wand and in some way that kind of celebrity star does whatever it is.

“That magic potion that he has will be sort of sprinkled over the country and will just kind of emerge in some wonderful way and all these Brexit worries will disappear.

“But he is only human.”

But Toby Young is more optimistic.

He says: “I think given how hard he’s been preparing for this moment, given that he’s sort of always had his eye on this prize, given that he doesn’t just want to be famous in his lifetime but immortal.

“He wants to stand amongst the immortals historically and be a world historical individual.

“I think he’s less likely to drop the ball this time. You know, it really matters.

Bar a last-minute shock, Boris Johnson will be announced the new Conservative leader today
Image:Boris Johnson now has to deliver as prime minister

“This is his moment. This is the test.”

The great showman now has to deliver.

And let’s be honest, he’s become prime minister because Conservative members simply had to know – can he really do what he says he can do?


Original Link: Becoming Boris Johnson: His rise to PM in four acts

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