Europe Politics

Here's what we know about new UK PM Boris Johnson and what he means for Brexit

Key Points
  • Boris Johnson is to be the U.K.'s next prime minister but the charismatic and controversial figure already divides the party and British public alike.
  • Johnson — full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — rose to prominence in British public life when he was mayor of London from 2008 to 2016.
  • He took a pro-Brexit stance ahead of the 2016 U.K. referendum on EU membership.
Boris Johnson just won the race for United Kingdom's prime minister
Boris Johnson just won the race for United Kingdom's prime minister

Boris Johnson, the U.K.'s next prime minister, is a charismatic and sometimes controversial figure that already divides his own party and the British public alike.

Johnson was announced as the winner of the ruling Conservative Party's leadership race on Tuesday, winning 92,153 of the party membership's vote, making him both leader of the party, and the U.K.

Here's a brief summary of the colorful background of the U.K.'s new leader.

Who is 'Boris'?

Johnson — full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (and widely known just as "Boris" in the British media and public) — rose to prominence in British public life when he was mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, although he had been a member of parliament (MP) for the Conservative Party since 2001 after a checkered career in journalism.

Johnson himself was born in New York and had both American and British citizenship before renouncing the former in 2017. It's widely reported that Johnson said as a child that his ambition was to be "world king." He has a colorful family history with links to European and British aristocracy and is descended from King George II.

Johnson studied at the prestigious Eton College private school and then Oxford University and was a journalist before entering politics. His career in the media was mired in controversy when he was sacked for fabricating a quote. He later went to work as a journalist in Brussels where he became infamous for his euroskeptic reporting on the European Commission.

MP Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt participate in a Conservative Leadership televised debate on June 18, 2019 in London, England.(Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)
Jeff Overs | BBC | Getty Images

Later becoming a politician and London mayor, he then took a pro-Brexit stance ahead of the 2016 U.K. referendum on EU membership. It is widely speculated that Johnson was undecided about which side to support before declaring that he was supporting the 'Leave" campaign.

Following former Prime Minister David Cameron's resignation after the referendum result in June 2016, Johnson was appointed as foreign minister in Theresa May's government. He resigned from that position in 2018, however, in protest at May's approach to Brexit. Some ministers have already said they would resign is Johnson became prime minister, including Finance Minister Philip Hammond. Johnson is likely to replace the current top team of ministers.

Controversies and gaffes

Johnson is no stranger to a public gaffe, in fact, his rise to prominence (and popularity among right-leaning Conservatives) might in no small part be attributed to his attention-grabbing, unfiltered comments on a wide variety of topics that have often got him into trouble.

When working back in London as a journalist in 2002, Johnson prompted controversy writing an article about a prime ministerial trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in which he used racist terms. He recently apologized for those remarks but has made other controversial comments over the years, cementing his public persona as somewhat eccentric, gaffe-prone, and buffoonish (a persona only accentuated by Johnson's unruly mop of blonde hair) — although many have questioned how much of the buffooning is real, and who is the real Boris.

Critics say Johnson is unsuitable for high office because of his previous comments; he was accused of Islamophobia after saying Muslim women wearing burkas looked "like letter boxes." He once said Hillary Clinton looked like a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital" and dismissed Donald Trump before he became president in 2016.

When Trump said in 2015 that some parts of London had become so radicalized that police fear for their lives, Johnson retorted that "the only reason I wouldn't visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump." But Johnson has since become closer to Trump, and the U.S. president said he would do a "great job" as prime minister.

When Mayor of London, Boris Johnson got stuck on a zip-line during BT London Live in Victoria Park on August 01, 2012 in London, England.
Barcroft Media | Barcroft Media | Getty Images

There have been many moments of levity provided by Johnson who has been known to play the fool — the image of Johnson stuck dangling from a zip wire when promoting the London 2012 Olympics is one that is indelible in many Brits' minds.

Elsewhere, his over-exuberance on the sports field led to him flooring a 10-year-old Japanese boy in a game of street rugby in Tokyo, and bulldozing a former international German footballer in a friendly game of soccer.

What about the B-word?

There is undoubtedly one topic that is sure to give Johnson a headache as soon as he takes office and that's Brexit, an issue that cost Johnson's former boss, Theresa May, her job as prime minister following repeated parliamentary rejections of the Brexit deal she struck with the EU.

Johnson has been one of the most vociferous supporters of leaving the EU, although many have questioned his motivation and belief in Brexit. One unpublished article he penned (before he declared support for leaving the EU) showed him arguing in favor of remaining in the bloc. The story prompted criticism that his support for Leave reflected personal ambition rather than the country's interest.

But attention is now on what the Brexiteer — who has criticized the U.K'.s approach from the sidelines since quitting government — will do with what has become a prolonged political mess with no obvious solution that can unite a polarized political establishment and public.

Newly elected leader of the Conservative party Boris Johnson leaves Conservative party HQ in London, after it was announced that he will become the next Prime Minister.
Stefan Rousseau | PA Images | Getty Images

He has already caused a stir by saying that the U.K. must leave the EU by the October 31 deadline "do or die, come what may" even if that meant leaving without a deal in place.

A "no-deal" Brexit is seen by many inside and outside of parliament as a "cliff-edge" scenario to be avoided at all costs. Leaving without a deal in place would mean an abrupt departure from the EU with no transition period allowing businesses to adjust to life outside the bloc.

There have been widespread fears that Johnson could try to bypass (or prorogue) Parliament in order to push through Brexit without opposition lawmakers having their say. Johnson will have to see how the government's wafer-thin majority — only provided by a staunchly pro-Brexit party in Northern Ireland — lasts under his leadership. Northern Ireland, and its future relationship with the EU and position in the U.K., is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a deal being approved.

On top of that, Johnson will have to deal with a rebellious and divided Parliament and a chasm in public opinion between the 52% who voted for Brexit, and the 48% that didn't (and all those in between that have since changed sides).

John Penrose, MP for Weston-super-Mare and minister of state to Northern Ireland, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" Tuesday that the new prime minister would "have to help the party heal and lead the country to heal."

"Those wounds from three years ago — those are still there. We can't carry on like this, it's been three years we've got to get through it," he said.