After months of turmoil and uncertainty, the United Kingdom finally has its new prime minister. Boris Johnson resides in 10 Downing St. and is now undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in the world. Of the 55 Britons to hold the position of prime minister, he already ranks as one of the most colorful.
Johnson combines a larger-than-life personality with a politically incorrect sense of humor abhorred by his opponents but loved by many on the political right. He’s been derided by leftist critics as a “buffoon,” and his lifelong leadership aspirations were laughed off and ridiculed as fantasy by the British press and even some Conservative members of parliament. To top it all off — literally — Johnson sports a devil-may-care tousle of bright blond hair.
The quick take from many in the press is that Johnson is a sort of “British Trump”—albeit shorter (5-feet-9-inches to Trump’s 6-feet-2-inches). More accurately, Johnson has more in common with both Winston Churchill and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Though few men dead or alive can compare to Sir Winston Churchill, Johnson bears more similarities with Britain’s wartime leader than at first glance. Both leaders have an American connection — Churchill, on his mother’s side (Lady Churchill was from Brooklyn, New York), and Johnson himself was born in the Upper East Side of New York City while his father was studying at Columbia.
As it was with Churchill, Johnson shares a firm grasp of the vital importance of the friendship between the American and British peoples and seeks to restrengthen the bond. If the new PM can renew the Anglo-Alliance to even half of its former glory under the Thatcher-Reagan years, he will have done the free world a great service.
In their youth, Churchill and Johnson both attended boarding schools known at the time for their harsh punishments and spartan expectations — Churchill at St. George’s, Ascot; Johnson at Ashton House, Essex. Like Churchill, Johnson has faced dissent from within his own party, been labeled a “maverick,” developed a populist image despite his elite educational background, and sought to be Britain’s leader since his childhood. Additionally, the two men cut their political teeth as burgeoning journalists, both having some of their earliest material published in The Daily Telegraph.
While humbly downplaying any comparisons between himself and his political hero, Johnson’s praise for Churchill is unabashed, and his knowledge of the cigar-toting icon is impressive. In 2014, Johnson wrote an affectionate biography of Churchill, which earned excellent reviews. Despite the book coming out almost five years ago, it currently reigns as the No. 1 best-seller in U.K. prime minister biographies on Amazon — no small feat considering the more than 1,100 books already out on Churchill.
Johnson has memorized long passages of Churchill’s speeches and can analyze them in marked detail at the drop of a hat. His analysis of Churchill’s writing style is spot on. Notably, Johnson regularly uses the same stylistic tactics. He will, like Churchill, follow long, verbose sentences with curt, punchy codas.
In his writing and his speeches, Johnson also shares Churchill’s love for the tricolon rhetorical device. Johnson’s first official speech as PM contained the lines: “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters — they are going to get it wrong again,” and “we must now respect that decision and create a new partnership with our European friends — as warm and as close and as affectionate as possible.” At the close of his speech, he added one more: “No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country.”
In the Likeness of Gingrich
Johnson’s command of historical knowledge is the first of many assets he shares with Newt Gingrich. The product of a classical education at Eton, Johnson went on to study classics at Oxford focusing on classical philosophy and ancient literature. His familiarity with Roman, Greek, and British history is reminiscent of the wealth of knowledge Gingrich has of America’s past.
Both Johnson and Gingrich have a knack for referencing historical stories in their interviews and writings. Their use of arcane anecdotes and quotes means when they answer a question, you never truly know where they’ll take you. Regardless, the journey there is usually captivating.
Along with their political writings — nine releases for Johnson, 20 for Gingrich — both have published books demonstrating their vast command of history. In 2006, Johnson published “The Dream of Rome,” a sweeping account of the Roman Empire with lessons on political unity. Gingrich has written or co-authored alternate history books on the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, as well as current events.
Gingrich’s effort to bring recognition to the role of God in America’s founding is matched by Johnson’s passion for the study of Western Civilization, the great books, and classical literature. In a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Johnson said, “I genuinely believe that it is tragic if we ignore the roots of our civilisation … it makes me weep. … [T]here is a virtue and a beauty in these subjects which should be disseminated across all schools.” When asked if he would mandate compulsory Greek in British schools if he became PM, Johnson answered, “God! If I could! I can’t understand why people would object.”
At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising — the Guardian interview ended with journalist Lynn Barber quipping, “Somehow, I don’t see Boris Johnson ever becoming Prime Minister.”
On a personal level, Johnson and Gingrich both had their marital challenges aired out in public. Gingrich is now happily married to his third wife, Callista (now the U.S. smbassador to the Holy See), but admitted to past affairs which contributed to his two divorces. Like Gingrich, the new PM has been married twice before. Johnson’s second marriage ended in September of 2018. Johnson is dating Carrie Symonds, the former PR chief of the Conservative Party. With his “officially single” status, Johnson is the first unmarried man to become British PM since Edward Heath in 1970.
Not Afraid to Push Back
When attacked, Johnson’s formidable historical knowledge is rivaled by his pugnacity. While his default setting is easygoing and affable, as with Gingrich and Churchill, the new PM is not afraid to push back against political opponents or the media.
On just his second day as prime minister, Johnson levied a blistering salvo at British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on the floor of the House of Commons. Johnson’s display harkened back to Gingrich’s best moment during the 2012 GOP primary and showcased a bravado Churchill would have been proud of.
Finally, there’s the tripartite commonality that Churchill, Gingrich, and Johnson were all swept into office with a clear job to do. Churchill was charged with rescuing Britain from the brink of defeat against Nazi Germany. Gingrich was elected speaker of the House in 1994 as part of a GOP landslide victory built on delivering his promised “Contract with America.” Johnson begins his tenure on the back of a promise to fulfill the results of the Brexit referendum and finally pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
The eyes of the world are now trained on Johnson to see if he can deliver on what former PM Theresa May couldn’t: the Brexit that a majority of Britons voted for. It’s a tall order for certain, but a role that Johnson has longed to play his whole life. Those expecting Johnson to completely flop may well be disappointed. If history is any guide, it would be foolish to bet against him.