Boris Johnson: London’s maverick mayor who could lead UK out of EU – CNN

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Brexit: In or out?

Britons will vote on June 23 in an “in or out” referendum on its membership in the EU.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has struck a deal with the bloc’s leaders to give the UK “special status” and is pushing for Britain to remain a part of the union under the improved terms.

But his campaign was dealt a broadside Sunday when Johnson — who also is a member of Parliament in Cameron’s ruling Conservative party — announced his support for the “Vote Leave” campaign.

Johnson’s backing will give the campaign to leave the EU a valuable figurehead, Gimson said.

Known for his sense of humor, befuddled demeanor and eccentric charm, Johnson is perhaps Britain’s most popular politician, with appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

His announcement had an immediate impact on currency markets, with the pound falling against all major currencies on Monday morning.

Cosmopolitan ‘Euroskeptic’

Gimson said he expected Johnson to be a considerable asset to the “Vote Leave” campaign — someone who was able to communicate the moderate case for leaving Europe without sounding like a “mad or obsessive” xenophobe.

Unlike some of the stereotypical “little Englanders” seen as backing the vote to leave, Johnson has a cosmopolitan background, with a family tree stretching back as far afield as Turkey, Switzerland and Russia, and incorporating Muslim, Jewish as well as Christian ancestors.

Johnson was born to English parents in New York, and his father was a member of the European Parliament; Johnson spoke to reporters Sunday of his love for Brussels, the city he once lived in as a correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. (The Belgian capital is also the headquarters for the EU.)

“He’s not an old-style ‘Euroskeptic’ who takes his own tea bag with him when he gets on the channel ferry to go to some place full of ghastly foreigners,” Gimson said.

“He’s very good at putting the moderate case and speaking of having a relationship with Europe — he just doesn’t want Europe to be telling us what to do.”

Eye on becoming prime minister?

Beyond the referendum, Gimson said, Johnson’s move is also about positioning himself to become prime minister — a post he has long coveted — when his term as London’s mayor ends this year.

“He knows that even if his side loses the referendum, he will win a lot of hearts and minds within the Conservative Party.”

The referendum will pit two of Britain’s most powerful, influential politicians against each other, rekindling a longstanding rivalry between Cameron and Johnson — who are both former pupils of elite private school Eton and belonged to the same exclusive “dining club,” the Bullingdon Club, during their days at the University of Oxford.

“People would think that because they went to the same school as each other they must be similar kinds of people — they aren’t at all,” said Gimson, who describes the pair having a “jokey rivalry.”

“They’re on friendly terms, but they’ve never been friends. They would hate the idea of going on holiday with each other, for example.”

The two men have markedly different temperaments, Gimson said.

“Boris is a ‘merry England conservative’ who feel instinctively disrespectful of the rather solemn-minded people running the show,” he said.

Cameron, on the other hand, “is essentially an insider, born into the establishment. He’s the voice of responsible compromise, while Boris is the voice of irresponsibility.”

‘Wrestling match’

In his biography “Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson,” Gimson reports an incident early in Johnson’s first term as London mayor when he and Cameron held talks about major redevelopments to London’s transportation system.

Cameron entered the meeting with a briefing from the Treasury detailing how much he could offer, how much he could offer if pressed and the absolute maximum Treasury could contribute.

Johnson snatched the document, and the pair proceeded to have a “wrestling match” for possession of the paper, Gimson said.

“Both Boris and Cameron have described this to me — Boris claims he won the wrestling match and Cameron claims he won,” he said.

Mayoral diversion

During Johnson’s first stint as a member of Parliament from 2001 to 2008, Gimson said, he tried to work his way up in Cameron’s administration by being the type of “reliable, self-effacing team player” that the Prime Minister liked to have around.

“But it didn’t really work,” Gimson said, adding that Johnson was “temperamentally” unsuited to the role.

His ambition thwarted, Johnson then turned his attention to “the great popularity contest” that is the London mayoralty, winning twice in what was considered to be a Labor-leaning city.

With his mayoral term due to end this year and having said he will not run again for the office, Johnson re-entered Parliament in last year’s election and clearly has his eyes on greater things.

‘He feels intellectually more capable’

Johnson, said Gimson, “undoubtedly considers himself to be a great deal more gifted” than Cameron, and is widely perceived as being out for his job.

“I think he feels the clock ticking — he’s two years older than Cameron. If he doesn’t have a crack … now, he’s unlikely to ever get a better opportunity.”

To Gimson, Johnson’s sense of his greater abilities stems back to their schooldays, where the mayor developed a dazzling intellectual reputation.

“I think he feels intellectually more capable. Here is a man with a knowledge of Latin and Greek who actually reads books for pleasure,” he said.

Johnson outshone Cameron for years — first at Eton, then Oxford, and then as The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent.

Johnson quickly became an influential voice for his Euroskeptic writings, “lobbing bricks over the wall and hearing the crash of glass on the other side.” He went on to become editor of British magazine The Spectator.

By contrast, Cameron made his professional name working as a political insider “totally unknown to the general public.”

Signature style

It was also during his schooldays that Johnson began to develop his signature performance style — one that has become a hallmark of his public appearances.

“He realized it was more amusing to give a performance which wasn’t immaculate and where you sometimes appear to forget your lines than to do something smooth and immaculate.”

Johnson is said to muss his mop of blond hair before public speeches, giving him his trademark unkempt appearance, and is not afraid of being laughed at — or even of appearing buffoonish.

In 2012, in a promotional appearance for the London Olympics, he rode a zipline only to become stuck, dangling comically in his suit with a British flag in each hand. Pictures of the malfunction went global.

In Gimson’s estimation though, Johnson succeeded in upstaging Cameron during the games, London’s big moment on the international stage.

Now he’s looking to do the same as the UK faces a historic fork in the road, with even greater things at stake both for himself and the country.

It’s an all-or-nothing play, Gimson said, and Cameron will likely waste no time in encouraging the widely held perceptions of Johnson as self-interested and reckless.

“Boris is not really a team player,” he said.

“He’s a leader, and either his party and the country will accept him as leader, or he’ll be in the wilderness.”

Boris Johnson: London’s maverick mayor who could lead UK out of EU – CNN