Londoners love to grumble about overcrowding, but their mayor insists that the city’s rapid population growth should be celebrated. “In one week’s time, there will be a birth in a London maternity ward somewhere,” says Boris Johnson. “What we need is the wise men to gather around the crib with … I don’t know …” The Conservative politician, who is rarely at a loss for words, deploying them in great flurries, quickly finds a punch line: “Oyster cards!” The image of latter-day Magi bearing gifts of the mass-transit passes used by Londoners is deliberately absurd. Comedy almost always sugars Johnson’s serious intent.
The growing pains afflicting global magnet cities such as London and New York are certainly serious. At some point this year, the British capital’s population is expected to reach the highest level in its history, passing the previous record of 8.615 million in 1939. Looking out from his city-hall office at a skyline gaudy with recently built high-rises, Johnson acknowledges that every newborn Londoner means more pressure on housing and public services–as well as more nebulous worries about how different communities in this megacity get along or, as he puts it, “what kind of baby this is.”
“It is my job to show how all the anxieties about that baby can be answered,” he concludes. With under 15 months of his second mayoral term left to run, he has his work cut out if he is to leave London’s swelling and diverse populations feeling at ease with one another and within the city’s congested bounds. Failure could directly damage his chances of fulfilling other key parts of his mandate: to protect London against terrorist attacks and prevent further outbreaks of the rioting that flared on the city’s streets for six successive days in 2011.
Yet despite the scale of this task and a patchy record of matching aspirations to achievement, Johnson’s horizons extend far beyond London. His tousled presence masks an ambition that a former colleague–an admirer–describes as “pathological” and “voracious” and that David Lammy, a Member of Parliament who aims to secure the Labour Party’s nomination for the next mayoral contest, labels “ruthless.”
Friends and foes alike believe that Johnson’s ambitions will not be sated by his likely election to Parliament in the U.K.’s May 7 general elections. Johnson, 50, says he’s returning to Westminster to help his fellow Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron retain power. He is also the front runner to succeed him. Startling changes to Britain’s political landscape mean that moment may be close at hand.
The Great Blond Hope
Anyone who witnessed The Mayor of London shamble onto the stage at the close of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his shirttail working itself free as if with a mind of its own, will understand why until quite recently the prospect of Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson seemed remote, if not ridiculous. Now burgeoning numbers within the Conservative Party are avid to propel their disheveled hero to the top. The mainstream parties–the Conservatives, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Labour opposition–have lost public trust, political direction and clear dividing lines. Their weakness has created space for alternatives such as the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which topped the 2014 European parliamentary elections and won two by-elections, and the Scottish National Party (SNP), which last September fell short of achieving its goal of Scottish independence but deepened its base of support.
The SNP threatens a general-election rout in Scotland; UKIP looks set to steal seats in the heart of England. The Greens are surging too. The math suggests that Britons may wake up on May 8 to a deadlocked political system and the prospect of further elections if no viable coalition can be forged from the fragments of old certainties.
If this scenario comes to pass or the Conservatives are bumped into opposition, worried Tories see the possibility of salvation in Boris, a crowd pleaser known–like Bono, Rihanna and Madonna–by one name alone. He is by a hefty margin Britain’s most popular politician, easily besting not only Cameron but also Nigel Farage, UKIP’s joke-spewing leader, in a favorability index compiled on Jan. 17 by pollsters ComRes. Under the media spotlight, Farage’s hearty persona is showing cracks.
Johnson seems to be thriving, a politician made for the age of YouTube and Vine, a game-show regular and jovial ringmaster of the London Olympics. He was famously left twisting in the wind on Aug. 1, 2012, after a zip-wire ride to celebrate Team Great Britain’s first gold medal came to an unscheduled halt. “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip wire, it would be a disaster,” said Cameron later the same day, with more than a touch of jealousy. “For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph.”
Cameron and Johnson are alumni of the same posh school, Eton College, and of Oxford University. But while the Prime Minister’s upper-crust background distances him from ordinary voters, the mayor–who can trace his ancestry back to King George II–via some aristocratic slap and tickle, connects more easily.
That he does so is partly down to savvy acquired during a career as a journalist–though that savvy appears to come and go, much like radio reception in a hilly landscape, the way Johnson once described his belief in God. (“I think about [religion] a lot,” he says in conversation with TIME, “but it would be pretentious to say I was a seriously practicing Christian.”)
He still delivers a provocative weekly column to the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, for which he is paid just shy of $380,000 a year–a figure he dismissed in 2009 as “chicken feed.” Like many Boris blunders, this appears to have been forgiven or forgotten by the public. He has a talent for converting failings into characterful vulnerabilities. “He’s a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear,” Conrad Black, the ex-owner of the Telegraph, told the BBC.
A former colleague of Johnson’s, who asks to remain anonymous, remembers an editor joking that “Boris has to have three of everything”–lunches (Johnson often hops from one event to the next); women (his second marriage, to attorney Marina Wheeler, has endured since 1993, but he has been caught out in affairs and sired at least one extramarital child); and jobs.
“My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” Johnson likes to say. He first won a parliamentary seat in 2001 while continuing to edit the Spectator, a right-leaning current-affairs journal, and went on to author a comic novel and a book and TV series about the Roman Empire before winning office as mayor of London in 2008 and leaving Westminster. If he returns to Westminster in May–and he is contesting a seat on the outskirts of London that has chosen Conservatives since 1970–he envisages juggling his work as MP with his remaining year of mayoral duty.
As an opposition MP, Johnson may have spread himself too thin to shine brightly. He climbed only to the lower ranks of shadow government before being sacked in 2004 amid tabloid stories about infidelity. As mayor he has delivered some big projects, like Crossrail, a rail route under construction to run west to east across London, but has made smaller inroads against the city’s worsening housing crisis and has presided over rising transport fares. Despite the terrorism threat–raised to “severe” last August–police numbers are falling. Johnson’s decision last year to buy water cannons for deployment in case of fresh riots also hit a snag. They were not licensed for use on English streets. “They are in this country disguised as ice cream vans,” he says. “We’re confident that should the situation arise, authorization would be forthcoming pretty quickly.”
As the public face of London, however, he has proved resplendent. “He is the great actor-manager of our time,” says Sonia Purnell, the author of a 2012 biography of Johnson, Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition. “He is absolutely brilliant at seizing any opportunity to project Brand Boris.”
But what does that brand entail? Johnson found time last year to produce a book about Winston Churchill. Some of Johnson’s cheerleaders and several reviewers spotted echoes of the biographer in his portrait of a maverick who became the nation’s most storied leader. The book centers on the author’s assertion that “one man can make all the difference.” Does Johnson see himself as such a man? “My resemblance to Churchill is as great as my resemblance to a three-toed sloth,” he says.
Yet there are parallels–and not all of them flattering. Churchill had a reckless streak and malleable views, transferring his allegiance from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back again. At Oxford, though a Tory even then, Johnson won the presidency of the student union by allowing supporters of the Liberal Party and the centrist Social Democratic Party to believe him to be in broad sympathy with them. Some London Labourites who would never vote for Cameron backed Johnson in the past two mayoral elections, convinced that he was Conservative in name only. Unlike many Tories, he speaks up for the benefits that immigration has brought to the U.K., riffing on the “monochrome” capital city he remembers from the 1970s. “Terrible stale gusts of beer and desiccated bleached white dog turds everywhere,” he reminisces. “And old copies of [the sex magazine] Mayfair in bushes in the park.”
He is “definitely” a social liberal, Johnson says. His increasingly cosmopolitan attitudes on subjects like same-sex marriage (“I can’t see what the fuss is about”) also help him reach beyond traditional party lines. Those attitudes might be expected to alienate conservative Conservatives, but everybody loves a winner–especially one who has steered a clever course on the question most likely to tear Tories apart: Europe. It isn’t just that he has lulled many Conservative Euroskeptics into believing him of their number, even as Tories on the party’s pro–European Union wing feel reassured by Johnson’s internationalist outlook. (The latter have it right: the multilingual mayor is no Little Englander.) It’s that Johnson’s natural optimism is in such stark and seductive contrast to much of the angst around the possibility of the U.K.’s exiting the E.U.–the so-called Brexit.
“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” Johnson once told journalists confronting him over an imbroglio in his private life. The quote–from Voltaire’s Candide–aptly sums up his messaging on Europe. If re-elected, the Conservatives promise Britons a referendum on whether to stay in the E.U. or depart. A 2014 report that Johnson commissioned looked at how differently London would fare in the next two decades under those different scenarios. The report predicted that the capital’s economy would grow by $341 billion less outside the E.U.–yet Johnson characterized the findings as “a win-win situation.”
To TIME he says, “I think Brexit is possible … [Britain] would very rapidly come to an alternative arrangement that protected our basic trading interests. I must be clear. I think there would be a pretty testy, scratchy period.” But, Johnson adds, “it wouldn’t be disastrous.”
Watch Out, Washington
London’s mayor is carrying this reassuring message to the U.S. on a six-day, three-city trade mission. At one juncture, though, it looked as if his Feb. 8 flight into Boston might be met by officials from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Johnson revealed in November that he was refusing to pay an IRS demand for capital gains on the sale of his London home.
Johnson is liable for this tax under U.S. rules because he carries American as well as British citizenship. He was born in New York City, the second destination on his itinerary, and lived there and in Washington–the last city he’ll visit–until the age of 5. “The matter [of the tax bill] is now in hand,” he says. There will be no diplomatic incident. Reports suggest he paid.
Johnson’s dual citizenship does not mean the so-called special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. would be safe from shocks if he did make it to 10 Downing Street. He quotes, with relish, Churchill’s riposte to an aide who said, “We must kiss America on both cheeks.” “Yes,” said Churchill, “but not on all four.” (Churchill’s gag may in fact have involved France, but Boris isn’t a details man.)
Nor is the U.S. necessarily safe if Johnson fails to become Prime Minister. Might his restless ambition seek a new outlet in American politics? Johnson’s 1964 debut–in a hospital on New York’s Upper East Side–is too well documented to excite the suspicions of birthers. “I’d have to raise so much money,” he protests. “I’d have to find a party to join. Anyway, I’ve got plenty to do in London.” Such considerations rarely trouble Johnson for long.
This appears in the February 09, 2015 issue of TIME.