Boris Johnson has forged an image of himself as a jovial, wisecracking mophead but after a few weeks as Britain‘s Brexit Prime Minister the winning smile gave way this week to a scowl and a wagging finger as his ruthless streak emerged.
Living up to his reputation as a high-stakes political gambler, Johnson, 55, is betting the house on forcing an election and regaining the parliamentary majority needed to carry out his plans to leave the European Union.
His main international supporter, US President Donald Trump, said Wednesday: “Boris knows how to win. Don’t worry about him. He’s going to be okay.”
Sarah Wollaston, an MP with the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrat party, is among those who have accused Johnson of “behaving like a tin pot dictator” rather than a lovable buffoon.
The journalist and MP came to power selling himself as the optimistic leader to end the Brexit crisis.
But within six weeks he has seen his Conservative party’s thin parliamentary majority disappear as MPs seized control of the parliamentary discussions on leaving the European Union.
Failure in the coming weeks could see him consigned to history as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.
‘Like North Korea’
Johnson sacked 21 Tory MPs from the party for voting against the government in a parliamentary vote on Brexit on Tuesday.
That showed a ruthless streak at odds with his easy-going image and triggered a backlash from some Tories and accusations of dictatorial behaviour.
“It’s like something out of North Korea,” one aide was quoted as saying by the Politico website.
Johnson’s earlier decision to suspend parliament for five weeks, seen as a bid to frustrate its attempt to delay Brexit, drove thousands of protesters onto the streets.
The former London mayor has in the past diverted criticism with quips which have veered into gaffes, drawing complaints of racism.
He was forced to apologise to the people of Papua New Guinea in 2006 after writing about “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”.
Four years earlier in a newspaper column he described African children as “picaninnies”.
People in the northern English city of Liverpool have not forgotten how he claimed that drunken fans were partly responsible for the 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy in which 96 football fans were killed. He accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in their “victim status”.
Johnson became a household name partly through appearances on the satirical television show “Have I Got News For You”.
Supporters see his star power as a political asset.
They hope his maverick approach will break the political deadlock over Britain’s exit from the European Union.
But he has long been a polarising figure, disliked by pro-EU voters as the figurehead of a referendum campaign marked by what they say were exaggerated claims about the EU.
He has also been criticised for his performance as foreign secretary.
“Where gravitas and grasp of detail were needed, Johnson supplied bon mots,” the Chatham House think-tank said.
Despite his own apparently socially liberal views — he has long backed gay marriage and advocated an amnesty for illegal migrants as London mayor — Johnson has also drawn accusations of “dog-whistle” politics.
His biographer Andrew Gimson said Johnson was not instinctively divisive but delighted in shocking the political establishment — not unlike US President Donald Trump.
Complicated love life
Born in New York in 1964, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has always been ambitious.
In 2008, harnessing his celebrity status to reach across the political divide, he was elected as mayor of multi-ethnic, Labour-voting London.
His first tilt at the Tory leadership in 2016 failed after his closest ally betrayed him, but he laid the groundwork for this year’s contest early.
Johnson resigned as May’s foreign minister a year ago in protest at her EU strategy, cementing his position as the champion of Brexit.
His campaign was only briefly derailed by headlines about a police visit to his home following a noisy row with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds.
It reignited interest in the love life of a serial philanderer who has married twice and has an unknown number of children.
Educated at the elite Eton school and Oxford University, Johnson started his professional life as a journalist for The Times but was sacked for fabricating quotes.
He became an MP in 2001, but was sacked as Conservative party arts spokesman in 2004 for allegedly lying about an extra-marital affair.