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Boris Johnson: Britain's 'cakeist' Brexit leader

  • "Those who did not take him seriously were wrong," French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time.
Published January 1, 2021

LONDON: Boris Johnson is an unabashed believer in having his cake and eating it, and insists his big Brexit gamble has paid off as he leads Britain into life outside the European Union.

The UK prime minister's brinkmanship led to a last-minute flurry of votes in a hastily reconvened parliament to push an EU trade agreement through on Wednesday, after both sides signed it in the hours before a fast-looming deadline.

That deadline was 2300 GMT on Thursday -- the end of a post-Brexit transition period. Britain enters 2021 free of EU rules, although the rapidly deteriorating coronavirus pandemic hardly spells a happy New Year.

Nonetheless, Johnson was in celebratory mood as he fended off a BBC interviewer's insistence that Britain now faces the kind of problematic trade-offs in its future relationship with Europe that he said all along could be ducked.

Critics had said "you couldn't have free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU's laws (and) that that was having your cake and eating it", Johnson said.

"That has turned out not to be true," the former journalist added. "I want you to see that this is a cakeist treaty."

'World king'

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964, and his sister said as a child he wanted to be "world king".

He spent part of his childhood in the EU capital, where his father Stanley worked for the European Commission, and later attended the elite Eton school in England before studying Classics at Oxford University.

In his biography "Boris Johnson: The Gambler", released in October, journalist Tom Bower recounts the serial womanising that put paid to Johnson's two marriages and his casual relationship with the truth.

Johnson is believed to have at least six children, including a seven-month-old baby with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, 32.

But Stanley Johnson emerges most unsympathetically from the biography, with Bower relating how the young Boris witnessed domestic violence and suffered from emotional neglect as a child.

The future prime minister first worked as a journalist for The Times, where he was sacked for making up a quote, and moved on to become Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper.

There he made his name by writing "Euro-myths" -- exaggerated claims about the EU such as purported plans to standardise the sizes of condoms and bananas.

Interviewed later by the BBC, Boris Johnson likened his reporting to "chucking these rocks over the garden wall" into Britain and observing its "amazing explosive effect on the Tory party".

But his first few years in politics did not go smoothly -- in 2004, he was sacked from the Conservatives' shadow cabinet for lying about an extra-marital affair.

He rallied to become mayor of Labour-voting, staunchly pro-European London in 2008, an achievement commentators put down to his brazen refusal to respect convention.

Brexit promises

Johnson felt torn about which way to leap in Britain's 2016 Brexit referendum, famously drawing up a list of pros and cons for EU membership before throwing his considerable political charisma behind the "leave" campaign.

Johnson's popularity, and propensity for exaggeration, helped swing the bitterly divisive campaign, and he intervened last year to end the subsequent political paralysis under Theresa May by seizing control of the Conservative party.

After winning a thumping election victory in December, he was diagnosed in March with Covid-19 and ended up in intensive care, crediting two immigrant nurses with helping to save his life.

The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 72,500 other Britons, however, and Johnson stands accused of dodging hard choices after a long run of policy U-turns.

But on Brexit, he has stuck firmly to a hardline vision for Britain.

In 2018, he quit his role as foreign secretary under May over her Brexit plan, which sought to keep Britain in the EU's regulatory orbit as the price of economic stability.

When she resigned after failing three times to get her EU divorce deal through parliament, Johnson took over. Within six months he had renegotiated the deal, won an election and taken Britain out of the EU.

"Those who did not take him seriously were wrong," French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time.

But after promising to "get Brexit done" with an "oven-ready deal", Johnson has found the process of extricating Britain fully out of the EU's embrace during an 11-month transition period this year no easy sell.

The transition is finally over, and Britain will now learn whether Johnson's "cakeist" wager that the country will "prosper mightily" outside the EU will indeed pay off.


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