Cloud of intrigue hangs over potential prime minister
Popular leader seen as charismatic, stealthy and dangerous
WASHINGTON — The setting was the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, a tony affair on Thursday featuring 1,500 exuberant believers in free enterprise, limited government and the superiority of American values.
The question for Boris Johnson — former mayor of London, former British foreign secretary and current potential British prime minister — was simple:
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made?
There were many possibilities to choose from. But Johnson looked at his interlocutor, Arthur Brooks, the institute’s president, and developed the glint in his eye that usually means he is about to deploy a well-rehearsed bluster-and-deflect response.
“My strategy is to litter my career with so many decoy mistakes, nobody knows which one to attack,” Johnson declared. “In the last few minutes I’ve probably said something that the British media will say is absolutely outrageous, though I don’t know what it is.”
What Johnson did not mention was the cloud of intrigue, both personal (he is about to get a divorce) and political (he is probably plotting against Prime Minister Theresa May), wafting around him as he made his way across the Atlantic.
Articulate, charismatic and virtually unembarrassable, Johnson is one of the most popular leaders in a Conservative Party riven by internal dissent — and one of the few British politicians who is instantly recognizable to a foreign audience.
And Johnson is emerging as the sort of leader President Donald Trump likes.
During his visit to Britain this summer, the president declared that Johnson would “make a great prime minister” because, he said, “he’s got what it takes.”
And Johnson, who once called Trump “stupefyingly ignorant,” “clearly out of his mind” and unfit to be president, has lately taken to praising him back.
“I have become more and more convinced that there is method to his madness,” he was quoted as having said at a private meeting of Conservatives in June.
At home, Johnson is seen as a deeply ambitious opportunist who masks his seriousness of
purpose with a well-polished air of befuddled dishevelment and humorous nonchalance.
Like many Trumpian Republicans, Johnson has lately been tacking right, employing (in his case) an increasingly populist tone on issues like immigration, multiculturalism and Brexit, as the process of Britain’s extrication from the European Union is called.
Moderate Conservatives regard him as stealthy and dangerous. “The cheeky chap of Have I
Got News for You? has morphed into a snarling populist,” Conservative commentator Matthew d’Ancona wrote, referring to a game show Johnson occasionally appeared on earlier in his career. “We need to approach his ambitions with deadly seriousness.”
None of that was mentioned in Washington, where Johnson, 54, was in town to accept this year’s Irving Kristol Award, which honors people who have made “exceptional intellectual and practical contributions to improve government policy, social welfare, or political understanding.” Previous recipients include Benjamin Netanyahu and Paul Ryan.
Answering questions onstage from Brooks, he discussed Russia, Europe, Winston Churchill, the Roman Empire and how the best way to promote unity in a Britain divided by Brexit would have been for England to beat France in the World Cup.
Johnson avoided the topic of the trouble he has been stirring up back home.
He resigned as foreign secretary in July, saying he disagreed with what he sees as May’s too-conciliatory approach to Europe. Since then, he has made a series of provocations against the prime minister while presenting himself as a plain-talking person of the people.
Boris Johnson is one of the most popular leaders in the Conservative Party and one of the few British politicians who is instantly recognizable to a foreign audience.