[“He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of guns and the moment he sees the battleground abandons it,” Michael Heseltine, a Tory politician, told the
BBC. “I have never seen anything like it. He ripped the Tory party apart. He has created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life.”]
By Sarah Lyall
After leaving his house on Friday, Mr. Johnson, a member of Parliament and
the former mayor of London, was interrupted by a member of the public who
repeatedly criticized him. By REUTERS on Publish Date July 1, 2016.
Photo by Andrew Testa for The New York Times.
Watch in Times Video »
The chronically disheveled Mr. Johnson, wearing voluminous shorts and a bandanna decorated with skulls and crossbones, responded with his usual cocktail of charm, bluster and obfuscation. Having already dismissed the story as “a completely untrue and ludicrous conjecture,” and “an inverted pyramid of piffle,” he cheerily advised the reporters to “go for a run, get some exercise and have a beautiful day.”
He was lying. The reports were correct, and he was fired from his parliamentary job as the Conservative Party arts spokesman. But it didn’t seem to bother him too much. Mr. Johnson has always had a knack for recasting disaster as farce, and he devoted his weekly newspaper column to the virtues of being fired.
“Nothing excites compassion, in friend and foe alike,” he wrote, “as much as the sight of you ker-splonked on the Tarmac with your propeller buried six feet under.”
Mr. Johnson, 52, has had a singularly charmed life, always wafting upward on a Teflon cloud of charm and guile even as people have questioned his integrity, seriousness and competence. But not anymore. Having gambled his political future on the chance to lead his party and country through the aftermath of the “Brexit” referendum on whether to exit the European Union, Mr. Johnson found on Thursday that his luck had run out. He withdrew from the race.
In the end, he was done in as much by his own hubris, lack of preparation and bewilderment in the face of the Brexit result as he was by the treachery and dwindling support of his colleagues. As he abandoned his campaign to be the Conservative Party leader — and with it, probably, his chances of ever being prime minister — he seemed almost relieved to be spared the burden of running the country he had done so much to destabilize.
Mr. Johnson, the former mayor of London, who has not given an interview since the Brexit vote, did not respond to a message left on his parliamentary office voice mail.
For a student of Shakespeare, which Mr. Johnson is (he is writing a biography) the situation was replete with ironies. A man who had spent his life behaving like Falstaff and making merry in the pub had failed to convince his party, and perhaps himself, that he had somehow suddenly turned into Prince Hal, poised to lead the country through its crisis in
On Thursday, the anger at Mr. Johnson was palpable, replacing last week’s anger at Prime Minister David Cameron for calling the referendum in the first place. The sense that Mr. Johnson had presided over the Brexit campaign without a plan for what to do if it won — and then walked away without cleaning up his mess — was particularly enraging.
“He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of guns and the moment he sees the battleground abandons it,” Michael Heseltine, a Tory politician, told the
BBC. “I have never seen anything like it. He
ripped the Tory party apart. He has created the greatest constitutional crisis
in peacetime in my life.”
Just a few days earlier, Mr. Johnson had seemed poised to coast into position as prime minister when Mr. Cameron stepped down in the fall. Outside
, at least before the referendum, he was the
Conservative Party’s star candidate, a populist maverick for the times. With
his air of disarrayed befuddlement, his crazy coiffure, his idiosyncratically
imaginative P.G. Wodehousian locution, his habit of slipping into Latin and
Greek, his foot-in-the-mouth self-deprecation and his obvious delight in
himself, he oozes a charm rarely seen in politicians. London
He cycles to work and carries his things in a backpack. He looks as if he’s slept in his clothes and just gotten out of bed. He has the privileged demeanor of an old Etonian (he went to school there), but a Bill Clintonesque way with crowds and an appeal that transcends class. In headlines he is “BoJo”; to most Britons he is simply “Boris.”
But his surface success has always carried alongside it a reputation for lies, evasions and exaggerations, a lack of seriousness and discipline, a tendency to wade blindly into situations without thinking through their ramifications, and a perception that he puts his own ambitions first. He has a habit of deflecting tough questions and affecting an amused insouciance about his mistakes, which include fathering a child with a woman other than his wife (he and his wife, a lawyer, have four children).
He is better on the big picture than he is on the details.
Take last Monday’s column by Mr. Johnson in The Daily Telegraph, the first substantive statement anyone from the Brexit side had made since the vote. As chaos swirled outside and
waited nervously for a sign that someone had
a plan, Mr. Johnson produced a shoddily prepared article that seemed uncertain
of its facts and backtracked on a number of key Brexit promises. Britain
Supporters of Mr. Johnson said at the time that the article had been written hastily and turned in late and should be treated more as a first draft than as a definitive statement.
In fact, it was as a journalist who played around with the facts that Mr. Johnson first made his name. He was fired from his first reporting job, at The Times of London, for inventing a quote and attributing it to an
professor (who happened to be his godfather).
But he was hired anyway by The Daily Telegraph and sent to Oxford in 1989 to cover the European Union. Brussels
It was a boring assignment, but Mr. Johnson found a way of livening it: He made things up. His great talent was to take tiny grains of information in reports and proposals, repackage them as official European policy and present them as part of a broad narrative about
’s risibility. His stories were full of wrong-sized
condoms, fishermen forced to wear hairnets and international disputes over
cheese policy. Brussels
While his stories became increasingly influential in the euro-skeptic wing of the Conservative Party and in many ways set the tone for the British papers’ coverage of Europe ever since, Mr. Johnson tends to treat his approach as great fun.
“I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall and listening to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in
,” he told an interviewer. England
“Everything I wrote from
was having this amazing explosive effect on
the Tory party,” he said, “and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird
sense of power.” Brussels
, Mr. Johnson became editor of The Spectator,
which functions as a kind of house organ for conventional Conservative Party
wisdom, and began writing a popular weekly column in The Daily Telegraph. In 2001
he won a seat in Parliament. Brussels
I was in
at the time and wrote a profile of Mr. Johnson.
He boasted to me in the humble-brag way peculiar to British upper-class men
that, trying to juggle three jobs, he was unable to do any of them properly. “Because
I have no time to do it, I do it in no time,” he said of his Telegraph column. “You
just whack it out.” London
Mr. Johnson seemed constitutionally incapable of taking anything truly seriously. Deciding he did not feel like being photographed for The Times article, for instance, he got another man in The Spectator office to impersonate him in the photo session. The photographer duly snapped away, until the magazine’s publisher found out what was going on and made Mr. Johnson sit for the portrait. (He was 37 at the time.)
Around that time Mr. Johnson also became a bona fide celebrity, honing his trademark persona as a hyper-articulate upper-class-twit-for-the-masses in a string of highly amusing appearances on the current events quiz show “Have I Got News For You.” Viewers adored him.
“His charming, bumbling buffoon image was neatly done and went down very well with audiences,” said Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine and a panelist on the show.
In 2008, Mr. Johnson unexpectedly ran for mayor of
and, even more unexpectedly for a
Conservative in a Labour city, won. The same complaints that had dogged him in
the past dogged him again, along with criticisms that he had failed to address
serious issues like air quality and affordable housing. London
“We had eight frustrating years where we’d ask detailed policy questions, and what we’d get back in response was bluster and grandiose claims,” said Joanne McCartney, a Labour Assembly member who is now deputy mayor. “If he didn’t know the answer to the question, which was a regular occurrence, he’d use bluster and wit to avoid answering.”
Mr. Johnson all along denied that he wanted to be prime minister, saying it was about as likely as his being “reincarnated as an olive.” But he has always been wittier, quicker and more charismatic than Mr. Cameron. The 2012 London Olympics proved the perfect showcase for his off-the-cuff anarchic wit. Filmed stranded haplessly on a malfunctioning zipwire, Mr. Johnson took an incident that would have humiliated most other politicians and somehow used it to burnish his appeal. (A photograph of the dangling Mr. Johnson was used to quite different effect last week on the cover of the French newspaper Libération.)
Mr. Cameron has always been threatened by Mr. Johnson; his efforts to slough off the mayor as a kind of amusing Tory mascot never worked. But it wasn’t until Mr. Johnson betrayed the prime minister by throwing his support behind the Brexit campaign that the party saw the extent of his ambition.
Before now, Mr. Johnson has rarely been confronted by a situation he could not maneuver his way through. But a harbinger came in March, when he was summoned before a House of Commons committee and forensically interrogated by its Javert-like Tory chairman, Andrew Tyrie, about a series of statements he had made over the years about
Mr. Johnson tried his normal humorous approach. Asked, for instance, about his assertion that the European Union has a law saying that balloons cannot be blown up by children under 8 (it doesn’t), he deflected the question, saying, “In my household, only children under 8 are allowed to blow up balloons.”
He continued in this vein throughout the session, as Mr. Tyrie peered unsmilingly at him, acid in his voice.
“This is all very interesting, Boris,” Mr. Tyrie said at one point. “Except none of it is really true, is it?”