'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson The larger-than-life British politician is expected to replace Theresa May as prime minister.
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'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson

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'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson

'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson

'He's A Flawed Character And They Do Not Care': The Rise Of U.K.'s Boris Johnson

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/738228904/738740718" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson speaks at a hustings event at Carlisle Racecourse on June 29, in Carlisle, England. The winner of the party's leadership vote, to be announced on July 23, will also take up the post of prime minister. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images hide caption

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Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson speaks at a hustings event at Carlisle Racecourse on June 29, in Carlisle, England. The winner of the party's leadership vote, to be announced on July 23, will also take up the post of prime minister.

Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Boris Johnson is a larger-than-life British politician who likes to project the image of a bumbling, fun-loving man of the people.

His many supporters in Britain's Conservative Party find him charismatic, entertaining and — to their minds — refreshingly politically incorrect.

Many critics, however, see him as unprincipled, offensive and driven wholly by ambition.

This increasingly divisive figure in politics is now the favorite to become the United Kingdom's next prime minister. If he wins the Conservative Party leadership race — results are expected July 23 — he will inherit Brexit, a political Pandora's box that ended the career of the previous two prime ministers.

There are seemingly many sides to Boris Johnson. There is Johnson the public booster who slyly plays the buffoon, as he did at times during his two terms as mayor of London, from 2008 to 2016. One of the most enduring images of his tenure was Johnson riding on a zip line, waving a pair of Union Jacks to promote the 2012 London Olympics, only to be stranded 15 feet off the ground, the harness chafing against his groin.

"Get me a ladder!" he pleaded to the crowd below as he laughed at his own predicament.

There is Johnson the philanderer, who has gone through two marriages and had a daughter with an art consultant who had worked for him unpaid. Now 55, the U.K.'s former foreign secretary recently had an altercation with his 31-year-old girlfriend that resulted in a visit from police. No charges were filed.

Some of Johnson's critics have called him "racist." In 2016, after President Obama moved the bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office, Johnson attributed the decision to Obama's supposed "ancestral dislike of the British Empire." Obama's father was from Kenya, a former British colony. In columns in The Daily Telegraph, Johnson used offensive language to describe Africans and Muslim women wearing burqas. Johnson has said the remarks were "satirical."

But there is also Johnson, the feel-good politician and superb orator — he was president of the Oxford Union, the famed university debating society — who can inspire, as he did at the Conservative Party's convention last year with a call to arms. He urged party members "to feel a realistic and justified confidence in what we can do."

This weekend, ballots begin going out to the party's approximately 160,000 members, who will vote for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who is stepping down. Johnson faces current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the acknowledged underdog.

Nicholas Allen, who teaches politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that — like President Trump — Johnson has a way of connecting with grassroots party members, which helps make him the clear favorite in the race.

"Lots of people are just awed by his charisma," Allen says. "They know that he is problematic. They know that he's a flawed character and they do not care. If anything, they love him more for it."

Johnson has promised to take the U.K. out of the European Union "do or die" — meaning the country could walk away from the massive free trade bloc and political union without a withdrawal deal. That pledge resonates with many disillusioned Brexit voters, who are angry that the U.K. still hasn't left the EU more than three years after a majority of voters cast ballots to do so in a referendum.

"I think he's the only person who's going to get us out of Europe," says John Mays, who drives a taxi in London. "He's committed to it."

But Mays, 65, added that if Johnson fails to keep his promise to pull the U.K. out by the Oct. 31 deadline, "he's doomed."

Many who have dealt with Johnson find him charming, including Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant who met the politician several times when Johnson served as foreign secretary. Ratcliffe was seeking Johnson's help to free his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national jailed in Iran since 2016 on spying charges, which she denies. But Johnson, who is not known for attention to detail, made the situation worse in 2017 when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee she had been teaching journalism in Iran, which her husband says is false. Iranian state TV seized on the foreign secretary's statement as evidence Zaghari-Ratcliffe was indeed a spy and Johnson later apologized.

"Do I mind him winging things?" says Richard Ratcliffe. "I think there are consequences for it. One of the things they often say with foreign secretaries is they're either dull or they're dangerous, and he wasn't dull."

Ratcliffe is reluctant to be too critical of Johnson, whose office did not respond to a request to speak with NPR, but others who know Johnson well are less reticent.

"Actually I'm quite frightened about him becoming prime minister," says Sonia Purnell, author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition. "He has a very, very long track record of lying."

Purnell worked with Johnson in Brussels when both were journalists with London's Daily Telegraph in the 1990s. That was after The Times of London had fired Johnson for making up a quote he attributed to his own godfather.

That wasn't his only firing: In 2004, the Conservative Party sacked him from its leadership for lying about an affair.

Purnell doubts that Johnson — despite all that he says — ever really believed in Brexit.

"When I worked with him in the 1990s, he was writing excoriating copy about the European Union," Purnell recalls in an interview. "But in private, over a coffee or something, he would talk about the EU affectionately, sympathetically. And I think deep down he's a 'Remainer.' "

Days before going public in favor of Brexit in 2016, Johnson wrote an opinion piece supporting staying in the EU that was never published.

Purnell suspects Johnson made a political calculation, that favoring an exit would eventually better position him to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported staying in the EU and resigned after the surprise Brexit victory. Johnson's plan to succeed Cameron was torpedoed by his running mate.

Now, after surviving multiple controversies, Johnson is back and could win the top political job he has been gunning for.

If he does, Purnell says, he could face the hugely difficult task of executing a policy that he may not have really believed in in the first place.