Boris Johnson: Britain's great Brexit gambler

UK PM Boris Johnson: Britain's great Brexit gambler

Johnson was known to favour the EU before the 2016 Brexit referendum, however, with the Vote Leave campaign, he changed his stance

UK PM Boris Johnson. Credit: AFP Photo

Boris Johnson is intimately familiar with Brussels. Now he is leading Britain definitively out of the European project, armed with a trade deal four-and-a-half years after launching the biggest gamble of his career.

The Conservative prime minister spent part of his childhood in the EU capital, where his father Stanley worked for the European Commission, and lived there again as a journalist in the 1990s when he was given to tall tales about bureaucratic skullduggery.

It was perhaps understandable if he felt torn about which way to leap in Britain's 2016 Brexit referendum, famously drawing up a list of pros and cons for EU membership before throwing his considerable political charisma behind the "leave" campaign.

Johnson's sway, and propensity for exaggeration, helped swing the bitterly divisive campaign and he intervened last year to end the subsequent political paralysis by seizing control of the Conservative party.

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If thus far politics appeared largely a charmed procession for a man with a flair for bombast and a colourful private life, he has been personally tested like never before by the Covid-19 crisis this year.

Johnson, 56, was riding high after winning a thumping election victory in December, and his initial response to the outbreak sent his popularity ratings soaring.

But he was diagnosed in March with Covid-19 and ended up in intensive care, crediting two immigrant nurses with helping to pull him through.

The pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 other Britons, however, and Johnson stands accused of lax leadership after a series of policy U-turns and, in the early days, inadequate preparation and testing.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964 into a high-achieving family, and his sister said as a child he wanted to be "world king".

After his early years in Brussels, he attended the elite Eton school in England before studying Classics at Oxford University.

In his biography "Boris Johnson: The Gambler", released in October, journalist Tom Bower recounts the serial womanising that put paid to Johnson's two marriages and his casual relationship with the truth.

Johnson is believed to have at least six children, including a seven-month-old baby with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, 32.

But Stanley Johnson emerges most unsympathetically from the biography, with Bower relating how the young Boris witnessed domestic violence and suffered from emotional neglect as a child.

The future prime minister first worked as a journalist for The Times, where he was sacked for making up a quote, and moved on to become Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper.

There he made his name by writing "Euro-myths" -- exaggerated claims about the EU such as purported plans to standardise the sizes of condoms and bananas.

Interviewed later by the BBC, Boris Johnson likened his reporting to "chucking these rocks over the garden wall" into Britain and observing its "amazing explosive effect on the Tory party".

The experience gave him a "rather weird sense of power", he said.

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But his first few years in politics did not go smoothly -- in 2004, he was sacked from the Conservatives' shadow cabinet for lying about an extra-marital affair.

He rallied to become mayor of Labour-voting London in 2008, an achievement commentators put down to his brazen refusal to respect convention.

Even for an unpredictable politician like Johnson, his choice to support Brexit in Britain's fractious 2016 referendum was a huge gamble -- and it took a while to pay off.

When his side won, he was viewed as an obvious candidate to take over as prime minister, but pulled out of the race after a key supporter betrayed him.

He was named foreign secretary under new premier Theresa May, but quit two years later over her Brexit plan.

When she resigned after failing three times to get her EU divorce deal through parliament, Johnson took over.

Within six months he had renegotiated the deal, won an election and taken Britain out of the EU.

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

But after promising to "get Brexit done" with an "oven-ready deal", Johnson has found the process of extricating Britain fully out of the EU's embrace during an 11-month transition period this year no easy sell.

The trade deal is finally done, and Britain will now learn whether Johnson's huge wager that it will "prosper mightily" outside the EU will pay off.