'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

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Boris Johnson is the favorite to become the United Kingdom's next prime minister. If Johnson wins a leadership contest later this month, he will inherit Brexit. That's the issue that ended the careers of the two previous prime ministers. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt has this profile of Britain's most colorful and confounding politician.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There are many Boris Johnsons. There's the public booster who slyly plays the buffoon, as he did as mayor of London, riding backwards 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.

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BORIS JOHNSON: Get me a ladder.

(LAUGHTER)

LANGFITT: There's Johnson the philanderer, who's gone through two marriages. Now 55, the former U.K. foreign secretary recently had a row with his 31-year-old girlfriend that resulted in a visit from police.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On the front page of every major newspaper, reports of a domestic between Boris and his partner.

LANGFITT: But there's also Johnson the feel-good politician, who can inspire, as he did at the Conservative Party's convention last year.

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JOHNSON: If I have a function here today, it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead into the collective pencil to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping-away of our self-belief and to invite you to feel a realistic and justified confidence in what we can do.

LANGFITT: This month, Conservative Party members will vote for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who's stepping down. Johnson faces the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the acknowledged underdog.

Nicholas Allen teaches politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He says, like President Trump, Johnson has a special connection with grassroots party members which helps make him such a favorite.

NICHOLAS ALLEN: Lots of people are just awed by his charisma. 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.

LANGFITT: Johnson has promised to take the United Kingdom out of the EU, do-or-die. That pledge resonates with many disillusioned Brexit voters who are angry that three years on, the U.K. still hasn't left, voters like John Mays, who drives a taxi in London.

JOHN MAYS: Well, often he's the only person that's going to get us out of Europe. He's committed to it. If he doesn't achieve it in the 31 of October, he's doomed.

LANGFITT: Many who've dealt with Johnson find him charming. Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant, met Johnson several times when Johnson served as foreign secretary.

RICHARD RATCLIFFE: He does inspire people, genuinely. He was quite kind, personally.

LANGFITT: Ratcliffe was seeking Johnson's help to free his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She's a British Iranian dual national who's been jailed in Iran on spying charges, which he denies. But Johnson, who's not known as a detail guy, made the situation worse when he told a parliamentary committee she'd been teaching journalism in Iran, which her husband says is false. Iranian state TV seized on Johnson's statement as evidence Zaghari-Ratcliffe was indeed a spy. Johnson later apologized.

Again, Richard Ratcliffe.

RATCLIFFE: Do I mind him winging things? I think there are consequences for it. You know, one of the things they often say with foreign secretaries is they're either dull or they're dangerous. And he wasn't dull.

LANGFITT: Ratcliffe is reluctant to be too critical of Johnson, whose office did not respond to a request to speak with NPR. Others who know Johnson better are less reticent.

SONIA PURNELL: I'm actually - I'm quite frightened about him becoming prime minister. He has a very, very long track record of lying.

LANGFITT: This is Sonia Purnell, author of "Just Boris: A Tale Of Blond Ambition." Purnell worked with Johnson when they were both journalists with London's Daily Telegraph, based in Brussels in the 1990s.

That was after The Times of London had fired Johnson for making up a quote from his own godfather and before Johnson became a politician and the Conservative Party sacked him from leadership for lying about an affair. In fact, Purnell doubts that Johnson, despite all he says, ever really believed in Brexit.

PURNELL: When I worked with him in the 1990s, he was writing excoriating copy about the European Union. But in private, you know, over a coffee or something, he would talk about the EU affectionately, sympathetically. And I think, deep down, he's a remainer.

LANGFITT: Days before going public in favor of Brexit in 2016, Johnson wrote a secret opinion piece supporting staying in the European Union.

PURNELL: Career comes first, always, with Boris Johnson, and he could see that we had a remain prime minister. We had David Cameron. There was only a market opportunity for a leave prime minister.

LANGFITT: Now, says Purnell, Johnson could face the hugely difficult task of executing a policy that he may never have really believed in in the first place. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKE INSPIRED'S "SWEET DREAMS")

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