Because I appeared on TV and seemed to know a few people in public life, the woman who became my wife in July 2010 was under the illusion that I was in some way famous. “At least no one will recognize you here,” she told me with satisfaction as we went from a safari camp in Tanzania to a tiny beach island called Lazy Lagoon.
But then Boris Johnson swept in with his family, his blonde mop, his booming Eton voice, and his 1950s public-school exclamations. “Crikey, what are you doing here?” he asked while pumping my hand, adding: “How’s the pope?” (Benedict XVI was coming to London a few weeks later, and I had been involved in the communication of the visit.)
While my wife rolled her eyes in that told-you-so way wives do, I shared jokes and reminiscences with the then-mayor of London, who this week becomes the UK’s prime minister after winning the Conservative Party leadership on a promise he can’t possibly keep: to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by October 31.
I had gotten to know Boris, a little, a couple of years earlier, while leading a campaign urging an “amnesty” for long-term undocumented migrants. The campaign had been inspired by a call from then-archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who had in turn been inspired by the U.S. bishops’ regularization campaigns. The United Kingdom was reckoned at the time to have close to a million long-term visa overstayers and asylum seekers.
Boris entered the picture because he was then editor of the Spectator, and commissioned from me an article that urged a one-off pathway to citizenship for those who had put down roots in the UK. Softened up by the arguments in my article, Boris later adopted the idea while running for mayor of London the following year, after meetings with the coalition of churches, mosques, and charities behind our Strangers into Citizens campaign.
By then, he had served for nearly a decade as a Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames, waiting for an opportunity to move ahead but still best known as a columnist and TV celebrity. That changed during the mayoral campaign. At a hustings we organized for twenty thousand Londoners to hold the candidates to account, Boris was charming, funny, self-deprecating, and, in his chaotic way, exciting.
Unlike the left-wing incumbent, “Red” Ken Livingstone, who drily sought to claim our citizens’ demands for decent housing and living wages as his policy achievements, Boris made us feel as if we were the protagonists of change. He was bumbling, even endearing; he had joie de vivre, energy, promise—and charm. He could scan a crowd and find a point of engagement almost by instinct. Spotting a fair number of hijabs in the crowd, he had spoken about his Turkish great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, and his respect for Islam. Afterwards, while Red Ken slipped away unseen, Boris went among the people, mobbed by Muslim mothers, exchanging jokes and posing for selfies.
I saw that night in Westminster Central Hall elements of a serious politician that have since become much clearer: ruthless ambition, a capacity to “read” the public’s mood, and an ability to appeal to many different constituencies at the same time. When he won the mayoral election in a city that had long been in a Labour stronghold, he made the Tories sit up straight. When he won for a second time, many Tories became convinced he was the One.