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London's Popular And Populist Mayor Makes The Case For Leaving The EU

May 3, 2016
Originally published on May 5, 2016 8:09 pm

A crazy-haired populist born in New York is splitting his conservative party ahead of a hotly contested vote. He's wealthy but appeals to working-class voters. He's keen to point out President Obama's Kenyan roots. Lots of people call him by his first name only.

And he's not Donald Trump.

He's London's outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, a dual U.K.-U.S. citizen, ex-journalist, historian, author and comedy TV star. He's got an outsize personality, and a reputation for what the British call buffoonery.

"He's got a bit of a caricature look," says London commuter Karen Gilchrist, referring to the mayor's signature mop of white-blond hair. "He does seem to be engaged with his city. But also, he does have a habit of putting his foot in it," she says with a laugh. "A little bit akin to Donald Trump, probably."

On a recent day, Gilchrist was renting one of the so-called "Boris bikes" at a municipal bike kiosk on the edge of the River Thames. London's self-service, public bike-share scheme is nicknamed for Johnson, a bicycle enthusiast who presided over its 2010 launch, though it was in the works before he took office.

Johnson leaves the mayor's office this week, after two terms in office. He's still a member of Britain's Parliament, in the Conservative Party.

But he's broken with the party's leader and sitting prime minister, David Cameron, his old college buddy, to become a leader of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. As such, he took issue with Obama when he visited London last month and urged Britons to vote to stay in.

"I'm a big fan of Barack Obama, but clearly we have a disagreement," Johnson told reporters. "And I do think it's perverse that we're being urged by the United States to embroil ourselves ever more deeply in a system ... when the United States wouldn't dream of subjugating itself."

Johnson accused Obama of meddling, and wrote in a tabloid newspaper column that Obama dislikes Britain because of his Kenyan ancestry.

Obama is widely beloved in Britain, and within days, Johnson's E.U. exit campaign took a hit in the polls.

Future Ambitions

But Johnson himself remains one of the most-liked politicians in Britain.

"He makes us laugh," says Mark Lenaghan, a construction worker on a cigarette break in central London. "Well, [he's] a bit of a clown, really."

A clown who's willing to make a fool of himself to promote his city, something Lenaghan says he finds endearing.

During the 2012 London Olympics, Boris got stuck on a zip line over East London. He was left dangling 20 feet off the ground in a hard hat and harness, waving a Union Jack in each hand.

"Get me a ladder!" he joked to passersby below, waving his flags and smiling for photos.

Despite such antics — or perhaps because of them — Johnson remains an extremely popular figure in London. There's always been speculation about him having larger, nationwide political aspirations, about which he once famously said: "My chances of being prime minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars."

But many believe now might be the time, and that Johnson hopes to succeed David Cameron as Conservative Party leader, and prime minister. Cameron has said he will step down as party leader ahead of the next elections, currently expected in 2020.

The challenge for Johnson, says his biographer Andrew Gimson, would be to turn his goofy charisma into national poll numbers.

"They're very good if you ask people, 'Would you like to go to the pub or have a meal with Boris Johnson?' They're not so good if you ask members of the public, 'Would you like Boris Johnson to look after your personal finances.' He's not trusted to do that," says Gimson.

Unlike Trump, Johnson is not anti-establishment. He is the establishment — educated at Eton and Oxford, alongside Cameron, although they disagree on Britain's place in Europe.

Johnson is gambling his political future on the E.U. referendum in June. If the vote goes his way, he could someday replace his old classmate.

: 5/03/16

In the audio of this story, Boris Johnson is incorrectly referred to as the "lord mayor" of London, but he actually holds a different post. The lord mayor is the symbolic head of the much smaller (and ancient) heart of London, known as "The City," which now encompasses the financial and business district. Until Johnson steps down on May 5, he has the simple title of "mayor of London," a more political post responsible for the strategic governance of the entire British capital, usually referred to as "Greater London."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A New York-born populist with wild hair is splitting his conservative party ahead of a hotly-contested vote. He's wealthy, but many of his voters are working class people, and this is where I tell you we're not talking about Donald Trump. From London, NPR's Lauren Frayer has the answer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At a municipal bike kiosk in London, commuters like Karen Gilchrist use bicycles nicknamed for the city's mayor.

KAREN GILCHRIST: I'm just taking a Boris bike up to the shops on Oxford Street.

FRAYER: So why are they called Boris bikes?

GILCHRIST: I believe they were named after the Lord Mayor who introduced them but actually, (laughter) some people say that the ideas were in place before he came in.

FRAYER: That he is outgoing Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He's a blond, floppy-haired British politician, a dual U.S. citizen, an ex-journalist, author, and comedy TV star. He has an outsized personality and a reputation for what the British call buffoonery.

GILCHRIST: He's got a bit of a caricature look, and it's having that high profile. And he does seem to be very engaged with his city. But also, he does have a bit of a habit of putting his foot in it and stuff like that, little bit (laughter). Akin to Donald Trump, probably.

FRAYER: Boris - and absolutely everyone calls him by his first name - leaves the mayor's office this week, but will still be a member of parliament. He's also a leader of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, and took issue with America's president when he said Britain should stay in.

BORIS JOHNSON: I'm a big fan of Barack Obama, but clearly we have a disagreement.

FRAYER: Boris accused Obama of meddling, and wrote in a newspaper column that Obama dislikes Britain because of his Kenyan ancestry. Obama is widely beloved here. Within days, Boris' EU exit campaign took a hit in the polls. He turned down NPR's request for an interview. Boris remains one of the most liked politicians in Britain, in part because…

MARK LENAGHAN: He makes us laugh.

FRAYER: Mark Lenaghan is a construction worker on a cigarette break in central London. He calls Boris...

LENAGHAN: A bit of a clown, really.

FRAYER: ...Who's willing to make a fool of himself to promote his city.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: During the 2012 London Olympics, Boris got stuck on a zip line over East London, left dangling 20 feet off the ground in a hard hat and harness, waving a Union Jack in each hand.

JOHNSON: Get me a ladder.

FRAYER: Despite such antics, or perhaps because of them, Boris won two mayoral elections. Now, many believe he wants to become prime minister when David Cameron steps down. Boris' biographer, Andrew Gimson, says the challenge is to turn clowny charisma into national poll numbers.

ANDREW GIMSON: They're very good if you ask people, would you like to go to the pub or have a meal with Boris Johnson? They're not so good if you ask members of the public, would you like Boris Johnson to look after your personal finances? He's not trusted to do that.

FRAYER: Unlike Trump, Boris is not anti-establishment - he is the establishment. Educated at Eton and Oxford, alongside Cameron, although they disagree on Britain's place in Europe. Boris is gambling his political future on the EU referendum in June. If the vote goes his way, he could replace his old classmate as prime minister. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.