Opinion: A Boris Johnson profile
After a series of political manoeuvres and under propitious circumstances, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom. His engagement came after former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, following his defeat at the EU referendum in June last year; the Home Secretary, Theresa May, became the new head of government and its ensuing reorganisation saw Johnson take up his ministerial post, as a prominent Vote-Leave supporter.
His choice for the position of Foreign Secretary, attributable to the limited inconvenience he would thus pose to the new PM, surprised many, given some of the words and actions he was associated with during his previous roles as a journalist, editor and Mayor of London.
There are a number of reasons to doubt his suitability, but in the following paragraphs I would like to draw attention to two personality traits that have been pivotal in his career (although it is doubtless possible to identify more), and which simultaneously make him an astounding choice for Foreign Secretary.
Boris Johnson was born on 19 June 1964 in New York to English parents. Educated at public schools (public, that is, in the English sense of the word), he went on to study Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, on a scholarship. During this time, he became acquainted, through the exclusive Bullingdon Club, with a number of contemporaries who would later become important names in British politics: David Cameron, William Hague and several others. As is the case with a multitude of British politicians, it was this traditional education, at Eton and then Oxford, where he learned the tactics and rhetorical skills that would later define his political style, and whose application would bring about his successful career in a number of different fields. He soon discerned the workings of strategic alliances, the handling of missteps, and, above all, the use of charisma and humour to his advantage (as is demonstrated by his skilful utilisation of his popularity amongst other students as well as his cunning calculation to secure the support of other political affiliations during his campaign for the presidency of the Oxford Union).
The first of the above-mentioned attributes is his liberal approach to verifiable facts, and I would like to provide a few examples of how this has helped him in his professional career.
It was his early involvement with a student magazine at Oxford that determined the inception of Johnson’s professional career. Through his parents’ connections, he obtained a trainee position at The Times, from which he was sacked for fabricating a quotation. Similar forgeries during his subsequent employment as a contributor to The Daily Telegraph (also through a contact) did not lead to an analogous reaction, and the absence of consequences for such conduct has been a major factor in his success.
One remarkable aspect of this is his establishment as a Eurosceptic during his time as EU correspondent in the 1980s and ‘90s: his dislike and, accordingly, his portrayal of the European Union helped spread this sentiment in the Conservative Party, which hitherto had been broadly sympathetic (tellingly, Margaret Thatcher was a great enthusiast of his writings), whilst also demonstrating the ideological lens through which he views political issues, as well as his willingness to disseminate false information if reality does not serve his purposes.
Boris’ doubtful relationship with honesty is also demonstrated by various incidents during his time as Mayor of London. One conspicuous example is his attempt to undo some of his Labour predecessor’s policies, by abolishing parts of the congestion charge in the city, and annulling plans to increase it in other areas. When a report on air pollution in London was commissioned, he suppressed it, due to its troublesome revelations of dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide in London, to which a very high number of schools in deprived areas were exposed; the statement also disclosed that roads – whose detoxification he had stopped – were a major contributor to the problem. With the 2012 London Olympics approaching, he then had dust suppressants installed near pollution monitors, a substance which fixes polluting particles to the ground, thus hiding them from the monitors. His mutual cordiality with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire could be one explanation for why he suffered no repercussions (he was re-elected as mayor in the same year).
The origins of the second – and more alarming – characteristic that defines Johnson’s career were already detectable in his aforementioned activities during his time at university; their continuation into his later career can be observed, among other things, in the truly astonishing degree of opportunism he deployed in the run-up to the EU referendum.
Despite the Euroscepticism he propagated in his journalistic pieces, he has, over the years, repeatedly emphasised the benefits of Britain’s membership of the Union, as well as the perils associated with leaving, before abruptly deciding to support the Leave campaign. Up until that spontaneous – and generally unexpected – change of heart, he stated that, “I would be well up for trying to make the positive case for […] the single market”, that it is in Britain’s interest to remain and that the negotiations to leave would distract the government from tackling problems that “have nothing to do with Europe”. It seems pretty clear that his support for the Vote Leave campaign group (comparing European unification under the EU to Adolf Hitler’s attempt to dominate the continent) was a strategic decision, not one born out of conviction: his adopted side’s victory in the referendum would have established him as a likely candidate to succeed Cameron, and it was only because his ally, the justice secretary Michael Gove, had suddenly announced that Johnson’s incapability has led him to not back him in the leadership contest and to stand for office himself, that Johnson’s plans were scuppered. Nonetheless, his elevation to a government ministry is a significant advancement of his political career.
One of the many things this episode reveals about Boris Johnson is his inclination to not only grossly contradict himself, but, disturbingly, that he is quite ready to make decisions with unpredictable (and, in this case, potentially catastrophic) consequences for the country he is now Foreign Secretary of, if it conceivably serves to advance his career.
There are plenty of other reasons why – of all ministerial posts – making Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary was a rather adventurous choice (such as various controversies surrounding racist and homophobic language), but one would think that the two factors described above alone would immediately rule him out from an office which is ideally staffed with a contemplative and diplomatic individual, or – at the very least – with someone who has demonstrated a commitment to the seriousness entailed by a governmental post of that magnitude.