There is something of the circus to Boris Johnson. The bombastic, tow-haired British Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, who served as London’s mayor until 2016, is the current favorite to be Britain’s next prime minister. He loves a photo op, grinning like a schoolboy on a bike; suspended in mid-air clutching Union Jack flags; playing rugby in a tie. He’s as colorfully British as his choice of vocabulary: piffle, mugwump, ker-splonked.
Short of shooting water out of a flower, Johnson is unafraid of looking silly. But the man who once suggested his “chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive,” now seems to be making an entirely serious bid for the position. And now bookmakers say Johnson is actually the favorite, streets ahead of his rivals. But what’s informing their confidence?
- He’s way ahead in the polls
The odds are good. Johnson is the most popular Conservative politician, according to pollster YouGov. He’s polarizing—but that also means he can count on his fans’ support.
- He’s an avowed Brexiteer
Theresa May’s failure to deliver a Brexit deal that could unite her warring party may have doomed her from the start. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to escape the scourge of being labeled a “Remainer”—someone who, whatever claims to the contrary, didn’t really want to leave the European Union. Johnson was a Eurosceptic long before it was in vogue and indeed popularized these views between 1989 and 1994 as The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. (As a journalist, he was not known for his strict regard for truth.) For the large number of Tory voters who want to leave, and soon, he’s a breath of fresh air. His promises for No Deal, if necessary, would be a welcome change.
- He’s got fantastic name recognition
Dominic Raab, Rory Stewart, even Sajid Javid—the other frontrunners for prime minister—just aren’t quite as famous as Johnson, and that matters. Johnson courts attention wherever he goes. Journalists like to write about him (evidently), people like to read about him, everyone knows who he is and what he’s about, and he’s good at remaining relevant. When it comes to establishing a shortlist, that alone might win him the plurality he needs.
- He has distanced himself from May’s disastrous efforts
After opting out of Tory party leadership in 2016, Johnson has made a point to lay low, sticking his head above the parapet only to criticize the current state of affairs. This puts him in a good place to promise an all-singing, all-dancing Brexit, with little resemblance to the present mess. After all, he’s not the one who made it.
- He made a success of the London mayoralty
In a city that leans Labour, London voters still elected Johnson their mayor twice. He in turn made a name for himself as a liberal, One Nation Tory, who welcomed refugees and improved the city’s standing internationally. Though some of his decisions fail to stand up to scrutiny, the optics are good: he invested heavily in transportation, delivered a stellar 2012 Olympics, and increased the strength of the institution of the mayoralty. People think of him as a winner—he’s yet to lose an election—and one who can get things done.
- He’s a strong alternative to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
As the Financial Times notes, “many voters and Labour and Conservative MPs think he is the candidate most likely to beat Mr. Corbyn” in a general election. Johnson offers a bombastic, Brexit-happy alternative to Corbyn’s brand of principled Marxism-lite. (Whether he’d make a good prime minister is a separate question.)
- He appeals to the rising populist right
In 2012, Johnson was the most popular politician in the country. His star has fallen somewhat among centrists, but he’s well-liked among populists, who enjoy his Etonian charm. He’s remembered for bringing a bit of vim to the Leave movement. Now supporters will hope he can bring the same positivity and can-do attitude to the Gordian knot that trounced his predecessor. For Tories concerned about the rise of the Brexit party, he’s a good way to bring hardliners back into the fold and stave off a potential party split.