Back in 2004, The Independent asked then-MP Boris Johnson, whether he had his sights set on the prime ministership. Johnson brushed off the suggestion: “my chances of becoming PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive”.
And yet, more than a decade later, the controversial politician is pegged to become the British Conservative Party’s new leader, which would thrust him into Theresa May’s recently vacated prime ministership.
Johnson is no stranger to the spotlight. He started out as a journalist for The London Times and The Daily Telegraph, before being elected as the MP for Henley and, later, the London mayor. Most recently, he’s become one of the faces of Brexit, championing the Leave vote in 2016.
But Johnson is best known for his history of lying, racism, and downright buffoonery, leading many to wonder whether Britain’s next prime minister has more in common with Donald Trump than a shockingly blonde mop.
Trouble with the truth
Johnson has always had trouble telling the truth, which hasn’t fared well for his employment.
He was sacked from his job at London’s Times newspaper for fabricating a quote in a front-page article about the discovery of Edward II’s Rose Palace, suggesting Edward II had homosexual relations.
At his next gig, as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent, he published what were largely described as “euromyths”. He claimed the EU wanted to classify snails as fish. Condom sizes were to be standardised, as were coffins. There were plans to establish a banana police force, to regulate the yellow fruit’s shape and quality. A ban on prawn cocktail crisps loomed.
During his time as the representative for Henley, he was sacked from his roles as Conservative Party vice-chairman and shadow arts minister after brushing off reports that he had had an affair with Spectator columnist as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”.
More recently, Johnson has learnt the hard way the repercussions his lies can have beyond his own employment status.
During a 2017 select committee hearing, Johnson — then-foreign secretary — said that a British-Iranian woman serving a five-year jail term in Iran for spying was “simply teaching people journalism” at the time of her arrest. The statement was condemned by her family and employer as untrue. Nevertheless, the court hurled the woman — Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — into an unscheduled hearing and said the foreign secretary’s comments were proof she was engaged in a “propaganda war against the regime”, threatening to double her sentence.
As part of the Leave campaign, Johnson repeated old allegations that the EU was setting rules on the shape of bananas. More seriously, he backed the claim plastered to the side of the campaign bus that the UK was sending £350 million a week to the EU, that could be injected into the country’s National Health Service after Britain exited the bloc. Johnson was hurled up before Britain’s High Court for knowingly misleading voters, but the court decided not to pursue the charges.
Johnson hasn’t held back from making controversial and at times deeply offensive comments about women, gay people, and ethnic minorities.
His appointment as Theresa May’s foreign secretary seemed an odd choice given his history of allegedly racist comments. In his column for The Sun newspaper, Johnson said that the bust of Winston Churchill allegedly being removed from the White House during Obama’s term, might be a symbol of “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire”.
He was reported to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission after describing Muslim women wearing niqabs as “letterboxes” and bank robbers, in a Telegraph article. In 2005, he wrote in conservative publication, the Spectator, that “to any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and indeed, exactly what the text is intended to provoke”.
Johnson has also compared gay marriage to beastiality in his book, and wrote in the Telegraph that openly gay MP Peter Mandelson’s resignation from the Labour government would lead to crying from “tank-topped bumboys”.
The bad, the worse, the downright stupid
Perhaps what makes Johnson endearing despite the lies and blatant bigotry is his propensity to wind up in absurd, embarrassing situations.
In the 2012 London Olympics, he was left dangling above the Thames with a Union Jack flag in each hand after getting stuck on a zip-wire. Onlookers laughed after he took down a 10-year-old schoolboy in Japan after getting a little too invested in a kids’ touch rugby game.
Most spectacularly, he reassured people that Britain was going “to make a titanic success of Brexit” causing onlooker Theresa May to hide her face in her hands when hecklers reminded him that the famous cruise-liner sank.
If his career as Britain’s next prime minister doesn’t work out, he could always take up a career playing Moe, Larry and Curly in a Three Stooges revival.
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