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Boris Johnson poised to oversee Brexit as UK’s next prime minister

Ben Stansall, AFP | Boris Johnson delivers remarks on July 23 after it was announced he would become the UK’s new prime minister.

Known for his jokes, gaffes and volte-faces, Boris Johnson has pitched himself as the big personality Britain needs to finally deliver Brexit and save his ruling Conservative Party from an electoral drubbing.

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The former foreign minister, who succeeds Theresa May as prime minister on Wednesday, has dismissed questions about his competence and populist rhetoric with a pitch to take Britain out of the European Union – if necessary without a deal.

To Conservative colleagues terrified that the political deadlock over Brexit will provoke an early general election, he argues that he is the man to beat the Labour opposition and eurosceptic Nigel Farage's insurgent Brexit Party.

'We're going to energise the country and get Brexit done'

As a leader of the Brexit campaign during the 2016 EU referendum and a two-term mayor of London, Johnson has proved he can reach beyond the Conservative Party's core vote.

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

His promise to leave the EU on the October 31 deadline, with or without a deal, has alarmed the half of voters who rejected Brexit three years ago – particularly as he offers no detailed plan.

Johnson has also been accused of hiding from scrutiny during the leadership campaign, after he avoided the first televised debate and kept media appearances to a minimum.

'Euro-myths'

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 allowed him to avoid the gaffes that have defined his career.

Educated at the elite Eton school and Oxford University, where he was a member of the rowdy all-male Bullingdon Club, Johnson first worked as a journalist for The Times newspaper.

He was sacked for fabricating quotes, but later made a name for himself as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.

In that job he was among the first to peddle what have been collectively termed "Euro-myths" about bans on bendy bananas – a style of reporting about the EU, or simply bashing the EU, that became a staple of the British press.

London mayor

Johnson was elected to parliament in 2001, and was sacked three years later as Conservative arts spokesman for allegedly lying about an extra-marital affair.

But “Boris”, as he was known by then, soon bounced back and in 2008 was elected mayor of the multi-ethnic, usually left-leaning capital.

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

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

However, sceptics also point to expensive vanity projects such as a doomed "garden bridge" as proof his grand visions do not always translate into good governance.

He also faced stinging criticism for wasting more than £300,000 on three crowd-control water cannons that the government then barred from use out of fear that they were excessively heavy-handed.

'Least successful' diplomat

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

But as foreign minister, he was accused of purposefully dodging a key parliamentary vote on the infrastructure project after he hastily arranged a trip to Afghanistan.

May's decision to put Johnson in the Foreign Office was viewed as a canny move after she took power – to keep him close but at arm's length.

However, it was also a risky gamble to place British diplomacy in the hands of a man who once wrote about the Commonwealth's "flag-waving piccaninnies", among other lurid turns of phrase.

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

The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe strongly denies this and fears that the remark jeopardised her case. She is still in jail.

The Chatham House international affairs think-tank concluded Johnson was Britain's "least successful" foreign minister since World War II.

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

Brexit lies

The man who twice lost his job for lying is also closely associated with one of the more controversial claims made by the Leave campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum: that Britain would no longer have to make weekly payments of £350 million (€388m) to the EU.

Use of the figure, which was emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign's touring bus, was criticised as misleading because it excluded a budget rebate from Brussels as well as payments to Britain's public sector from EU coffers.

"Get that lie off your bus," Johnson was told by a rival during a TV debate.

His last-minute decision to support the Leave camp, and oppose then-Prime Minister David Cameron, cemented Johnson’s reputation as an opportunist in a long-running game of political chess within the ruling Conservative Party.

As Sonia Purnell, who wrote an unauthorised biography of the former London mayor, commented at the time, “Boris’s decision to opt for the Leave campaign means one thing – that he thinks this is his best shot at becoming prime minister.”

Before announcing his decision to back Brexit, Johnson famously prepared three separate articles for his weekly Daily Telegraph column – two arguing to leave, and another to remain in the EU.

His remain article, which was later uncovered by the Sunday Times, concluded: “This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms. The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our backs on it?”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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