Who is Boris Johnson, Brexit champion and wannabe British PM?

A penchant for gaffes, extramarital affairs and fanning the flames of euroskepticism: Meet the man plotting to become Britain's next leader. Paola Totaro reports from London.

He has Turkish ancestry, was born in New York to English parents and spent a formative part of his childhood in Brussels, the son of an EU civil servant.

And yet today, Boris Johnson, this most cosmopolitan of English politicians, is the Conservative figurehead of Great Britain's chaotic withdrawal from the European Union and the man tipped to succeed Theresa May as prime minister after she steps down on June 7.

Christened Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, he is known to the British public simply as "Boris," recognized by a trademark mop of unruly blonde hair and a bumbling, gaffe-prone speaking style.

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DW News | 24.05.2019

May's exit over Brexit

For many years, commentators warmed to his eccentricities, including a passion for cycling, disheveled suits and a legendary lack of punctuality.

Voters forgave the political stunts — he was famously pictured dangling stranded on a zipwire during the 2012 London Olympics — and even his weakness for beautiful, smart women. (London's tabloids nicknamed him 'Bonking Boris' for a string of extramarital affairs.)

But as Theresa May has learned this year, it is dangerous to dismiss Boris Johnson as a clown.

The image of Johnson stuck on a zipwire underlined his proclivity for gaffes

Educated at Eton, the prestigious boys' boarding school that has produced a phalanx of British prime ministers, Johnson went on to study classics at Oxford University and speaks both French and Italian.

For decades, his childhood was described as idyllic, until last year, when his younger sister, Rachel — a well-known journalist and now anti-Brexit candidate for the European Parliament — revealed to London's Sunday Times that their mother, artist Charlotte Johnson, had been crippled by depression and "a galloping obsessive-compulsive disorder," which saw her hospitalized for long periods.

The young Boris and his three siblings were brought up by a nanny, described as a chain-smoking "tower of strength" who took the children on when their father, Stanley, secured a job as a civil servant with the European Commission.

Johnson was a journalist before he turned his attention to politics, although his career in media was also marked by controversy. His first proper job, with London's The Times, ended dramatically when he invented a quote from an Oxford history don who happened also to be his godfather. He was caught and sacked.

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A couple of years later, he was appointed Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph where, amidst predominantly europhile media colleagues, he identified an opportunity to make his name and sharpened his pen against the European Union.

In a scathing piece for the New Statesman in 2017, the former foreign editor of the Times, Martin Fletcher, wrote that Johnson's mission was to inflame euroskepticism and "debunk the EU at every opportunity," a practice that both made his name as a journalist and "helped change modern British history."

Snubbed by David Cameron

Johnson's well-documented, fierce ambition during his years in Brussels would also end his first marriage: 12 days after his divorce, he married Marina Wheeler, now a lawyer, who was then expecting the first of their four children.

His return to London quickly led to his appointment as the Telegraph's chief political columnist, regular TV appearances, the editorship of the Spectator and a return to parliament as MP for Henley in Oxfordshire.

However, an affair with a fellow columnist — hotly denied as "an inverted pyramid of piffle" — led to his sacking from the Tory shadow ministry and the first of several ejections from the marital home.

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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson is the bookmakers' favorite to become Britain's next prime minister. "BoJo" is widely tipped following stints as mayor of London and as foreign secretary in Theresa May's government. The 54-year-old has threatened to refuse to pay the UK's agreed debts to the EU unless the withdrawal agreement is changed.

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Michael Gove

A leading driver behind Brexit, Gove's leadership campaign took a hit when a new book was published revealing he had taken cocaine on several occasions when working as a journalist 20 years ago.

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Jeremy Hunt

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's chances improved as Gove's declined. The 52-year-old voted to remain in the EU and claimed he had spoken to Chancellor Angela Merkel about Brexit during the D-Day celebrations. He said she told him: "Germany doesn’t have a border with the Republic of Ireland, you do, so you need to come up with a solution."

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Sajid Javid

The son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver, Sajid Javid is the current UK Home Secretary (interior minister), a role for which he has received mixed reviews. He had a successful banking career with Chase Manhattan and Deutsche Bank before entering parliament in 2010. During the Brexit referendum, Javid was on the Remain side but — like Theresa May — was guarded in his support for the cause.

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Rory Stewart

Educated at Eton College — the same school attended by Boris Johnson and David Cameron — Rory Stewart is currently International Development Secretary. A former diplomat who trekked thousands of kilometers across the Middle East and South Asia, he also served as a senior official governing parts of post-invasion Iraq. Stewart is strongly opposed to Britain leaving without a deal.

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Dominic Raab

Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, the son of a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, said the possibility of sidelining parliament to force through Brexit should not be ruled out. He was widely mocked in 2018 when he said he "hadn't quite understood" how reliant UK trade is on the Dover-Calais crossing. Raab fell out of the race after getting 30 votes in the second round, 3 fewer than needed.

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Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock entered the race to replace the PM the day after her resignation. Although he campaigned for Remain during the referendum, Hancock has said he now believes Britain should leave the EU with a deal. Probably the most tech-savvy of the contenders, Hancock received barely enough support to continue after the first round of voting and opted to drop out of consideration.

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Esther McVey

Former television presenter Esther McVey declared her intention to stand long before May resigned. The vocal Brexit hardliner resigned as work and pensions secretary in November, protesting at the terms of May's withdrawal deal. She is no longer a contender after getting only 9 votes of 313 in the first round of voting.

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Andrea Leadsom

Leadsom quit as Leader of the House of Commons the week of May's resignation announcement. She came second in a leadership bid in 2016 but was criticized at the time for saying that being a mother would give her an advantage as prime minister after May had previously spoken of her anguish at not being able to conceive. Leadsom is out of the race after getting only 11 votes in the first round.

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Mark Harper

A former immigration minister and chief whip, Harper was behind the Home Office's "go home" message to immigrants printed on vans. He said it is not credible Brexit could be renegotiated and passed before the end of October. An outsider in the leadership race, Harper is no longer under consideration after he got only 10 votes in the first round of selection.

When former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had also attended Eton, was elected Tory opposition leader in 2005, he pointedly failed to reappoint Johnson to the shadow Cabinet, apparently infuriated by his colleague upstaging him at a party conference with some ill-advised, headline-grabbing comments.

In 2008, excluded by Cameron and with his journalistic opportunities drying up, Johnson threw his hat into the ring for the role of mayor of London.

Backed by Cameron's controversial Australian electoral strategist, Lynton Crosby (who wisely insisted his charge say little and keep a low profile), Johnson managed to wrest an increasingly left-leaning London from the Labour incumbent, leading the capital during the triumphant Olympics of 2012 and cementing his presence in the public's consciousness.

His ego and political ambitions whetted by a second term win as mayor, Johnson was installed in a safe Tory seat and quickly began sharpening the knives for the leadership.

Brexit as a career move

But it was his decision to throw his considerable weight and high profile behind Brexit, touring the country in a red bus to reassure voters of the benefits of leaving the EU, that would be seen as a political watershed in the wake of the shock referendum result in 2016. The subsequent resignation of Cameron became his ticket to stalk an increasingly beleaguered Theresa May. And despite a less than salubrious two-year role as foreign minister and widespread criticism of his opportunistic, divisive role in British politics in the wake of the Brexit vote, Johnson's eccentric electoral appeal is acknowledged by commentators from both sides of the political divide.

Johnson traveled the country in a bus to convince Brits to vote to leave the EU

Labour political strategist John McTernan agrees with his former boss, Tony Blair, that Johnson is the "right answer for the Tories."

"They need a candidate who can unite their party, out-Farage Farage [Nigel Farage is Brexit Party leader] and exploit the fact that [Jeremy] Corbyn is seen as unpatriotic by many Labour voters," he told Deutsche Welle. "When the Conservatives are crushed in the European elections, many Tory MPs will see Boris as the only man who can save their seats."

Professor Roger Eatwell, co-author with Matthew Goodwin of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, argues that Margaret Thatcher, not Johnson, was the most divisive major politician in Britain of the last 50 years and "she led the Conservative Party to three general election victories in a row."

"Boris's problem is that, whereas Thatcher was seen as having a new agenda — less state intervention, more free market, etcetera — Boris is seen as a latecomer to Brexit and rather slippery and overambitious," he told DW.

Boris Johnson, said his ministerial colleague Amber Rudd in 2016, is the "life and soul of the party — but not the man you want driving you home."

Whether the rest of the Tory party agree with her will soon become clear.