Late morning on Tuesday, July 23, the denouement in Boris Johnson’s lifelong quest for political power will be revealed, when the committee that has organized the Conservative Party’s leadership election will announce the winner of the race to replace Theresa May. The following day, the winner—Johnson is the heavy favorite—will be driven to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen, and be formally appointed prime minister.
It will be the culmination of seven weeks of national campaigning in which Johnson has slowly and cautiously closed in on the prize. Yet in reality it has been a 40-year pursuit, relentlessly driving forward, each step a mere prelude to the next on his seemingly unstoppable rise.
There was his two years as foreign secretary, resurrecting his career following a failed initial bid at the top job in 2016; before that, his two terms as London’s mayor, the first (and only) Conservative to win the position in Britain’s left-leaning capital, during which time the city hosted the 2012 Olympics; and his time as a member of Parliament and journalist before that, all building to this point. He has often stood apart from his party’s leadership, and grown more powerful each time. Here is a man unshackled from the constraints that usually apply—one whose personal celebrity has given him autonomy from a party that has instead come to rely on him to save it from annihilation as a result of the one policy, Brexit, he was instrumental in bringing about.
And yet, despite decades in the public eye as one of the few internationally recognized British political figures, a national celebrity in his own right, the Boris Johnson that stands on the brink of power is still far more known than understood. The early events that shaped him—his ambition and intellect, independence and comic persona—are veiled by his own reluctance to speak about them.
To some of those who know him best, the most important period in Johnson’s life was not his time as foreign secretary or as a leader of the Brexit campaign; nor his time as London mayor or in journalism. The period that his own mother has said was crucial in the early molding of Johnson’s character came when he was just 10 years old. It is a period of his life he rarely talks about, one that holds a wound apparently too deep and too personal.
Then going by Alexander—his full legal name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or Al as he is still known to his family—Johnson had been living in Brussels with his parents and three younger siblings: a striking clan of blond, bohemian intellectuals wrapped tightly together by their warm, loving, and artistic mother, Charlotte. This scene is laid out in colorful detail in two major biographies of Johnson. (Neither Johnson nor any of his immediate family spoke with me for this piece, but several friends and former colleagues of his did.)
Charlotte had been the center of the children’s lives, the one constant in a peripatetic childhood in which the family shifted from one continent to the next—moving 32 times in 14 years—following their father, Stanley, and his ever-changing work in academia and institutions such as the World Bank and the European Commission. The upheaval, coupled with Stanley’s long absences, in which he would often leave the family for months at a time, had strengthened the bond between the children and their mother. They had shared idyllic periods of stability: a life and home in Washington; time on the family farm in Exmoor, southwest England, where Charlotte homeschooled the children; and then later in the comfortable, bourgeois Uccle suburb of Brussels, attending the local French-speaking European School.
It was at this moment, in Brussels in 1974, that Charlotte suffered what her family has described as a mental breakdown, forcing her to leave her children and return to England for psychiatric treatment. She would spend several months at the Maudsley Hospital in South London; while there, she produced a cascade of vivid and sometimes disturbing paintings, collected in a book now kept in the British Library. In one, Hanged by Circumstances, Stanley, Charlotte, and the four children, all easily identifiable, are hanging by their arms with pained expressions on their faces.
Life had been upended for the Johnsons. While Charlotte would rejoin the family, she would continue to suffer health problems for the rest of her life: depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifested as a fear of dirt, and then Parkinson’s disease when she was just 40. A year after their mother’s breakdown, Johnson and his sister were sent to boarding school in England, traveling together, alone, across the English Channel. He was 11.
Three years later, right before Christmas 1978, Stanley and Charlotte’s marriage collapsed, just as their son was settling into his life at Eton, the exclusive boarding school and training ground for Britain’s elite. Charlotte would later describe Stanley as “completely unfaithful,” speaking to the journalist Andrew Gimson for his biography of Johnson. Another of her paintings depicts “Dark Stanley.” The family was in enormous pain—“I was so, so close to the children,” Charlotte told Gimson, “and then I disappeared.”
In these few years, the young Alexander’s world collapsed and a new figure began to emerge. The quiet and bookish child, who would say to his siblings “Let’s play reading” when asked to come up with a game, would soon completely transform into the famous figure he is today. Alexander, the boy born in Manhattan and raised as much in the United States and Europe as Britain, had become Boris the eccentric English jester.
This is the Boris Johnson who would go to Oxford to study classics, before embarking on a stellar—and controversial—career in journalism, first being fired from Britain’s The Times before joining its rival The Daily Telegraph, where he became Margaret Thatcher’s favorite journalist as the paper’s chief Brussels correspondent, helping to set the Conservative Party alight with (often dubious) stories of European Union bureaucrats undermining British sovereignty.
This is the Boris Johnson who would become editor of The Spectator, Britain’s top conservative weekly, a position he held on to after winning election to Parliament, turning himself into a media celebrity through a series of now-trademark blunderingly comic performances on the prime-time BBC satirical quiz show, Have I Got News for You.
This is the Boris Johnson who was promoted to positions of prominence in the Conservative Party, only to be dismissed for lying about an extramarital affair; who twice won the mayoralty in London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth, and then successfully led what critics said was a nativist campaign to take Britain out of the EU against his old friend David Cameron.
And this is the Boris Johnson who was central to bringing down Theresa May as prime minister, finally putting him within striking distance of 10 Downing Street—the dream he’s held since Eton, according to family and friends as recounted in both major biographies.
Ultimately, no one can know how the experiences of his childhood affected Johnson, in either his adolescence or his later life, nor how much of his character was shaped by events rather than simple biology. His three siblings—part of London’s media or political elite in their own right—are different from him in their personalities and ambitions: publicly and privately critical of his behavior, opposed to Brexit, some reserved, some outgoing. Boris shares many of his father’s personality traits, while family friends suggest he has inherited his mother’s sensitivity and artistic flair.
Yet, whether nature or nurture, this transformation from Alexander to Boris lies at the heart of the man who is likely to become British prime minister. This is Boris Johnson the enigma: the American Englishman, born in the New World but raised in the traditions of the old; a genuine intellect wrapped in a veneer of buffoonery; someone who has dismissed Donald Trump as “clearly out of his mind” and betraying a “quite stupefying ignorance,” yet remains on friendly terms with the notoriously thin-skinned president; a self-confessed megalomaniac who shies away from confrontation; a disheveled mess who bumbles from one success to the next.
Here is a man with a yearning to be loved—a “neediness” in the words of one biographer—that can reveal itself in a jaw-dropping recklessness, a “man-child politician” seemingly unable to control himself yet at the same time intensely focused. In his hands, Britain now finds itself in a moment of maximum danger—and opportunity.
In the Marx Brothers’ 1933 comic masterpiece, Duck Soup, the anarchic leader of “Freedonia,” Rufus T. Firefly, prosecutes the Freedonian spy Chicolini. “Gentlemen,” Firefly declares to the jury, “Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
In 2010, Jeremy Clarkson, then the presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear—a car-review show that is wildly popular around the world—took a similar tack when he spoke with Johnson on the program. “Most politicians, as far as I can work out, are pretty incompetent, and then have a veneer of competence,” Clarkson said to Johnson. “You do seem to do it the other way round.” Johnson, in his characteristic amused stutter, replied: “You can’t rule out the possibility that beneath the elaborately constructed veneer of a blithering idiot, there lurks an, er, blithering idiot.”
This most fundamental of questions—who is the real Boris?—remains up for discussion, even as he prepares to become Conservative Party leader and British prime minister. Is it all an act? How can someone so smart seem so clownish?
The U.S.-polling expert Frank Luntz, a friend of Johnson’s at university, told me he was a particularly difficult politician to work out. “Boris is so hard to understand because there really isn’t anyone like him on either side of the Atlantic,” he said in an email. “I’ve never met someone so obviously talented yet so quickly dismissed by critics because he doesn’t conform to their definitions or expectations.” Luntz said that while the pair were at Oxford, Johnson would confound opponents in a debate by ignoring the usual rules. In one instance, to combat a motion condemning Israel at a university debating society, instead of rooting his argument in history or modern politics, Johnson talked about being bullied. “The place,” Luntz wrote, “was mesmerized.”
The reality is, people are rarely entirely real or entirely fake—life is more complex.
Philip Corr, a psychology professor at London’s City University, told me Johnson was far from unique in developing new personality traits to help him get by. One way of responding to a major trauma in childhood—or the simple reality of a new environment, such as a boarding school—might be to take on a different character. “If you take on this character and it works, then there’s positive reinforcement, and you keep doing it,” he said. “You end up being the person you create.”
If this is true of Johnson, the pattern is easy to spot. In Brussels, he was fluent in French and described by one teacher as un enfant doué—a gifted child—and later won the most prestigious merit-based scholarship to Eton. “I don’t think I’ve ever taught anyone who learned quicker,” Clive Williams, a teacher of his at Ashdown House, the boarding school he attended before Eton, recalled in Gimson’s biography of Johnson. Williams described how other teachers would discuss the new “fantastically able boy” in the common room and how they had noticed something “rather special” about him.
At the beginning of his time at Eton, report Gimson and Johnson’s other biographer, Sonia Purnell, he continued to be known as Al or Alex, a King’s Scholar and self-confessed nerd who excelled at subjects such as Greek, Latin, and the classics. Even recently, when his siblings and their children were gathered for a beach barbecue while on vacation, Boris was found tucked away behind a rock reading Roman history, the family friend Mary Killen wrote in Tatler magazine. As an adult, this side of him still remains.
His dominant persona, however, changed at Eton. Over time, his popularity grew and his reputation as an academic wunderkind fell off. He was appointed captain of the school in his final term, making him “constitutionally the top boy in the whole school” according to Eton’s public glossary, and confirming his new status as “a fully fledged school celebrity known to everyone simply as Boris for the first time in his life,” Purnell wrote. “Here was the near-perfect prototype of the seemingly bumbling, shambolic persona wrapped round the rapier intellect that we know today.”
This dichotomy is shown again and again in accounts of his time at school. In the battle between the need for popularity and academic achievement, the former was winning. In a report sent to Johnson’s father in 1981, Martin Hammond, one of Johnson’s teachers at Eton, wrote, “Boris’ favoured pace is the amble (with the odd last-minute sprint), which has been good enough so far and I suppose enables him to smell the flowers along the way.”
The trend continued at Oxford. There, he would join the Bullingdon Club, the most exclusive and riotous aristocratic drinking society at the university. He edited the satirical magazine Tributary and stood twice for the Oxford Union presidency, winning the second time around, with Luntz’s help. And he dated, then married, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who had graced the cover of Tatler.
But perhaps nothing sums up the Johnson model more than his pursuit of the highest honor in a British undergraduate degree, a first. In Johnson’s case, that involved a last-minute “sprint” founded on his raw intellect, but he fell just shy of the grades required. He’d wanted it all, but had, in the words of Hammond, stopped too long to smell the flowers.
“My silicon chip has been programmed to try to scramble up this cursus honorum, this ladder of things.”
Matthew Bell, a journalist who worked at The Spectator when Johnson was the editor, told me this was typical of Johnson. “It was a constant essay crisis,” Bell said, recalling his five years at the magazine that overlapped with Johnson’s time there. “But he thrives under pressure.” Johnson could be “maddening” to work for but inspired enormous loyalty. “One of the most interesting things about him is, it’s very hard to dislike him when you’re in his orbit. Everyone who works with him loves him. However lowly you are, he has that Bill Clinton ability to make you feel special.”
Johnson, in this way, can be both the chaotic center of attention and the bookish introvert he was before his mother’s illness; the act could well be an act, but is no less real because of it. Everyone acts. One side of his character is not fake and the other side real; they are both genuine and important parts of who he is.