Meet Boris Johnson, the Man Who Led the Brexit -- and May Lead the UK
Policy + Politics

Meet Boris Johnson, the Man Who Led the Brexit -- and May Lead the UK

REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

The London bookies already are touting Boris Johnson as the prohibitive favorite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister in the wake of Thursday’s cataclysmic vote to take Great Britain out of the European Union.

No one else in Britain’s Conservative Party has quite the stature and sheer political firepower to succeed the deflated Cameron, who announced Friday morning that he will step down as Prime Minister later this year after failing to convince a majority of British voters of the need to remain in the EU.

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Johnson praised his long-time ally Cameron as a “brave and principled man” and spoke of his sadness over the Prime Minister’s decision to step down. But Johnson, age 52, the former two-term mayor of London who led the “Brexit” crusade to victory as a Tory member of Parliament, could barely disguise his glee in having engineered a successful movement that could change the course of geo-political history.

Only slightly betraying his own surprise over the Brexit campaign’s 52 percent to 48 percent referendum victory, Johnson sought to calm the frayed nerves of millions of British citizens and financiers as global markets tanked and the value of the British pound dropped.

"Some people are now saying, that was wrong, and that the people should never have been asked in this way,” he said. “I disagree. I believe it was entirely right and inevitable and indeed that there is no way with dealing with a decision on this scale except by putting it to the people.”

Most Americans know little about Johnson, a colorful and erudite figure who favors a disheveled, uncombed look and who often rides a bike to work – but that will change soon.

Like Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Johnson has tapped into potent voter resentment of the political and economic establishment and suspicions about the effects of free trade and immigration.

Related: 3 Ways the Brexit Affects You

When he previously worked as a journalist, Johnson was a pioneer of “Euroscepticism,” mocking the European Union as an opaque and incompetent power structure whose leaders dashed from one crisis to another while stifling economic growth and fiscal stability. As a writer for The Daily Telegraph based in Brussels in 1989, Johnson established himself as one of only a handful of journalists who wrote critically of the European Commission and frequently mocked officials, including the then president, Jacques Delors.

More recently, he has helped stir the pot of growing public resentment towards the millions of refugees fleeing Syria and the Middle East pouring through Europe to England’s doorstep. Earlier this month, Johnson joined forces with the government’s justice secretary and employment minister to pledge new, stringent “Australian-style” immigration controls by 2020.

The politician who once said his chances of becoming Prime Minister were “about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars,” urged voters to seize what he described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “change the whole course of European history.”

Johnson has a famously thin skin and is known for his outbursts, as when he lashed out at President Obama recently for meddling in British domestic affairs after the president warned of the economic and trade risks Great Britain faced in pulling out of the EU.

Johnson greeted Obama during his last trip to Europe in April with a broadside in Britain’s best-selling Sun newspaper that described the president’s views on the risks of Brexit as “incoherent” and “downright hypocritical.”

Related: Five questions for Britain and Europe after Brexit vote

And in highly controversial, racially-tinged language, Johnson called Obama “the part-Kenyan president.” Johnson suggested that Obama may have been motivated to remove a statuette of Winston Churchill from the White House because of “an ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Among his other more notable quotes throughout his political career:

  • On Arnold Schwarzenegger: "My speaking style was criticized by no less an authority than Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a low moment, my friends, to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg."

  • On Liberal Democrats: "The Lib Dems are not just empty. They are a void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition."

  • On drug use: "I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed so it didn't go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar."

Related: Here’s the Bad News for America If Britain Leaves the EU

  • On the wealthy: “We should be helping all those who can to join the ranks of the super-rich, and we should stop any bashing or moaning or preaching or bitching and simply give thanks for the prodigious sums of money that they are contributing to the tax revenues of this country, and that enable us to look after our sick and our elderly and to build roads, railways and schools.”

  • On London’s job market: "London is a fantastic creator of jobs - but many of these jobs are going to people who don't originate in this country."

Johnson, 52, was born in Manhattan to upper middle-class British parents. He was educated at prominent European schools and studied classics at Balliol College at Oxford. He began his career in journalism at The Times and subsequently moved to The Daily Telegraph, where he honed his reputation as a ruthless critic of the European economic alliance.

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He entered politics in 2001, when he was elected as a member of Parliament for Henley. Under the Conservative leadership of Cameron and Michael Howard, Johnson held cabinet-level positions for culture, communications and creative industries, and later higher education. Johnson remained active in journalism and became one of the most well-known politicians in Britain.

He emerged as the Conservative candidate for mayor of London in 2008 and handily defeated the Labour Party incumbent. One of his more notable policies during his first term was banning the drinking of alcohol on subways and buses. He also focused on economic development with a special emphasis on the financial sector. After winning a second term, he hosted the 2012 London Olympic Games. He stepped down as mayor this year after winning a seat in Parliament.

At some point in the next three months, the ruling Conservative Party’s 330 members of Parliament will nominate two candidates to be considered by the party’s roughly 150,000 members to lead the country until the 2020 general election.

Johnson is all but certain to be one of those candidates, although the party is far from united behind him. Many of the Tory MPs who backed Cameron on the EU issue are bitter about the referendum results and may rally behind a “Stop Boris” candidate, according to Time magazine.

If that’s true, then it is a haunting echo of the “Stop Trump” movement within the GOP that is gaining momentum again in the U.S.