The best piece of business advice I have ever read was, “Beware the articulate incompetent.” It is important to business decisions but far more so to political ones.
Boris Johnson has always been a poster boy for the articulate incompetent, and yet he rose with wit, bravado and connections to the highest elective office in Britain, prime minister. Now his luck has run out.
Born in New York to British parents, he didn’t renounce his dual citizenship until 2016, when it became a liability politically. He won a scholarship to Eton, the boys-only boarding school where many prime ministers studied, went on to Oxford, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. This is the equivalent of privilege on steroids.
Johnson’s weaknesses — including sloth, disorganization, lack of preparedness, showing off and a disinclination to let the facts stand in the way of a good story — were well known. He was fired from his first journalistic job on The Times of London for fabricating a quote — from his godfather, of all people. Later, Michael Howard, the distinguished Tory leader, fired him from the ranks of the shadow cabinet, also for lying.
After The Times, Johnson worked for the conservative daily, The Telegraph. In Brussels, where he was assigned, he was regarded by his peers as good company but an unreliable reporter. One of them told me that he was often asked to chase up some fabricated concoction of Johnson’s like the banana regulation, allegedly defining the length and curve of bananas allowed into the European Union. The only curve was that of the truth.
Johnson’s editors in London wanted to hear only bad news about Europe. Johnson obliged: He was playing his part in the movement to take Britain out of Europe, which matured as Brexit.
Johnson went on to become a member of Parliament and editor of The Spectator, an admired British weekly magazine of politics, culture and current affairs, published continuously since 1828. His colleagues at the magazine found him sloppy, often absent, and often leaving his work to others. His management was, it is reported, incoherent, a charge repeated about his leadership of Britain.
The Spectator, under Johnson’s editorship, was engulfed in a sex scandal of rare portions. The publisher was cavorting with a British cabinet member, Johnson with the star columnist, and an editor with a secretary. It was a literary “Animal House.”
Johnson has been married three times and has six children from those marriages. He acknowledges one love child.
The next step for Johnson was to become mayor of London. His humor papered over the cracks, and he did a good job defending London’s image — especially in insisting that the double-decker red buses be retained.
The campaign for the United Kingdom to leave Europe gave Johnson his chance. He went against his old parliamentary friend and Eton and Oxford companion, Prime Minister David Cameron, and campaigned vigorously and with the aid of some wild and untrue claims about how Britain would prosper out of Europe. Brexit carried the day.
Cameron was replaced with the dull, dutiful Theresa May. She had the task of trying to make Brexit work without breaking Britain. After three years, she was out, and a shaken party installed Johnson as its leader.
In a landslide, the Conservatives won the first election with Johnson at the helm, and he was expected to be a transformational prime minister. Instead, he has been involved in scandals: He has been caught lying about parties in his official home and office, No. 10 Downing Street, during the COVID-19 lockdown, and recently about the allegations of sexual impropriety of a member of his party, whom he had been warned about but nonetheless promoted. The truth might have saved Johnson; he eschewed it.
Johnson isn’t a fool, but he does foolish, often roguish things. He is a scholar of the ancient world, a biographer, a linguist and a wordsmith. He likes to make comparisons to antiquity: He equated London to Athens and himself to Pericles.
He wrote a biography of Churchill, which I enjoyed but found nothing groundbreaking. It seems to have been written to signal similarities between himself and Churchill.
Johnson will be heard from again as a commentator and author. He excels at the pithy phrase and joking in adversity, as when, as London mayor, he was left hanging on a zipline during a 2012 Olympics event.
His legacy may be that he was the most quotable prime minister of his generation and beyond. Here is a classic: “My friends, I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
On resigning, Johnson said tamely, “Them’s the breaks.”