Not many people throughout history would be able to say that they’ve been told to “fuck off and die” by a British prime minister. But now, with Boris Johnson victorious in Tuesday's leadership contest, journalist Sam Leith has gained entry to that illustrious club.
Leith, then literary editor at The Daily Telegraph, commissioned and published a review of a Johnson biography that ridiculed the future prime minister as looking like he wore “a urine-coloured fright wig” and named his children. A “very cross” Johnson then sent an email to Leith that, the writer recalled, said something along the lines of: “I can’t believe you had anything to do with commissioning or publishing this but if you did you can fuck off and die.”
“I wrote back saying that I’d commissioned it in good faith and, as was usual, once a review’s commissioned we publish without fear or favour,” Leith explained to The Daily Beast. The journalist then signed off the email with: “Yours fucking off and dying.”
The anecdote—sure to make Leith a star attraction at dinner parties for at least the length of Johnson’s tenure—is just one example of Johnson’s erratic behavior. He’s prone to poorly considered outbursts, usually presented with a memorable turn of phrase, but also possesses the personal charm to end up back in the good graces of people he offends.
“I had a very gracious apology by return of email saying, basically: ‘Sorry: I blew my top and shouldn’t have,’” said Leith. “I thought it was kind of a reckless email for a sitting MP to send a working journalist and it was a flash of the well-attested temper, but I bear no grudge at all about it and (whatever my thoughts on his suitability as PM) we’ve generally got on well personally, so it was more like a temper tantrum than a giant falling-out.”
Johnson won the Conservative leadership election overwhelmingly. The results announced Tuesday morning showed that he won 66.4 percent compared to rival Jeremy Hunt's 33.6 percent. In a short speech following the announcement, Johnson admitted some will “question the wisdom” of the decision to make him prime minister.
Johnson’s premiership is not going to be boring, and not only because of the hellish ghost train that could come with his commitment to extracting Britain from the European Union, even if he fails to strike a new deal, by the October 31st deadline. Johnson has been one of the most controversial public figures in Britain for decades now—a once-amusing oddity who has become less and less funny as he’s inexplicably become more and more powerful.
Johnson first became known in the British establishment as a journalist who was renowned for ludicrous exaggeration and fired for fabrication. Having failed at that, he was forced to lower himself to becoming a Conservative member of Parliament, where he thrilled a public tired of boringly competent politicians with his disheveled turns on television game shows. His celebrity rose to the point where he was elected London mayor before going on to lead the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum—a choice widely believed to have been borne out of a love of publicity and power rather than any deep-seated beliefs. Following a brief and utterly disastrous stint as foreign secretary, somehow he’s stumbled into the most powerful office in the land.
The Daily Beast spoke to people who have worked with him over his colorful career. They largely split into two camps: those who think he’s one of the most arrogant, lazy, and unpleasant men who they’ve ever encountered; and those who he appears to have inspired great loyalty from who genuinely believe his strong personality is what’s needed to see Britain through Brexit and reunite the Conservative party and the public.
Ben Rooney, one of Johnson’s former colleagues at The Daily Telegraph, is very much in the former camp. Rooney’s description of Johnson is typical, saying he is a “convivial, amusing, self-deprecating” man, but one who has enormous flaws that make him appear to be an absolutely terrible candidate to be prime minister of a country which, despite its best efforts in recent years, remains one of the world’s most powerful countries.
“My overwhelming impression of Boris was a clever person pretending to be stupid, unlike most people who are stupid people pretending to be clever,” said Rooney. “Getting him to do work that he didn’t want to do was difficult. He was absolutely uninterested in detail, so you had to check his copy carefully as it would be full of minor mistakes. The big-picture stuff he would get correct, but the detail was often sketchy at best. Names and dates would be wrong. You got the impression that he was simply remembering it, rather than researching.”
Rooney stressed that his experience of Johnson was “a long time ago… and we all change,” but his description seems to be a near-exact match for much more recent experiences, and in jobs where Johnson’s lack of care for details resulted in worse problems than a stray name or date here or there. One current British government minister who worked with Johnson when he was foreign secretary told The Daily Beast that so uninterested was Johnson in detail that his civil servants eventually lost their patience with him and decided to subject him to a secret test.
“His civil servants prepared comprehensive briefing packs which were rarely used,” said the minister. “They began to insert odd material in the latter chapters to see if he ever raised any queries or concerns, but they remained untroubled by BoJo.”
Asked to describe what it was like to attend meetings with Johnson, the minister said Britain’s new PM is “like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, possessed of extraordinary charm and humor, and with a big brain unfortunately not always plugged in.”
Johnson’s time in the Foreign Office is now mainly remembered for the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British woman imprisoned in Iran over accusations of spying. Johnson said publicly she had been “teaching people journalism” in Iran, but her family maintained she was visiting relatives. Iranian officials seized on Johnson’s slip-up as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime,” harming her chances of release. The most recent reports on her well-being say that she had been chained to a bed for days while being detained in a psychiatric ward.
The case was cited in the first resignation of Johnson’s tenure on Monday, a day before he was announced as the new Conservative leader. Sir Alan Duncan, a colleague of Johnson’s in the Foreign Office, quit in protest of his impending premiership, adding in his resignation letter that he was “deeply upset that some fruitful discussions I had initiated about the possible release of Nazanin Ratcliffe were brought to such an abrupt halt.” He’s previously vowed to end Johnson’s career, and more resignations are expected after Johnson is officially prime minister.
But perhaps Johnson’s most brutal evisceration came from his former Daily Telegraph boss Max Hastings, who wrote: “For many of us, his elevation will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country. It can be claimed that few people realized what a poor prime minister Theresa May would prove until they saw her in Downing Street. With Boris, however, what you see now is almost assuredly what we shall get from him as ruler of Britain.”
Time and again, Johnson’s former colleagues paint him as a man who has the capacity to understand anything but decides not to out of lack of interest. However, Johnson isn’t despised by all of his former colleagues. The most successful part of his CV is his time as London mayor, when he was a relatively popular figure who was praised for his part in delivering the London 2012 Olympic Games. Although exactly what his involvement was—other than famously getting stuck dangling on a zip-line fluttering two Union Jacks—has been questioned.
His deputy mayor between 2012 and 2015, Victoria Borwick, told The Daily Beast that she didn’t recognize the ream of descriptions of her former boss as being inactive or liable to temper tantrums. She said he had a “light-touch” management style and was happy to let people and departments get on with their jobs if they were doing well, but would be intensely involved if he thought he wasn’t getting what he was promised or something was going badly wrong. She predicted that’s how he’ll manage his government from Downing Street.
“Boris didn’t have a temper at people, but at something not happening,” said the former deputy. “To raise your voice is fine but he wouldn’t be throwing and cussing and screaming at everybody. I’ve worked in offices over my life where people had to creep around in terror, it wasn’t like that at all. Absolutely not. Something would happen, someone would need to be spoken to, and he’d want to know what we were going to do about it to make it right.”
Borwick also disputed that Johnson is a lazy leader, saying, “I never found that if he needed to know the detail he didn’t make sure he knew it. He gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning, he reads his briefs, he reads his papers. He doesn’t cut corners.”
It has to be said that’s far from the experience of everyone from Johnson’s London mayoral office. Another of Johnson’s deputy mayors, Roger Evans, said he “very quickly learned to brief [Johnson] in less than five minutes, adding that “any longer was wasted time.” Another one of Johnson’s appointments while mayor, Brian Coleman, said he spent “half my meetings as his Fire Chairman telling him what I had told him at the last meeting.”
It’s obvious that Johnson can be personally charming and inspire loyalty from his teams but, based on the accounts of multiple former colleagues, that side of him is frequently drowned out by the part of his personality that is frustrating and carelessly offensive. For example, when he began reciting a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem on a trip to the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, which evoked the nostalgia of a retired serviceman looking back on his colonial service in the country. The recital was so embarrassing that the U.K. ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, was forced to stop him and deal with the subsequent diplomatic fallout.
Over his career, Johnson has also caused needless offense writing about “tank-topped bum boys,” African people with “watermelon smiles,” “piccaninnies,” and when he compared Muslim women who wear burqas to “letter boxes” and bank robbers, and predicted that the introduction of gay marriage would eventually lead to three men entering marital union with a dog. Whenever he’s asked about these comments, he tends to say they were taken out of context rather than apologize.
This man with such obvious gaping character flaws is who Conservative party members have now decided to risk everything on by promoting him to prime minister as the country hurtles toward some of the most critical decisions it’s made in decades.
“It’s a phenomenal job starting in an incredibly difficult position,” said Johnson ally Borwick. “I think it’s going to be very, very difficult. The next 100 days—until October 31—is going to require all of Boris’s little gray cells, or large gray cells, and he’s going to need to put a team around him who can not only deliver Brexit but reunite the party and the country.”
With Britain deeply divided, it does need someone to bring it together and wrench it out of Brexit paralysis. If that was entirely down to personal charm and wit, then Johnson would surely be the ideal candidate for the job. But whether he has the attention span to deal with the immense complexities of Brexit is a question keeping many, even those close to him, up at night.
Over the coming months, the prime minister has to find consensus, solve problems, and earn support. Telling people to fuck off and die is no longer an option.