The man expected to be Britain’s next Prime Minister makes people in power, including himself, appear ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean he’d dream of handing power to anybody else.
In the spring of 1989, the Daily Telegraph sent Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Brussels to cover what was then the European Economic Community. Johnson, who was twenty-four, knew the city well. His father, Stanley, had been one of the first British bureaucrats appointed to work at the European Commission after the United Kingdom joined the bloc, in 1973. Johnson, his parents, and his three younger siblings moved to Belgium when he was nine years old, joining a sleepy community of expats. Johnson was a clever boy. He learned to speak French without an accent.
When Johnson returned, his father invited an experienced Brussels correspondent, Geoff Meade, to lunch at the family’s large house near Waterloo. Meade and his wife, Sandra, were having drinks when a taxi pulled up. “We hadn’t been led to expect anyone else so it was a surprise to see this outstandingly blond chap jump out in the loudest pair of Bermuda shorts possible. I’ll never forget it,” Meade recounted in “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition,” Sonia Purnell’s haunting biography, from 2011, of the man expected to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. “But it became clear over lunch that I had been invited there as the established hand to meet and help Boris.”
Purnell served as Johnson’s deputy in the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, and her portrait of the politician as a young reporter makes an indelible impression. At first, Johnson was lost. He had been fired from his first job in journalism, at the Times of London, for making up a quote about Edward II’s relations with a boy, which he had attributed to his godfather, an Oxford don. Johnson was disorganized and had few reporting skills. But he had a knack for comedy and a genius for spotting a counter-narrative. In a collection of his journalism, “Lend Me Your Ears” (2003), Johnson describes a free-market approach to trying out opinions: “There will always be someone ready to buck the conventional wisdom, ready to buy when the market is low.” Johnson realized that conventional British reporting on the procedures of the E.E.C. (which was renamed the European Union in 1993) was reverential, accurate, and dull. He went the other way.
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