Cloud of in­trigue hangs over po­ten­tial prime min­is­ter

Pop­u­lar leader seen as charis­matic, stealthy and dan­ger­ous

The Dallas Morning News - - World - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

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.

Alain Grosclaude/Agence France-Presse

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.

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