AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A New York-born populist with wild hair is splitting his conservative party ahead of a hotly-contested vote. He's wealthy, but many of his voters are working class people, and this is where I tell you we're not talking about Donald Trump. From London, NPR's Lauren Frayer has the answer.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At a municipal bike kiosk in London, commuters like Karen Gilchrist use bicycles nicknamed for the city's mayor.
KAREN GILCHRIST: I'm just taking a Boris bike up to the shops on Oxford Street.
FRAYER: So why are they called Boris bikes?
GILCHRIST: I believe they were named after the Lord Mayor who introduced them but actually, (laughter) some people say that the ideas were in place before he came in.
FRAYER: That he is outgoing Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He's a blond, floppy-haired British politician, a dual U.S. citizen, an ex-journalist, author, and comedy TV star. He has an outsized personality and a reputation for what the British call buffoonery.
GILCHRIST: He's got a bit of a caricature look, and it's having that high profile. And he does seem to be very engaged with his city. But also, he does have a bit of a habit of putting his foot in it and stuff like that, little bit (laughter). Akin to Donald Trump, probably.
FRAYER: Boris - and absolutely everyone calls him by his first name - leaves the mayor's office this week, but will still be a member of parliament. He's also a leader of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, and took issue with America's president when he said Britain should stay in.
BORIS JOHNSON: I'm a big fan of Barack Obama, but clearly we have a disagreement.
FRAYER: Boris accused Obama of meddling, and wrote in a newspaper column that Obama dislikes Britain because of his Kenyan ancestry. Obama is widely beloved here. Within days, Boris' EU exit campaign took a hit in the polls. He turned down NPR's request for an interview. Boris remains one of the most liked politicians in Britain, in part becauseâ¦
MARK LENAGHAN: He makes us laugh.
FRAYER: Mark Lenaghan is a construction worker on a cigarette break in central London. He calls Boris...
LENAGHAN: A bit of a clown, really.
FRAYER: ...Who's willing to make a fool of himself to promote his city.
FRAYER: During the 2012 London Olympics, Boris got stuck on a zip line over East London, left dangling 20 feet off the ground in a hard hat and harness, waving a Union Jack in each hand.
JOHNSON: Get me a ladder.
FRAYER: Despite such antics, or perhaps because of them, Boris won two mayoral elections. Now, many believe he wants to become prime minister when David Cameron steps down. Boris' biographer, Andrew Gimson, says the challenge is to turn clowny charisma into national poll numbers.
ANDREW GIMSON: They're very good if you ask people, would you like to go to the pub or have a meal with Boris Johnson? They're not so good if you ask members of the public, would you like Boris Johnson to look after your personal finances? He's not trusted to do that.
FRAYER: Unlike Trump, Boris is not anti-establishment - he is the establishment. Educated at Eton and Oxford, alongside Cameron, although they disagree on Britain's place in Europe. Boris is gambling his political future on the EU referendum in June. If the vote goes his way, he could replace his old classmate as prime minister. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.