Date posted: 01/12/2016 7 min read

Boris Johnson talks politics, Gallipoli and Winston Churchill

London Mayor Boris Johnson on leadership, welcoming skilled Aussies and Kiwis to London, and Winston Churchill

In brief

  • Boris Johnson believes the UK should open the door to skilled Kiwis and Australians
  • Johnson is set to re-enter parliament in the 2015 election
  • Parallels have been drawn between him and the subject of his new book, Winston Churchill

By Steve Lewis
Photography by Platon/ Media

Boris Johnson wants to set the record straight. The often maverick, always entertaining, Mayor of London will not — repeat not — accept any comparison with Winston Churchill.

Sure the journalist-cum-politician has just written a sometimes fawning biography of Britain’s most famous Prime Minister. And, like Churchill, the man who some see as destined for national leadership is often linked with controversy, mainly of his own making. And yes, just like Churchill he has successfully made the transition from reporting to the dark arts of politics.

But an attempt at flattery, admittedly at the end of a phone line 17,000kms from London, falls on deaf ears that are hidden somewhere beneath his iconic mop of thick blonde locks.

“I wish, I wish,” he says modestly, when pressed on whether he sees any parallels. “There are no relevant comparisons between Churchill and any modern politician. We are not worthy to lift the latchet of his shoes.”

Just to reinforce the point, Johnson adds: “He’s a one-off and I personally bear more resemblance to a one-eyed pterodactyl than to Winston Churchill.”

Yet despite the firm rebuttal, it’s worth considering how much London’s Mayor resembles the man who saved Britain from the tyranny of Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Like Churchill, Johnson is prepared to fight for causes he believes in, no matter their unpopularity. Take for instance his attempts to free up Britain’s immigration laws to allow greater numbers of skilled Australians and New Zealanders to live and work in London.

The capital is already home to around 200,000 Australians and 30,000 Kiwis but the Mayor would love an open door policy. He argues for freedom of movement to help Britain, and especially London, fill a shortage of skilled workers. It’s a subject he’s passionate about and one that he’s directly raised with Australian PM Tony Abbott.

“I definitely think we should do it,” says Johnson.

“We have a situation at the moment where we have to recruit more people for our ambulance service and we are already going out to Australia to try and find more paramedics because they are the people who have the qualifications that we need.”

He says it is “bizarre” that Australians and New Zealanders face constraints while workers from European nations are welcomed.

I have sought to learn from the people of London who endlessly shout at me while I am on my bicycle about what they think is going wrong.

Back in the house

Still he’s not hopeful of winning popular support from a public who’ve twice elected Johnson as Mayor, in 2008 and 2012 (both times defeating former Mayor Ken Livingstone).

“I am afraid this is a pretty lonely cause, there is not much support (in Britain) for anything that involves making any immigrant’s life easier — which is a shame,” he says.

As the self-described “mere mayor” of London, Johnson is in no position to force through changes to immigration laws. But that chance may eventuate before too long. The 50 year old, who sat as the Conservative MP for Henley in the House of Commons from 2001 to 2008, has been pre-selected for the safe Tory seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip for the 2015 election (expected to be held in May). The scene is set for Johnson to re-enter parliament.

And with British voters fairly disillusioned with Prime Minister David Cameron and his government, there’s no doubt that many will be looking to Johnson to liven up proceedings.

So how does he define his own leadership skills? And how much has he sought to learn from Churchill’s “bullish eccentricity”?

“I have sought to learn from the people of London who endlessly shout at me while I am on my bicycle about what they think is going wrong – and that is what I have been doing,” he says.

Come on Boris. We can see the parallels, even if you can’t. In The Churchill Factor — How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Churchill: “No other politician has taken so many apparently risky positions. No other politician has been involved in so many cock-ups… flourishing in spite of them.”

Johnson too has flourished despite the odd cock-up or three. He was sacked from the shadow ministry in 2004 after lying about an extramarital affair. Earlier in his fledgling journalistic career, Johnson was shown the door by The Times for falsifying a quote.

And like his hero, Johnson has a fondness, almost a supernatural ability in fact, for self-publicity, and not always of a positive kind.

Olympian legacy

Who could forget his botched publicity exercise in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics when his attempt to glide across the stadium was cut short by a malfunctioning zip wire? Johnson was left stranded above the ground, waving two Union Jacks proudly and looking a prized clown.

Still it hardly dented his image and now, just over two years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, Johnson positively beams when asked about the legacy of this mega event on the east London precinct.

“It’s fantastic, that has gone very well,” he says, with characteristic bubble. “You should come and look at our Olympic Park. Every single place in the village is now inhabited. All the venues have been taken over by the private sector.”

Unlike Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, London’s main stadium is being used by a variety of sporting codes including rugby and football. It has also hosted international athletics and rock concerts.

Johnson is just as effusive about the wider Olympic precinct.

“We are building great, great things there. [University College London] is building a new campus there; the Victoria and Albert Museum is moving a new branch there, so extraordinary things are happening on our park and we are very pleased with it, but we were lucky in the sense that it was situated in exactly the right place because London is developing massively towards the east and the Olympic venues will benefit from all of that.”

While the Mayor has no concern that the legacy of the 2012 Games will be anything but marvellous for the city he presides over, critics say that he used the occasion for self-promotion, all part of a longer-term plan to build his profile and parliamentary career.

Just like Churchill, Johnson has parlayed his undoubted writing skills to promote his broader ambition.

And while he does not wish to engage in banter about his own ability, Johnson jumps at the chance to speak fondly of Churchill’s talents.

Channeling Churchill

“He was brilliant in a sense,” Johnson says of the man who he writes saved our civilisation by taking on and ultimately defeating Hitler.

“He melded his journalism with his military activity just to bring himself to public attention. He wanted to make a name for himself and the best way to make a name for yourself in late-Victorian Britain was to get out in some corner of the Empire and to get involved in a skirmish and have, you know, bullets zing over your head. He went to terrific trouble to organise this, and his mother probably slept with all kinds of generals to get him out to the places that he needed to go.”

In full stride, Johnson continues: “But then it wasn’t good enough to hope that he would be mentioned in dispatches. He needed to be able to write up the story himself. He got commissions from newspapers and so he was able to operate his own spotlight as it were, and illuminate the story but also discretely himself. He was like [19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin] Disraeli I am afraid in his shameless seeking of fame.”

Really Boris? Shameless self-publicist? Pot calling kettle anyone?

Still there is no doubting Johnson’s command of history, his ability to narrate a compelling story about Churchill, his feats and his flaws. Speaking of which, surely Gallipoli was Churchill’s greatest failure?

“It was an absolute disaster,” Johnson agrees. As first lord of the Admiralty, Churchill’s plan was to attack Germany’s ally, Turkey, through the Dardanelles — but by the time the operation was wound up in 1916, around 180,000 Allied casualties had been recorded and Churchill went into a deep funk, his so-called “black dog” period.

“Actually, when you look at Gallipoli now and you try and work out what the hell he thought was going to happen, it is pretty difficult to see how it could have worked under any circumstances,” Johnson says.

A hundred years after the blood and slaughter of Gallipoli, Allied forces are taking on a new enemy, the dark shadow of radical Islam, ISIL, and its campaign of terror in Syria and Iraq. So Mr Johnson, how would your hero fare if he was leading Britain today?

“I think two things. He would have been very tough in dealing with the security implications for Britain. As Home Secretary he would have been very tough on Islamic extremists. But whether that would have made him actually want to invade Syria and Iraq and put boots on the ground there — that I doubt.”

It’s a rare moment of indecision from Johnson who is destined to play an even bigger role in the British political scene in years to come, bringing his unique style of maverick self-promotion and leadership.

He will certainly enliven a somewhat bland landscape. Of that there is no doubt.

Steve Lewis is an author and journalist and a senior adviser with Newgate Communications.

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

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