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Boris Johnson's Colleagues Viewed Colorful Politician As 'Too Unreliable'


So like a human Roman candle, Boris Johnson exploded into the Brexit debate, burned bright for the victorious cause of leaving the EU and this morning flickered out. As unpredictable events in British politics go, this one was extreme, but it kept a week of unforeseen events. And if anyone could be predicted to be unpredictable, it seems it would be Boris Johnson.

Andrew Gimson is a political journalist who wrote a biography of the former mayor of London and joins us from London. Tell us about this man - first the odd fact that he was born in New York City.

ANDREW GIMSON: He was born in New York City. His father was on a fellowship in the states, had already got married to Boris's mother, who was still a student at Oxford but took a year off to accompany him. And yes, he was born in a place called the Clinic in New York City.

So as a young man, I think he seriously wondered whether he should attempt to be president of the United States rather than the prime minister of Great Britain. Just at the moment, it looks as though he may achieve neither of these ambitions.


SIEGEL: I think for Americans who've only seen brief glimpses of Boris Johnson, the impression is someone who starts over the top and then goes even higher. That is, this isn't somebody of great reserve or restraint when he speaks.

GIMSON: No, he makes a connection with the public by not being the typical English gentleman who has very good manners but who won't allow you to glimpse his emotions. You do see his emotions. You do see a kind of vulnerability. He sort of lets people into his life in a strange sort of way. So he is a very unusual figure in British politics.

The problem he had, I think, in this election was that he - in the end, his fellow members of Parliament, some of whom are rather jealous of his celebrity status - they decided in the end he was he was too unreliable and too impossible to control.

SIEGEL: Well, having written about this man and followed his career for so long, do you think he's now cut out for a quiet life in the back benches of Parliament as a rather junior Conservative member, or is there a second or third act coming? What would you say?

GIMSON: I think there's a second or third act coming. Though Boris is always an unpredictable figure, but he won't go quietly away. He may well try, I think, to behave in a responsible fashion so that if whoever gets the prime ministership falls ill or fails in this very difficult renegotiation with Europe, then Boris will still be available. And perhaps then it will turn at long last to him as its savior.

SIEGEL: This morning when Johnson (laughter) gave a speech that up until what he called the punch line could have very well been his announcement - I mean, it sounded like that, I assumed to (unintelligible).

GIMSON: It could have been. In retrospect, there were one or two clues that it wasn't. First of all, he hadn't come in through the front of the hotel where all the cameras were waiting, and he's not usually shy of being filmed. Secondly, he told one or two jokes in that speech, and I think when he goes into statesman mode, he's more inclined to cut out jokes. And thirdly, a lot of it was about his record as mayor of London, which is probably not something you would particularly emphasize if you're going for a national office.

But nevertheless, when he actually got to the punch line, I was suddenly taken completely by surprise. So were most of Boris's supporters. It was a real - a really theatrical, really dramatic moment.

SIEGEL: Yes, it was sort of...

GIMSON: People did gasp with astonishment.

SIEGEL: The man who, the man who, the man who - and it's not me. I'm not the one.

GIMSON: Especially as he's a fighter because I mean, some years ago when he was in a different set of difficulties, he was interviewed, and he ended that by singing a song. I don't know how well it's known in America. It's known quite well over here. It's by a group called I think Chumbawamba, and the lyrics are, I get knocked down, but I get up again; you're never going to keep me down. And that's (laughter) - that's why I don't think Boris will go quietly off into the distance.

SIEGEL: The song must be very well-known here because I even know it, and that's...

GIMSON: Oh, even you know it. Well...

SIEGEL: ...A very high bar.

GIMSON: Exactly, exactly.

SIEGEL: Andrew Gimson, political journalist and author of the biography of Boris Johnson called "Boris: The Rise Of Boris Johnson," thank you very much for talking with us.

GIMSON: Thank you so much for having me.


CHUMBAWAMBA: (Singing) I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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