(CN) – The similarities are striking. They were both born in New York. They both have colorful hair styles and handsome girths. Both have led outrageous private lives. Both have fascinating, and international, biographies. Both are accused of being charlatans. Both come from privilege and are ruthlessly ambitious. Both came to prominence as liberals, libertines and TV personalities.
This comparison is between Donald Trump, the president of the United States, and Boris Johnson, the prospective next Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom. One rival politician likened Johnson to “Trump with a thesaurus.”
There are, of course, many differences between the two men, who also admire each other and say they are friends; but a similar political story unites them at this moment of deep crisis in both the U.S. and the U.K.: They came to power courting fringe right-wing ideas while also appealing to lower-income whites on issues like immigration and crime.
Johnson is a 55-year-old mop-haired and bright blond journalist-turned-politician from a colorful family of politicians, journalists and artists. Johnson is the oldest of a brood of children known for their bright white hair.
He now finds himself in the place where he has wanted to be for years: At the threshold to Downing Street in what would be a shocking moment for Britain.
Johnson, like Trump, is a deeply divisive person with a checkered past. He’s faced legal troubles over his spending practices, his professional conduct and allegations that he misled British voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum by misusing statistics that persuaded people to vote to leave the EU. In that campaign, he also used posters that were flat-out lies about how Turkey was joining the EU, and poised to flood Britain with immigrants.
“A demagogue not a statesman, he is the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years,” The Economist wrote in December of Johnson in awarding him the magazine’s “Idiot of the Year” award.
Johnson rose to worldwide fame when he became the mayor of London in 2008. At the time, he was viewed as a socially liberal, eco-friendly and more gentle Conservative politician. He cut a comedic, bumbling and likable persona. He promoted cycling and gay marriage and was on friendly terms with then-U.S. President Barack Obama.
After leaving the mayor’s office his focus shifted even more keenly on Downing Street. He ran and won a seat in Parliament for a second time in 2015. He arrived back in the House of Commons, where he had sat as a member prior to becoming mayor, at a crucial moment: His Tory party had called for a referendum to take place in June 2016 in which voters could choose to either remain in the EU or leave.
Famously, Johnson, who has long written newspaper columns even while serving in office, reportedly wrote two drafts of a column about the referendum: In one, he wrote in favor of remaining within the EU and in the other he argued for leaving.
He chose the path less trodden, and published the one arguing in favor of leaving – and in doing so became one of small group of Tory members who campaigned for leaving the EU.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron held the referendum in order to appease a vociferous section of the Tory membership angry over Britain’s membership in the EU – the so-called Euroskeptics.
Johnson had a long history of opposing the European project to unify, and pacify, Europe after World War II under a single and co-joined system of laws and rules designed to ease tensions, and trade, between countries that had been, catastrophically, at war with each other.
He came to this position through journalism: After graduating from Oxford, Johnson obtained a job as a correspondent in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, a Conservative newspaper linked to the old-school Tory party establishment, where he voiced the frustrations of a British elite and aristocratic class who feel that Britain’s participation in the European project undermines what is unique about England.
But his assignment to Brussels came about only after he was fired from The Times, another conservative newspaper, for allegedly fabricating quotes in a front-page article; he attributed the quotes to his godfather, a historian at Oxford University, where Johnson also studied after attending the exclusive Eton College boarding school.
In Brussels, he made a name for himself by vehemently criticizing the EU’s system and its politics. His colorful reporting was criticized for being riddled with inaccuracies, but back in Britain his journalism was making him a celebrity. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said he was her favorite journalist.
He was soon doing much more than writing columns and appeared on television and was busy writing and promoting books. He was good-looking, goofy and energetic: Britain fell in love with him.
Now Johnson will find out just how much love he still inspires three years after his Brexit campaign has led his country to the precipice as its Parliament has deadlocked over Brexit and threatens to bring down the government and even break the U.K. apart.
The Brexit result was ground-shaking and it has torn apart Britain. It’s seen as the country’s worst political crisis since the end of World War II.
Since the referendum Britain has been convulsed by how to separate decades of entangled interests with the EU.
The referendum result also threatens to cause the U.K. to become split up because voters in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales favored staying within the EU. Their votes were overwhelmed by large numbers of English angry at immigration from other EU countries, particularly those of Eastern Europe, and upset at the EU’s often tough rules.
Scottish politicians have vowed to push for independence in the event that Britain leaves the EU. Northern Ireland, too, could be split from Britain because of Brexit if politicians there push for an independence referendum.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU is of profound consequence: At the time of the referendum, European leaders feared Brexit would lead to Grexit (Greece leaving the EU), Italexit (Italy leaving) and so on.
As it has turned out, Brexit has done the opposite: Other countries toying with the idea of breaking away from the EU have come to realize just how complicated, and damaging, such a move can be.
In the three years since the Brexit vote, the Tories have been struggling to figure out how to disentangle Britain from the EU. After the vote, May was chosen to negotiate Brexit with the EU. But a 550-page deal she and the EU cobbled together was rejected three times in Parliament and eventually led her to resign on May 24.
Now, faced with a mess of their own making, the Tories appear ready to turn to the man who led the charge to leave the EU in the first place: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Johnson’s full name.
And Johnson is pledging that he will take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal.
“If I get in, we will come out deal or no deal on Oct. 31,” he pledges in a video when he launched his bid to become the Tory leader. Halloween is the new deadline by which Britain must either accept the EU’s withdrawal agreement or crash out of the bloc.
For months, Johnson and others on the right of the Tory party have said Britain can exit the EU without signing a deal and carry on trading with Europe using World Trade Organization rules to set tariffs. But this plan is considered unworkable by most economists and potentially disastrous for Britain.
Still, Johnson is the clear favorite to win the leadership contest of a Tory party where many of its rank-and-file are adamant about leaving the EU.
He picked up by far the most votes in a first round of Tory balloting and he’s expected to sail into the final round where he would, if he gets that far, go up against a single opponent.
But Johnson could bungle it all too.
He has a history of gaffes and bumbling mistakes, of laziness and sloppy habits. He also has a history of offensive remarks and questionable decisions to contend with. Johnson’s private life too is on the wild side with affairs and failed marriages. He’s also admitted to using cocaine and smoking cannabis in the past.
Still, he has an intriguing story with a former spy for a father and an artist for a mother of Russian Jewish descent.
His father, a man of Turkish roots, was a former MI6 agent and academic, writer and politician. He worked for the World Bank in an office dedicated to population control, and later as a bureaucrat in the European Commission. He also served in the European Parliament. But he is best known as a journalist and a prolific writer with numerous fiction and non-fiction books to his credit.
At the time of Johnson’s birth, his family was living in New York City because his father was studying economics at Columbia University. Johnson recently dropped his American citizenship, in part to bolster his credentials as a true Brexiter and Brit.
Trump has made it known that he wants Johnson to become the next prime minister. During a state visit this month to London, Trump brashly did away with political protocol and voiced his support for Johnson.
The next few weeks, then, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson will become just the kind of leader Trump wants in Downing Street: Someone ready to drop out of the EU and sign a wide-ranging new trade deal with the U.S.
But Johnson does not have the top job sealed up by any stretch. He faces five Tory contenders – all of them but one other Oxford University graduates – and several of them are showing themselves to be formidable debaters and personalities.
In recent days, an outsider named Rory Stewart has leaped into prominence with his warm style and logical political answers to how to solve the Brexit dilemma. Stewart is making a strong case to accept May’s EU deal and also engage with citizens by giving them more say in how Britain’s relationship with the EU should be.
And even if he does win Downing Street, it remains far from clear how Johnson would even be able to politically and legally exit the EU without a deal because Parliament has voted against that route.
One possibility would be for a prime minister to shut down Parliament to get Britain out of the EU without a deal, but that would be a highly unlikely path and could easily lead to the Tory government collapsing, which in turn would lead to new elections.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)