Internationally known for his mop-like hair and being the face of Brexit, Boris Johnson is the UK’s 55th Prime Minister. From shy adolescent to celebrated laughing stock to headstrong politician, Johnson is one of the most interesting and controversial world leaders.
Ambitious from the beginning
Boris Johnson, formally Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, was born on 19 June 1964 in New York City. The son of upper-middle-class English parents Stanley Johnson and Charlotte Fawcett, Johnson spent his first few months in the US before his family moved back to England.
Stanley Johnson was often relocated for work, causing his family to move over 30 times. Boris Johnson, then known as “Alex” or “Al,” spent much of his early childhood at his family’s property in Somerset. He and his siblings were raised by Charlotte and a string of nannies, as Stanley was often away for work. Though Charlotte tried to encourage her children to be creative, the Johnson family was competitive and imbued with the values of ambition and hard work. As a child, Johnson was studious and subdued. He suffered from partial deafness that required frequent surgeries. Still, he dreamt of being “king of the world.”
From Al to Boris
In 1977, Johnson was awarded an academic scholarship to study at Eton College, a highly prestigious boarding school. At Eton, Johnson started going by the name “Boris,” and shed much of his prepubescent awkwardness. He was outgoing and popular, and excelled in the courses that interested him, such as Greek and Latin. Many teachers complained that he didn’t take his studies seriously and criticized his smug attitude. Nonetheless, at Eton, Johnson’s political career began to take shape. He was elected to be a member of Pop, an elite group of student prefects. He also developed an interest in journalism, becoming the editor of the Eton College Chronicle.
After graduating from Eton, Johnson received a scholarship to study Classics and literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He began his studies in 1983, and quickly integrated into the university. Though many of his close friends were fellow Eton graduates, he was well-known throughout the university. He played rugby, edited the Tributary, a satirical newspaper, and served as president of the Oxford Union. By the time he graduated from Oxford, his conservative political views had become a defining part of his character. During his time at university, Johnson fell in love with Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who would become his first wife.
The start of a scandalous career
Johnson became a graduate trainee for The Times in 1987. Only a few months into his position, he was fired for fabricating a quote. Johnson recovered his career through university connections, securing a position at The Daily Telegraph, where fellow Oxford-alumnus Max Hastings worked as the editor. The Daily Telegraph catered towards an audience of conservatives, and through his writing, Johnson found his political voice. In 1989, Hastings appointed him Brussels correspondent. Here, Johnson began expressing disdain towards the European Union and its tendency towards integration. His “Eurosceptic,” outlook positioned him as a controversial figure, but he was encouraged by a growing base of followers, including then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In 1999, Johnson became the editor of conservative paper The Spectator.
After a long separation marred by rumors of infidelity, Johnson and Mostyn-Owen divorced in 1993. He married Marina Wheeler, a childhood friend, the same year and had his first child shortly after. The couple had three more children over the next few years.
A new beginning in politics
Johnson’s political career officially began in 2001, when he was elected as the Tory Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Henley-on-Thames. Many voters had been skeptical of Johnson’s leadership skills, as his public persona was that of a bumbling, out-of-touch elite. However, Johnson proved his commitment to his new role by buying a house in Henley, writing for the local paper, and investing in the local community. He built his public image by going on talk shows, and his goofy, charming persona made him an audience favorite. Michael Howard, the Conservative party leader, was greatly supportive of Johnson, and made him vice-chairman of the party and shadow arts minister.
In 2004, Johnson again found himself at the center of a controversy when rumors circulated of his affair with a fellow Spectator journalist. Johnson denied the claims, and when the allegations were proven, he was harshly criticized for lying to the public and fired from his positions of vice-chairman and shadow arts minister.
No matter, Johnson was elected for a second term as MP of Henley in 2005. In 2007, after receiving support from then Conservative party leader David Cameron, Johnson ran for Mayor of London. He won the election in 2008. His first term as mayor was characterized by public gaffes, which, though embarrassing for other members of Parliament, won Johnson more support for his authenticity and entertaining celebrity persona. Most notably, Johnson found himself stuck on a zipline over Victoria Park while celebrating Britain’s first gold medal win in the 2012 Olympics. According to the Guardian, Johnson spent about 10 minutes hanging above a crowd of onlookers before park staff were able to rescue him.
As mayor, Johnson outlawed drinking on public transportation, instituted a public bicycle system, and was responsible for several failed, expensive projects, such as the pedestrian garden bridge across the Thames River. Over his two terms as mayor of London, Johnson would loosen his grip on his conservative values, embracing environmentally-friendly policies, LGBTQ rights, and liberal views on immigration.
Boris and Brexit
In 2016, as his second term neared its finish, Johnson held on to his political relevance by reinvigorating his stance against the EU, this time actively calling for Brexit. By supporting Brexit, Johnson positioned himself as a rival to Cameron, then serving as Prime Minister. His Brexit slogan was “Let’s take back control,” often paired with the statistic that the UK sent 350 million pounds to the EU per week--a fact that was disproven by independent fact-checkers who found the real number to be around 280 million, The Washington Post reports.
After the 2016 Brexit referendum in which a majority voted for Leave, Cameron resigned from his position. Theresa May, Cameron’s successor, appointed Johnson as foreign secretary. As foreign secretary, Johnson offended many. When he failed to properly retain information regarding a hostage British-Iranian woman during a Commons committee meeting, he misspoke, leading to Tehranian officials justifying her imprisonment.
Johnson left the position in July 2018 in protest of May’s approach to Brexit. May announced her resignation a year later, after her Brexit plan was repeatedly rejected by Parliament. Johnson was there at the ready, eager to finally claim his seat as Prime Minister. His campaign slogan was “Get Brexit done.” In July 2019, Johnson was elected Prime Minister.
After extensive negotiations, Johnson’s plan for withdrawal from the EU was accepted, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. The UK is currently in a Brexit transition period, in which new trade deals and foreign policy legislation are being negotiated.
Johnson and Wheeler officially divorced in 2020, after years of reported affairs. In late 2019, Johnson, now age 55, became engaged to Carrie Symonds, age 32, a Conservative political activist. Johnson and Symonds welcomed a baby on 29 April, only weeks after Johnson recovered from a dangerous case of coronavirus.
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