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The terrifying appeal of Boris Johnson, according to a Johnson voter

Reuters/Peter Nicholls
Hands up.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Updated July 23, 2019.

Boris Johnson became prime minister of the UK today (July 23). Much of the British electorate—and the world—will wonder how a man the public didn’t elect could possibly have ascended that far. Here’s an answer: People like me helped smooth the path.

I’ve fought against recalling this memory, relegating it to the back of my brain for the past seven years. It was May 2012, and Johnson was up for re-election as mayor of London. The polling station would have been a drafty church hall or run-down local library. I would have marked the “X” with a pencil; most UK voting booths provide them, stubby and sometimes tied to a table leg with a length of string. I voted for Johnson.

The details might be hazy, but I remember with absolute clarity the feeling I had when leaving the booth: Unease. Defiance. I had never voted for a Conservative before. But I had good reasons, right? And maybe I would never have to tell anyone I had done it.

Now, Johnson has won his party’s leadership contest, propelling him into the most important job in the country. This has happened despite the fact that, both before and in the years since his mayorship, his actions have indicated a fairly spectacular lack of facility for public office. He’s displayed a grand disregard for truth and consistency. I can think of few worse now in politics to lead the country, particularly at a time when leaving the EU means delicacy and decency are both required. (Jeremy Hunt, his final rival in this leadership contest, has a different but no less worrying track record. As health secretary, Hunt took it upon himself to break the collective spirit of the country’s young doctors during contract negotiations, and begin the serious evisceration of the National Health Service, the UK’s most popular institution.)

The route to politics via simply becoming known, rather than having ideas, is becoming more common.

Reflecting on why I cast that mayoral vote, which seemed low stakes and yet led to this point, is humbling. But it’s also instructive as to the routes taken to power by people like Johnson. This is now the age of Donald Trump, whose main claims to the right to govern have been that he is rich, famous, and anti-establishment. It’s the era of violent populists Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Earlier this year, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine, less than four years after performing the role of a teacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine in a TV show. We’re in an age where the route to politics via simply becoming known, rather than having ideas, is becoming more common. Trust is increasingly based on familiarity, and the ability to appeal to people’s most basic frustrations. Not on experience; not on integrity.

So why did I vote for Johnson back in 2012? Firstly, it didn’t feel like a choice between equals. Ken Livingstone, his opponent, had been the city’s first mayor, taking office in 2000 and running the city for eight years. He was 62, and seeking to get his old job back, but it seemed like a tired attempt and—to a young voter—like a vote for the past. (After losing, Livingstone retired from politics.) Johnson was twenty years younger, and as the incumbent mayor, didn’t seem to be doing a bad job. An advocate of cycling, he’d overseen the installation of a city bike scheme. (Plans for the bicycles, now popularly referred to as Boris Bikes, were drawn up and announced by Livingstone in 2007.) London was hosting the 2012 Olympics (also won under Livingstone in 2005), and morale in the city was rising, as it emerged from the worst of the 2008 financial crisis.

Johnson seemed like a safe enough pair of hands. He came across as personable, even pleasant. He didn’t look dangerous.

No one in politics, the media, or society, was talking about leaving the EU. The word Brexit hadn’t been invented. In the US, Barack Obama was running for a second term as president.

Johnson seemed like a safe enough pair of hands. He came across as personable, even pleasant. He didn’t look dangerous.

Fast forward seven years and things look terribly different.

In his early career, Johnson traded on his persona as a lovable rogue: As a young MP he appeared on and even hosted the popular BBC comedy television program, Have I Got News For You. He was fired from his journalism job at The Times for making up a quote, has described women wearing veils as looking “like letterboxes,” and has referred to Africans as “piccanninies.” But his misdemeanors were forgiven by a public that liked what it thought of as his ability to be “real.”

That benign, bumbling lovability evaporated during the Brexit campaign. After first writing articles supporting both sides, Johnson decided to throw his weight behind the Vote Leave campaign. Johnson had established himself as a comedic Euroskeptic while writing for The Telegraph from Brussels during his pre-parliamentary career, but not as a true believer in another path. Many saw his backing of Leave as opportunistic: then-prime minister David Cameron, the leader of Johnson’s party at the time, supported remaining in the EU. Brexit allowed Johnson to pit himself as an alternative to Cameron, should he eventually fail.

After an ugly campaign, the country voted to leave the EU in 2016, Cameron resigned, and it became clear that no one had a plan for what would happen next. Johnson filtered away into the shadows, declining the chance to contest the party leadership, which would have meant overseeing the messy aftermath of the policy for which he had advocated. When Theresa May won that leadership contest, she appointed him foreign secretary, in part, many speculated, to keep him embroiled in the fallout of the decision he’d helped bring about, but also out of the country for much of the time. After a series of gaffes and absences for key votes, he resigned in 2018 in opposition to May’s proposed Brexit deal.

Both during and after the Brexit campaign, Johnson was reprimanded many times, including by the UK’s statistics authority, for falsely stating that the UK sent £350 million ($437 million) to the EU each week. He carried on repeating it for years, and was eventually taken to court for doing so.

His election as Conservative party leader ultimately relied on the support of the party’s 160,000 members, and he won with 66% of the vote. Those who support him have various motivations. Some actually trust him. Others are terrified of the alternatives (like the Brexit Party, a reinvention of Brexit flagwaver Nigel Farage’s former party, which surged in the polls around the European parliamentary elections in May.)

Meanwhile, what has changed since 2012 is not just Johnson revealing his true colors: his willingness to say almost anything to win, even if it directly contradicts other statements he’s made; his absolute focus on personal power; his poverty of ideas. In 2016, Donald Trump’s election in the US and the UK’s vote to leave the EU signaled that unhappiness with the status quo was boiling over. If divisions between factions didn’t already exist, many were forged by those results. Trump’s policies—detaining children and separating families, baiting China—and his rhetoric in attacking the free press and aggrandizing racism have become an inescapable part of the political landscape.

Johnson is popular precisely because he has no fixed character: because potential supporters can find in him what they want to see.

Johnson has not, yet, proved himself to be as aggressively mendacious as Trump. He is not openly trying to fuel hate. But he has most certainly proved himself to be both fundamentally dishonest, and repeatedly inconsistent. As The Economist notes, Johnson is popular precisely because he has no fixed character: because potential supporters can find in him what they want to see. That’s what I did, back in 2012. I saw a posh man with a distinctive name and funny hair who liked cycling, green space, and public transport. I saw a man with a good sense of humor, who would probably “play fair” if it came down to the wire. I saw a man being good enough at a job that was important, but contained.

And now? I see an emptiness. A white male aristocrat ascending without a mandate into the job of representing me on the world stage. Someone who lies and backflips and hides, and yet is about to take charge of a country that’s already flailing, desperate for a resolution to the chaos of Brexit, and, in the meantime, neglecting its global responsibilities and the imperatives of domestic policy. Boris Johnson—of all people!—is now helping to map out the world my loved ones and the rest of humanity will live in. It’s almost funny, except for how much it hurts.

So I’m sorry for the part I played. For being credulous and voting for someone who seemed “good enough,” rather than good. Next time, and all the time, I’ll seek to hold the people I help gain power to account for the use they make of it.

This story was updated to reflect Boris Johnson’s win as Conservative Party leader and UK prime minister.

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