What Can We Expect From Boris Johnson? Scandals, Screw-Ups, Quips, and Comebacks

July 23, 2019, 5:48 PM UTC

“I’ve got more chance of being reincarnated as an olive,” Boris Johnson once said about the likelihood of him holding the keys to No. 10 Downing Street, home of the U.K.’s leader.

Now that he’s got the top job, we have to assume he’ll be extremely careful around cocktail sticks and Martini glasses in future.

One thing’s absolutely sure, however: while Johnson’s election by 0.14% of the British population has provoked mixed feelings in the U.K., politics is going to be very far from boring while he’s in Downing Street.

Elected primarily as a politician who can successfully extricate Britain from the EU, Johnson faces the challenge of governing with an ever-shrinking Conservative majority, the most quarrelsome Parliament in living memory and a nation that’s completely divided over Europe.

In the past, he’s proven to be a hugely successful campaigner and vote-winner who is famously funny, charming, offensive and calculating, in equal measure. Johnson is a man who’s able to make the most mundane of economic or political topics a source of entertainment through a quirky phrase or well-timed quip. He’s also been known to shift political positions on a dime and is a master of offbeat but shockingly effective politics. But will that be enough to steer him through Brexit? Or reunite the U.K.?

What, then, can we expect from Boris Johnson?

1. Ruthlessness

With his wayward locks, creased suits and seemingly uncontrollable ties, Johnson may come across as bumbling character from a BBC sitcom. Away from the cameras, however, he’s known to be a serious politician, with a quick temper and caustic turn of phrase.

This was apparent during his stint as Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, when he managed to secure increased police funding from austerity-driven Chancellor George Osborne, and casually sacked the Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, with the words: “There’s no easy way to say this, Ian. I want a new chief of police,” Guto Harri, Johnson’s communications director at the London assembly, recently told The Times.

Yes, people laughed at Johnson when he got stuck dangling on a zip-wire, waving a pair of Union Jacks as part of the London 2012 Olympic celebrations. But it’s also an image you don’t forget.

Boris Johnson, then the Mayor of London, stuck on a zip line in August, 2012 in London, England during a promotional event for the London Olympics. Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

2. “Euromyths”

Johnson made his name as a Brussels reporter for the Daily Telegraph from 1989 until 1994. Rather than detail the dry, routine proceedings of the EU to his readers back in the U.K., however, Johnson instead focused on drawing out tiny details within EU legislation to create a series of what came to be known as“Euromyths”, such as plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins” and a “banana police force” to regulate fruit imports.

“He would write outrageous stories with only the slenderest connection of truth in them,” Peter Guilford, former Brussels correspondent for The Times told The Independent, adding that Johnson had turned eurosceptic journalism into “an art form.”

His former editor at The Telegraph, Max Hastings, has also declared Johnson “unfit for national office.”

A photo of Boris Johnson when he was a journalist at The Telegraph journalist and editor of the New Statesman magazine. Credit: Neville Elder—Corbis via Getty Images

Johnson was later questioned about these “Euromyths” in Parliament, but denied making them up. “There is a great deal of effort being made to deprecate those who think we should leave the EU and everything we say is somehow mythical,” he replied.

3. Job changes

Sacked by the Times in 1988 for making up quotes, Johnson faced even greater disgrace at the Daily Telegraph when a 1990 tape surfaced of him plotting to have Daily Express journalist Stuart Collier assaulted—or given “a couple of black eyes” and a “cracked rib”, according to a transcript of his conversation with school friend (and later convicted fraudster) Darius Guppy. 

In 2004, Johnson was also sacked as Conservative party vice-chairman and Shadow Arts Minister when it emerged that he lied to leader Michael Howard about a four-year affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt. In 2018, he also walked out of Theresa May’s cabinet over her handling of Brexit.

4. Racist comments

When Tony Blair visited Africa, in 2002, Johnson famously described the locals as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.

In 2006, he described Papua New Guinea as a land of “orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”. The following year he compared U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.

On top of this, Johnson’s managed to insult US president Barack Obama over his “part-Kenyan” ancestry, composed a rude poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and accused the EU of wanting to inflict Nazi-style “punishment beatings” on the U.K. because of Brexit.

More recently, in August 2018, he described Muslim face veils as “oppressive”, “weird and bullying” adding that it’s “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes.”

Local people protest outside the Hillingdon Conservative Association office in August, 2018 in Uxbridge, England after Boris Johnson’s comments about Muslims. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

His comments triggered a furious response from senior Conservatives and demands for an apology. A party investigation, however, ruled that Johnson was entitled to use “satire” to make his point. Once again, he survived thanks to his reputation and use of comedy.

5. Gaffes

While Johnson’s comments have largely been treated as misguided humor, some have had huge repercussions.

In 2004 he managed to offend the entire city of Liverpool by claiming they wallowed in “victim status” over the murder of Ken Bigley, who had been taken hostage in Iraq, and the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool FC supporters.

In 2017, when UK foreign secretary, his statement that British-Iranian Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism”, directly led to her imprisonment in Iran when it was used as evidence of her “propaganda against the regime”. Zhagari-Ratcliffe remains in prison and recently went on hunger strike over her access to medical treatment.

6. Brexiteers

Mr Johnson’s decision to support Vote Leave was a game-changer in the Brexit referendum. Overnight, he became the impetus behind the leave campaign, touring the U.K. in his red battle bus with a jovial turn of phrase and a relentless, infectiously upbeat approach towards Brexit.

Boris Johnson departs from an office surrounded by security and members of the media in the Westminster district of London, U.K., on July 22, during the premiership race in the U.K.’s Conservative party. Credit: Simon Dawson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

His ability to turn dry topics such as free-market ideology into something that was understandable and fun proved to be an irresistible combination—as was his claim that the U.K. could save £350 million a week by leaving the EU, which was later proven to be an outright fabrication. So, expect lots of slogans, lots of enthusiasm—and perhaps not too much attention to detail.

7. Trump

Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Johnson and supported his campaign to become prime minister. During the Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson also did not defend the leaked reports of British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch in a live TV debate.

A woman passes a mural that had been painted on a derelict building in the city of Bristol in May, 2016, showing then US presidential hopeful Donald Trump sharing a kiss with Boris Johnson. Credit:Matt Cardy—Getty Images

“Congratulations to Boris Johnson on becoming the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He will be great!” Trump tweeted after Johnson won the Conservative election on Tuesday.

8. Policy swings

Critics decried Johnson as lazy, racist, misogynist, and a homophobe during his successful attempt to become London mayor in 2008. He then turned the tables on his critics completely, employing four gay men in his top team at City Hall, along with a Muslim academic, a Sikh and leading members of the afro-Caribbean community.

Johnson also championed liberal social policies, such as a living wage, and won a second term for the Conservatives in London, even as the Conservative national government run by his old Oxford classmate, David Cameron, was struggling with its popularity.

Boris Johnson tastes an ice cream as he campaigns in Barry Island, west of Cardiff in south Wales on July 6, 2019, while campaigning to lead the Conservative party. Credit: Frank Augstein—POOL/AFP

9. Big Ideas

As mayor of London, Johnson drew up plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary (known as “Boris Island”), promoted the idea of a “Garden Bridge” across the River Thames, outlawed European-style “bendy buses” in the capital and brought in a hugely successful cycle hire scheme (“Boris Bikes”).

Johnson clearly likes a big idea and is not afraid to pump in the finance, even if the plans don’t reach fruition: the garden bridge concept was recently scrapped at a cost of £53.5million.

10. Personal scandal

At 12.24 am on Friday, June 22, police officers were called to the London apartment shared by Johnson and girlfriend Carrie Symonds, following neighborly concerns about the “welfare of a female.”

The screaming row threatened to derail Johnson’s bid to become PM. Yet, Johnson rode out the storm—partly through the help of a conveniently published photograph of him calmly chatting to Symonds in the countryside a couple of days later.

Despite this, it’s just one of many personal incidents to have hit the headlines—not least the 2013 revelation that he fathered a daughter with arts consultant Helen MacIntyre in 2009, while married to barrister Marina Wheeler. This only emerged four years later after a court ruled it was in the public interest for the information to be released.

His first marriage to Allegra Mostyn-Owen was dissolved in 1993, after five years together. At other times he has also been romantically linked to journalist Anna Fazackerley, along with columnist Petronella Wyatt.