- Boris Johnson has been labeled “Britain Trump” by the president.
- There are many similarities between the two men.
- Both are natural entertainers with long histories of controversy and talent for winning public attention.
- However, Johnson’s political instincts are very different from the president’s.
- Here’s how Johnson’s premiership is likely to play out.
- Visit Business Insider’s home page for more stories.
“We have a really good man who is going to be the prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson.” That was US President Donald Trump’s assessment on Tuesday of the man who just won the contest to replace Prime Minister Theresa May.
He added: “They call him Britain Trump.”
As Trump himself appears to have realised, there are many similarities between the two leaders.
"We have a really good man who's going to be the prime minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson. He's tough, he's smart… they call him Britain Trump"
Donald Trump compares himself to the new Tory leader, saying he'll do "a good job" as PM
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) July 23, 2019
Both are blond-haired entertainers with an eye for a headline.
Both rose to prominence through their appearances on television: Trump through hosting “The Apprentice” and Johnson for his shambolic guest appearances as the host of the topical quiz “Have I Got News for You.”
Both have a record of making offensive comments about minority groups: Trump for his recent comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar and other Democratic congresswomen, and Johnson for his past comments labeling gay men “bumboys,” Muslim women “letterboxes” and “bank robbers,” and black Africans “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.”
Both also have a reputation for telling mistruths. Johnson was famously sacked twice for lying: once as a junior journalist at The Times and once for falsely denying an extramarital affair while a Conservative MP.
Both, too, have become prominent figures in the rise of nationalist politics in the west: Trump for his “America first” rhetoric and Johnson for his role in the campaign for Brexit.
Yet while these similarities have led many, including Trump himself, to label Johnson as “the Britain Trump,” there are actually substantial differences between the two men.
A closet liberal?
In many respects Johnson’s politics are significantly more liberal than Trump’s.
Unlike the president, Johnson was once one of the strongest advocates for a liberal immigration policy in the UK.
While mayor of London he repeatedly called for an amnesty for undocumented migrants living in Britain. And unlike his rival for the premiership, Jeremy Hunt, Johnson in recent weeks has resisted calls to explicitly stick to May’s commitment to dramatically bringing down immigration in the UK.
And while Johnson is perhaps best known around the world for his advocacy of Britain leaving the European Union, he has not always been a champion of nationalist politics.
Indeed, before joining the Brexit campaign, Johnson repeatedly argued for Britain to remain tied to Europe.
“I would vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market,” Johnson told the BBC before the EU referendum campaign began.
“I want us to be able to trade freely with our European friends and partners,” he said.
Boris Johnson speaking before the referendum: "I would vote to stay in the single market. I'm in favour of the single market." pic.twitter.com/UCeifCf0dC
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) October 2, 2016
He was previously even more explicit, telling the House of Commons in 2003 that “I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union.”
Johnson has since shifted very much to a more hard-line position, insisting he will take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal on October 31.
However, many of the pro-European Conservative politicians who backed his campaign for prime minister are convinced that he will quickly shift back to the centre now that he has secured the support of the party membership.
A radical nationalist or just a natural crowd-pleaser?
The shape-shifting nature of Johnson’s politics means that even those who are closest to him remain unsure of exactly the kind of prime minister he will be.
Will he follow through on his hard-line campaign rhetoric and manufacture the hardest possible exit from the European Union, or will he make yet another sharp left turn from the Conservative Party membership and instead concentrate on winning over the country?
Left to his own devices, as he largely was in London City Hall, Johnson’s first instinct is to be a crowd-pleaser. Never happier than when playing the clown, Johnson is masterful at using a comedic photo opportunity to win over the electorate. Whether it’s his staged mishap hanging from a zip wire during the London Olympics, or his recent speech waving a fish around on stage, Johnson knows the power of a good stunt.
Yet with the growing crisis of Brexit refusing to go away, such stunts will have diminishing returns. Unless he can find a way of taking Britain out of the EU without tearing his own party and the British economy apart, then no amount of fish waving or zip-wire hanging will save his premiership from an early end.
However, the instinct to please remains strong within him. Forced to choose between pleasing his party members or pleasing the country, Johnson will likely opt for the latter.
But the question of what will actually please his voters is a difficult one to judge.
Most Conservative Party and Brexit-supporting voters want Britain to leave the EU – in Johnson’s words, “do or die.” But a chaotic exit that triggered food shortages and thousands of job losses would be an incredibly difficult way for Johnson to start his premiership and could lead inevitably to his premature exit from Downing Street.
And yet securing a managed exit, given the red lines he has campaigned on and the resistance of the EU, also looks all but impossible.
Boxed in between the impossible and the undesirable, Johnson will need all of his political strengths to find a way out. But just like Trump in his own tricky upcoming battle for reelection, Johnson’s chances of succeeding cannot yet be ruled out.