Boris Johnson: Britain's divisive Brexit champion

London (AFP) –


Boris Johnson persuaded British voters to back Brexit in 2016 and if exit polls are correct now has a chance to deliver, but he stands accused of Trump-style populism that risks further dividing the country.

The Conservative leader campaigned relentlessly on a promise to "Get Brexit Done", by finally taking Britain out of the European Union next month.

The exit poll, issued after voting in the general election ended on Thursday, suggest that his efforts to present himself as a strong leader who can end years of political turmoil have borne fruit, estimating a sweeping parliamentary majority for the Conservatives.

It indicates that Johnson, known by the public nationwide simply as "Boris", still has star power.

He was twice-elected mayor of multicultural, Labour-voting London, and in the 2016 EU referendum defied all predictions to lead the pro-Brexit campaign to victory.

But many liberals were alienated by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and exaggerated claims of the EU campaign, while his former career as a newspaper columnist has drawn sharp criticism.

He variously described gay men as "bumboys", black African Commonwealth citizens as "piccaninnies", and only last year, wrote that Muslim women wearing the full face veil looked like letter boxes.

Further comments unearthed in this campaign about "feckless" working-class men and single mothers prompted accusations that the Oxford-educated Johnson was out of touch.

But many supporters welcome his off-the-cuff style, bluster and untidy appearance as a welcome contrast to other politicians an age of polished soundbites and staged photos.

For others, the promise of some kind of closure to the endless debates about Brexit may have proved too hard to resist.

- Sacked for lying -

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964 into a high-achieving family of future politicians and media personalities.

According to his sister, Rachel, as a child he once aspired to become "world king".

Johnson made his name by playing to the crowd, filling his speeches with jokes and bluster, but is accused of being economical with the truth.

After attending the elite Eton boys school and Oxford University, he become a journalist for The Times -- but was sacked making up a quote.

As an MP, Johnson was later sacked from the Conservatives' top team for lying about an extra-marital affair.

Meanwhile in recent months he has been dogged by claims -- repeatedly denied -- that as mayor he gave privileged access to a US businesswoman who was allegedly his lover.

Twice divorced, and with five children, he has been living in Downing Street with his girlfriend, former Tory party staffer Carrie Symonds.

As foreign minister between 2016 and 2018 he was also accused of making a major error.

The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman held in Tehran for sedition, say he jeoparded her case by mischaracterising her job at the time.

- Brexit promises -

On Brexit, he has been accused of being dishonest with the public about the difficulty of untangling 46 years of integration with the EU.

Johnson had said he would rather "die in a ditch" than delay Brexit beyond October 31, but was forced to do just that after parliament blocked his plan to leave the EU without a deal.

But supporters note how, after becoming prime minister in July, he renegotiated Britain's divorce deal with the EU despite repeated warnings that it could not be done.

"Those who did not take him seriously were wrong," French President Emmanuel Macron said.

He now hopes to get his deal through in time to leave the EU on the next deadline of January 31, ending at least this phase of Brexit, even if many months, or years, of trade talks will follow.

But Britain remains divided over Brexit and many question his claim to be able to unite the country.

He expelled 21 Conservative MPs who warned his threat to leave the EU with no deal risked economic disaster, and packed his cabinet with right-wing figures.

Johnson insists however that he will govern as a moderate, inclusive "One-Nation Tory".

He points to his time as London mayor and his record of supporting immigration, as long as it is controlled.

He also rejects any accusations of racism, once describing himself as a "one-man melting pot" of Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage.

His great-grandfather Ali Kemal was briefly interior minister in the last grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire's government.