Behind the bluster: Britain's Boris Johnson

London (AFP) –


Known for his jokes, gaffes and bluster, Boris Johnson has pitched himself as the big personality Britain needs to break the Brexit deadlock and thereby save his Conservative Party from electoral oblivion.

The former foreign minister has been dogged by questions about his competence and populist rhetoric, and accused of offering no detailed plan for leaving the European Union.

But he has won support among Conservative colleagues terrified that the continued political turmoil over Brexit will provoke a general election that they will lose.

His fans say he has the charisma, personality and national presence to beat leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage's insurgent Brexit Party.

As a leader of the "Leave" campaign during the 2016 EU referendum and a former London mayor, Johnson has proven he can reach beyond the core Conservative vote.

But his past quips -- including about gay "bumboys", and Muslim women wearing the face veil looking like "letter boxes" -- have sparked intense criticism.

His threat to take Britain out of the EU with no deal also alarms many businesses fearful of the economic consequences.

Rivals have suggested that on this, he may not be all he seems, noting he has persuaded both hardline Brexiteers and more moderate colleagues to back him.

Diplomats from across Europe view him as an opportunist -- although some argue this may help him in the battles to come.

Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization and a Johnson family friend, told AFP that he did not seem to have a settled view on Brexit.

"The only thing in which Boris Johnson believes is Boris Johnson," he said.

- London mayor -

Born in New York in 1964, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has always been ambitious -- his sister Rachel said he wanted as a child to be "king of the world".

He first ran for the leadership after the EU referendum, but pulled out when his key ally Michael Gove turned on him to run himself.

This time, he has run a disciplined campaign, which began by trimming his famously unruly mop of blond hair.

He has focused on cultivating backers in parliament, and limiting his public appearances has helped him avoid the gaffes that have defined his career.

Educated at the elite Eton school and Oxford University, Johnson first worked as a journalist for The Times newspaper but was sacked for fabricating quotes.

He later made a name for himself peddling "Euro-myths" about EU regulations while Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.

Johnson became famous as a guest on the satirical TV talk show "Have I Got News For You", where his bumbling, aristocratic persona made him a hit.

He became an MP in 2001, but was sacked as Conservative arts spokesman in 2004 for allegedly lying about an extra-marital affair -- one of many romantic scandals that would dog him over the years.

By now known nationwide simply as "Boris", the row did not stop his election in 2008 as mayor of multi-ethnic, Labour-voting London.

He was re-elected in 2012 and oversaw the London Olympic Games that year, memorably getting stuck on a zip-wire while celebrating Britain's first gold medal.

Johnson has drawn on his experience as mayor, pointing to falling crime, house-building projects and his work with business.

But sceptics accuse him of expensive vanity projects such as a doomed "garden bridge".

- 'Least successful' diplomat -

He returned to parliament in 2015 as MP for a London suburb, promising to oppose the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

But as foreign minister, Johnson missed a key parliamentary vote on the project after hastily arranging a trip to Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to put him in the Foreign Office when she took power was viewed as a canny move to keep a rival at arm's length -- but risked backfiring.

As a journalist, he once wrote about the Commonwealth's "flag-waving piccaninnies", among other lurid turns of phrase.

In office, he made a major error in suggesting that a British-Iranian woman held in Tehran on sedition charges may have been training reporters.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family strongly denies this and said the comments made her situation worse.

After he quit in July 2018 over May's Brexit strategy, the Chatham House think-tank concluded Johnson was Britain's "least successful" post-war foreign minister.

"Where gravitas and grasp of detail were needed Johnson supplied bon mots," it said.