When Boris Johnson was in New York city a few years ago, surrounded by a scrum of photographers trying to take his picture, he spotted a girl walking towards him.
Fascinated by the scene, she stopped and he heard her utter the crushing line: “Gee, is that Trump?”
As Donald Trump begins his State Visit to the UK, his closeness to Johnson - physically, politically, temperamentally - is the new plotline in the long story of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the two countries.
While Trump will be formally the guest of the Queen and hosted by Theresa May in Downing Street, many suspect he will also have a private meeting with the man tipped to become the next British prime minister.
With May having dramatically announced her resignation over her failure to get Brexit passed by a deadlocked parliament, Johnson is the bookmakers’ hot favourite to replace her in just a few weeks’ time.
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He’s also a favourite of Trump. The president paid a lavish tribute to Johnson during his ‘working visit’ to Britain last summer.
Standing alongside May at a press conference in the historic grounds of her Chequers country residence, he said Johnson was “a very talented guy” for whom he had “a lot of respect”. Johnson had only a week earlier walked out of her government in protest at her compromise Brexit plan.
At the time, May’s painted-on smile tightened into a grimace as Trump tore up diplomatic decorum. “I was very saddened to see he was leaving government,” he said. “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
On the eve of his latest trip, Trump broke protocol again, coming close to giving Johnson his official endorsement in the race for the next Conservative party leader. “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players,” he told the Sun newspaper. “I think he would be excellent. I don’t know that he is going to be chosen, but I think he is a very good guy.”
Trump and Johnson have so much in common that it’s not difficult to see why they would get on famously, or why the American public may get them confused. (The case of mistaken identity near Central Park didn’t happen just once, it happened three times on Johnson’s trip).
Their superficial similarities are obvious, not least the fact that both have almost comical, blond hair that has become their trademark. Both were born in New York, Trump in Queens and Johnson in Manhattan (where his father was completing a Harkness fellowship).
The pair share a talent for self-promotion, and for turning their celebrity into raw political impact, in a way that repels and fascinates in almost equal measure.
Andrew Gimson, author of the biography ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’, says that the former Mayor of London and foreign secretary has a connection with Trump that few British politicians can achieve.
“There’s a reason why Trump has got where he is: he’s a great performer, always putting on a show of some sort. Boris too is a performer, he wants to amuse people, be interesting. They would recognise they are similar people in that sense,” Gimson says.
“Another connection is that they both gain from being despised by and from annoying a lot of smart, metropolitan people and that really shows their supporters they must be doing something right. Annoying stuck-up, liberal hypocrites is a kind of revenge for them.
“They are anti-establishment disrupters, they shock the so-called grown-up people who think politics has to be done in a very solemn way, that you couldn’t ever announce anything in a tweet. Neither Boris nor Trump are dull.”
There is artifice in their art too. Trump trades on the contrived reality TV image of a successful businessman, even though many of his commercial ventures have turned into epic failures.
Johnson has also spent years carefully crafting his public ‘persona’ of a bumbling, dishevelled gaffe-prone innocent, when in reality he is a ferociously ambitious and competitive individual.
The act, which began during his Oxford student days, has endeared him to many Tory party activists, many of whom think he has a rare gift for putting a smile on their faces. His trademark ruffling of his messy hair was as familiar as his risque jokes and rhetorical flamboyance.
But those who have followed him for years have spotted just how manufactured the performance really is. Sonia Purnell, author of another biography ‘Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition’, worked with Johnson when they were journalists in Brussels in the early 1990s.
“He’s a great actor, he’s a showman. The whole ruffling the hair thing was about making sure he didn’t seem too ambitious. The ‘gaffes’ weren’t really gaffes, they were scripted,” Purnell says.
Once, during the Conservative party conference in 2007, guest speaker Arnold Schwarzenegger was waiting to come on stage as he heard Johnson speak. “He’s fumbling all over the place,” the Hollywood actor said, sotto voce, although a mic picked up his remark.
But as Purnell points out, Arnie was just another fooled by the Johnson act. “The rambling was written into his speeches,” Purnell says. “It was carefully rehearsed and he would ramble in exactly the same way the next day, to another audience.”
A year later, Johnson rammed home his advantage, declaring: “It was a low moment, my friends, to have my speaking style denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg.” The audience couldn’t stop laughing.
Johnson’s desire to be funny, or provocative, has often returned to haunt him. His previous columns as a journalist have caused outrage among his critics, not least when he veered into racial slurs.
In one Daily Telegraph column, he joked about “flag-waving piccaninnies” greeting the Queen abroad, adding that when Congolese armed fighters meet Tony Blair they “will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird”. Johnson has since apologised, but his friends argue that his irony and sarcasm is taken too literally.
The ‘I-was-only-joking’ defence is a device frequently invoked by Trump too, whenever his own outrageous remarks spark a backlash.
From saying “I love Wikileaks” during the 2016 campaign, to praising police brutality in 2017, to this week saying he wanted to stay in office for “at least 10 or 14 years”, the president and his spokespeople have swiftly explained it all away by saying he wasn’t being serious.
There’s no question that Johnson and Trump revel in their ability to shock and see political incorrectness as a weapon to fuel the populist surge that thrust them both into prominence. In Trump’s case it led to him becoming president, in Johnson’s case it helped him lead the Brexit uprising in 2016.
That willingness to be rude to opponents, including those in big business, is a hallmark of both. While the president ignores corporate America’s fears of a trade war with China, his British friend exploits a similar disconnect between the ‘working man’ and those who fear his politics leads to economic chaos.
At a private reception to mark the Queen’s birthday, Johnson was asked about employers’ fears that leaving the European Union could damage British jobs in the car-making and aviation industries. “Fuck business,” he replied. His opponents have tried to hang the quote around his neck ever since, including in the Tory leadership race, but he appears to wear it as a badge of pride.
For Trump and Johnson, the guiding rule seems to be Oscar Wilde’s famous line that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. Narcissism in politics is hardly a rare quality, but both have taken it to a new level.
Brian Coleman, the former chairman of the London Fire Authority, said that when Johnson was Mayor of London he took little interest in detail - another classic Trumpian trait - and was more obsessed about his public image than policy.
Coleman recalled a briefing during the 2009 G20 London summit, when President Obama was in town, hosted by then-PM Gordon Brown. “The police were very worried we were going to have riots from protestors. Boris was getting a briefing on the policing and his eyes glazed over, he wasn’t interested.
“Then he was told that if things got out of control, Obama would be evacuated down the Thames by boat. Suddenly, Boris said ‘Yes, yes, but when do I appear on television to reassure the nation?’ This is in front of senior police officers, terrorism officers. He was gently told that between him and the prime minister, it was probably the PM would take that role.”
His biographer Gimson dug out a telling letter that Johnson’s headmaster at Eton College had written to his father when he was a pupil. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” the head complained.
Much more damaging than the naked self-regard is a perception that both men don’t just dissemble like other politicians, they actually lie. Trump’s lies are so well documented that the New York Times catalogued every one of them in 2017 (he said something untrue every day for the first 40 days of his presidency).
Johnson’s ‘big lie’ is that he said voting for Brexit would result in £350 million a week extra in funding for the NHS, based on the inaccurate claim that the UK ‘sends’ that sum to the EU. The claim, posted on his Vote Leave campaign battlebus, has now landed Johnson in court facing charges of ‘misconduct in public office’.
The former foreign secretary’s previous lies have led to two significant sackings in his career. He was fired from The Times newspaper for inventing a quote while working in Brussels.
He was later sacked as a shadow minister by then Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about having an affair while married. Johnson had described tabloid reports as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”, but when Howard discovered the MP had been “less than frank” he summarily dismissed him.
And when it comes to women, the similarity with Trump is notable. Although Johnson has never harassed or assaulted any of his partners, he is certainly “sexually incontinent”, as one former aide put it. Petronella Wyatt, whose love affair led to his removal from Howard’s team, said that Johnson once told her: “I find it genuinely unreasonable that men should be confined to one woman.”
Like Trump, his marital infidelity has not affected his base of supporters. Stories of ‘bonking Boris’ abound, but unsurprisingly Trump plays down Johnson’s philandering. “Well, it always matters, but I think that it’s certainly not what it was 20 years ago, and not certainly what it was 50 years ago. I think today it matters much less,” he told the Sun.
Never comfortable with powerful women, Trump may well prefer the macho, ‘best bloke’ mateyness a Johnson premiership offers.
Yet when it comes to seduction of his political colleagues, Johnson, like Trump, is less successful. One of the reasons that he failed to win the Tory leadership in 2016 was that he couldn’t get enough fellow MPs to support him.
Strangely, in Johnson’s case some of this stems from shyness. Purnell says that he finds it difficult to empathise one to one.
“I remember talking once to this woman a former female aide whose job it was to drive him around a lot. She found it absolutely excruciating because he didn’t utter a word and there were these awkward long silences. She wasn’t interesting to him, she wasn’t powerful, I guess,” she said.
“Someone else said she’d invited him to a dinner party at her house and he was so horrified at the prospect of having a one-to-one conversation with someone next to him that he offered to give a speech to the whole party, in someone’s house.
“The difference is when he’s trying to get someone into bed, then he’s in a different mode and then he does this thing of making you believe you’re the only person in the world. That same kind of charm is presumably what he will try to unleash on Trump. He will want to massage Trump’s ego and that’s a way of getting through to him.”
And despite the current warm relations, Johnson knows that he had to work hard to cosy up to the president. When he was mistaken for Trump on the streets of New York city a few years back, his reaction was one of horror, not delight. “It was one of the worst moments,” he said at the time.
In 2015, Johnson saw the Republican contender as a real danger. “I am genuinely worried that he could become president,” he said. In December that year, he criticised Trump’s claim that a Muslim travel ban was needed because cities like London and Paris had “no-go areas” that were “so radicalised that police are afraid for their own lives”.
Johnson was withering. “Donald Trump’s ill-informed comments are complete and utter nonsense. I think he’s betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of President of the United States.
“I think Donald Trump is clearly out of his mind if he thinks that’s a sensible way to proceed, to ban people going to the United States in that way, or to any country.”
For good measure, he added: “The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”
But as it became clear that Trump could defy the odds and actually win the presidency, Johnson changed tack very quickly and the long wooing process began in earnest.
It was Brexit that gave the pair a common bond, with Trump fascinated by how the blond Englishman rivalled even Nigel Farage in the tub-thumping stakes.
Johnson’s swipe at Barack Obama, for suggesting the UK outside the EU would go to ‘the back of the queue’ in trade talks, was fed back to Trump Tower. So too was his borderline racist suggestion that the “part-Kenyan president” harboured an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
Once Johnson became foreign secretary in the summer of 2016, he quickly began working on how to engage with a Trump White House.
In November that year, after Trump’s victory, he called for an end to the “collective whinge-o-rama” about the president-elect, and refused to attend an EU foreign ministers’ gathering convened to discuss worries about the new White House.
While Angela Merkel made plain her distaste, Johnson tweeted his congratulations and said he was “much looking forward to working with his administration on global stability and prosperity”.
He was rewarded with a meeting with the president-elect’s transition team in Trump Tower in January 2017, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, as well as Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and Steve Miller, his speechwriter and policy aide.
Johnson had got a foot in the door even before Theresa May’s formal visit to the White House that month. And when Trump surprised May by announcing his controversial Muslim travel ban within minutes of her leaving Washington, Johnson used his new-found contacts to try to minimise its impact on the UK.
One former aide said that after an exchange of texts, Johnson was phoned personally by Kushner, who confirmed the executive order could be ‘clarified’ to make clear it would not affect Brits including Olympian Sir Mo Farah. It was not an ‘exemption’ as such, but meant dual nationals would be protected.
That month, Johnson told Labour critics in the House of Commons that to “pointlessly demonise” Trump would have been counter-productive.
“Most fair-minded people would say that that actually showed the advantages of working closely with the Trump administration, the advantages of having a relationship that enables us to get our point across and get the vital protections for UK passport-holders that they need.”
Johnson proved less successful in attempting to curb Trump’s move to abandon the Paris climate change accord or the Iran nuclear proliferation agreement.
Yet in July that year, he heaped praise on the White House for its foreign policy boldness, again criticising Trump’s predecessor in the process.
“When you look at how the Americans responded to the Syria crisis, they’ve been more hardline against the Russians than the Obama administration was,” he said. “Actually, the Americans responded to the barbaric massacre on April 4, when up to 100 people died in a chemical weapons attack, by kinetic action, which the Obama administration never did.”
Even on the vexed issue of Russia, Johnson cut Trump some slack. “Is it fitting and right for the president of the United States to have any kind of personal relationship with Mr Putin? Well, I think, actually, that it is.”
The wooing worked. When Trump attended the UN in September 2017, Johnson was one of the few friendly faces he saw on the international stage. Before his speech, he stopped and greeted him warmly.
During their first meeting that year, Trump actually acknowledged their similarities. Johnson later joked in a speech in Australia: “He said, rather mystifyingly, how often he was mistaken for me, which I thought was a low blow.”
Given the encounter with that girl on the streets of New York, it was not ‘mystifying’ at all. But Johnson couldn’t resist his trademark self-deprecation.
The engagement continued the following year. When Johnson visited the US in May 2018, he had done his homework beforehand. A FoxNews piece just weeks earlier had suggested Trump deserved a Nobel peace prize for his work on engaging with North Korea.
The British foreign secretary went on the morning news shows, including Trump’s favourite Fox&Friends, to declare: “If Trump can fix North Korea - and the Iran nuclear deal - then I don’t see why he’s any less of a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama.”
The president certainly didn’t ‘fix’ the Iran deal, and in fact proceeded to pull out of it, causing serious fears of destabilisation in the region that continue to this day. It was a clear example where flattery can boost Trump’s ego, but in the end do nothing to change a mind that has been made up.
Johnson was increasingly frustrated by his own problems at home in getting the right kind of Brexit. And at a private dinner he was recorded saying that he was “increasingly admiring” of the president, adding “you might get somewhere” if he - rather than May - was leading the negotiations with Brussels.
“Imagine Trump doing Brexit... He’d go in bloody hard…There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.”
Despite the disdain of his colleagues for cosying up to the ‘crazy’ president, there was method in Johnson’s apparent madness too. Comparing May unfavourably to Trump was one way to persuade Tory MPs he was as oppposed to a ‘soft Brexit’ as they were.
In early July 2018, Johnson laid the compliments on with a trowel. “Donald Trump’s approach to politics has been something that has gripped the imagination of people around the world,” he said. “He has engaged people in politics in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time, with his tweets and all the rest of it.”
Just three days later, Johnson quit May’s government. The following week, when Trump stood next to the prime minister at that Chequers press conference, he was delighted that Johnson had expressed his admiration for his negotiating skills. “He’s been saying very good things about me as president. I think he thinks I’m doing a good job. I am doing a great job.”
Johnson admires the way Trump sets clear goals and sticks to them, though some civil servants suggest that’s in stark contrast to his record at the Foreign Office.
The former Mayor is even learning from Trump’s dapper dress sense. For years, he was notorious for ill-fitting suits, for wearing ties askew and shirts dangling outside his trousers. In recent months, he’s had a haircut, lost weight and smartened up.
There are undoubtedly some big differences between the pair, not least their intellect and education. While Trump has an infamous problem with remembering simple names of people and places, Johnson has an incredibly sharp memory, and can recall whole passages of conversation between himself and others he met years earlier.
He can recite whole scenes from movies (Apocalypse Now is a particular favourite), sing in German and joke in French. His first love is, however, the Classics.
In a particularly revealing moment, former fellow Oxford student Harry Mount once recounted how Johnson told a charity event The Joy of Latin just why he loved the language.
“The thing about Latinate words is they’re evasive,” Johnson said. Quoting from Apocalypse Now, he referred to the assassination order given by an intelligence officer: ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. It was “a terrific bit of Latinate English. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice’ is a much more elusive order than ‘Kill him.’”
“Boris has a genuine love of Latin and Greek literature and a knowledge of them,” biographer Gimson explains. “But he does have a very wide range, he’s keen on action films, downmarket things as well as high culture.
“Similarly, Boris does have a genuine feeling for the environment, he’s pro-bicycle. But he’s also pro-fast car as well. That’s slightly unusual to like both. We bicyclists usually think cars are going to kill us and are just going to destroy the planet.
“The point is that Boris is quite generous about people, on the whole he doesn’t write people off. On the whole, he’s fairly tolerant. He would be shocked by some of the things Trump says, like when he said that because that judge [Gonzalo Curiel] was Mexican he couldn’t be fair. I don’t think Boris would like that, but of course he wouldn’t say it.”
On migration more broadly, Johnson has described himself as “the most pro-immigration politician in Britain”. Theresa May has in the past criticised his proposal for an amnesty for illegal migrants, something Trump would never do. Yet during the EU referendum, he didn’t do anything to dispel the fiction that David Cameron would allow 70 million Turks to come to the UK.
The price for Johnson’s success in the Vote Leave campaign has been a sharp rise in the number of people who want him nowhere near power. Whereas he was scorned as a mere clown beforehand, he is now viscerally hated by many. Presciently, pro-Remain campaign grafitti in Bristol during the EU referendum campaign (main picture) forecast a Trump-Johnson kiss should Brexit triumph.
For some, he’s left his liberal credentials behind. His description last year of women who wear burkas as resembling ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ was a Trump-style provocation. That, plus his comparison of being in the EU with wearing a ‘suicide vest’, was the final straw for Guto Harri, his former communications chief at City Hall.
“Over a period of time Boris did move from celebrity to statesman [when he was Mayor of London],” he told me. “Now he’s gone the other way he’s become more tribal, tribal within the tribe. So that if he were to become leader he would be a divisive figure.”
Perhaps his biggest difficulty within the Tory party is a distrust of his motives.
And some of that may stem from the fact that he didn’t actually expect to win the Brexit referendum. Harri believes that Johnson had merely acted out the role of a Leaver, in the expectation that he would then be in pole position to succeed Cameron as the man to bring the party back together.
Just as Trump began his presidential bid with a distant hope of getting to the White House, Johnson started his Vote Leave campaign thinking it would be an heroic defeat. His shocked and subdued expression the day after the Brexit results, looking for all the world like an accidental victor, was all too visible.
He has confided to friends that he feels a “deep sense of personal responsibility” to deliver Brexit as prime minister. Although he has been uncharacteristically quiet since May resigned, some believe that one of his biggest gambits in the Tory leadership race will be to finally pledge to deliver that £350m extra a week on the NHS.
For some Brexiteers, it’s all too damning that he wrote two alternative newspaper columns - one pro-EU and one anti-EU - before opting to publish the one advocating Leave. In the US in recent days, some on the ‘alt-right’, and even FoxNews, have described Farage - rather than Johnson - as the real deal.
Last week, the President heaped praise on both the former foreign secretary and on Farage, the leader of the new Brexit Party which recently won the European parliament elections in the UK.
“Nigel Farage is a friend of mine, Boris is a friend of mine, they’re great people,” he said. “They’re two very good guys, very interesting people. And I think they’re big powers over there, I think they’ve done a good job.”
As ever, Trump is keeping his options open, not least as Farage now thinks he has a shot at shaking Britain up at the next general election.
The president’s recent disdain for Michael Gove is another reminder of how quickly politicians can fall out of his favour. Gove was the first British journalist to interview Trump after his victory. The pair posed for photos, Gove wrote a glowing piece and declared “intelligence takes many forms”.
But after Gove last week accused Trump of ‘sabre-rattling’ over Iran, Trump bristled with indignation. Asked by the Sun if Gove was one of the candidates who had asked for his endorsement for Tory leader, he said firmly: “No he wasn’t”.
Others believe that if he does become prime minister, Johnson will rapidly repeat the errors he made both at City Hall and at the Foreign Office.
He was so unprepared for winning the London Mayoralty that his first few months were a chaotic round of hiring then firing various deputies and aides. Just as Trump has gone through a string of officials, Johnson’s administration was a shamble until rescued by an experienced chief of staff.
“There’s the wooing and the winning, and then it falls apart,” says Purnell. “The whole thing about Johnson was that he would provide ‘the bubbles in the champagne’. He was supposed to be a retail ‘chairman’ rather than chief executive. He wasn’t either. It scares the living daylights out of me to think of him forming a Cabinet because he’s not good at selecting people.”
But as Trump prepares to arrive in Britain, perhaps what both he and Johnson have most in common is that their critics now suffer from protest fatigue. The anti-Trump demonstrations in London will try to make a noise, but are not expected to be as huge as they were last year.
Similarly, the objections to Johnson have begun to fade among his fellow MPs. He’s worn them down, just by doggedly keeping going.
So he and Trump may turn out to be the newest best pals act on the global stage. For many of their critics, the only real ‘special relationship’ each of them have is with their own ego.
It won’t be long before Johnson reminds everyone that he was a New Yorker, born if not bred. In recent years, he renounced his American citizenship, amid fears of double taxation.
But prior to that, he once appeared on the David Letterman show and couldn’t resist reaching for the sky. “I suppose I could be president of the United States,” he said. “You know, technically speaking.”
He and Trump will want the last laugh. Yet already for millions, the joke isn’t funny any more.