Former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is running to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, leaves his home in London, Britain, May 30, 2019.
Former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is running to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, leaves his home in London, Britain, May 30, 2019.

LONDON - He is loathed and feted in equal measure.

But no one gainsays his star quality,' his disarming knack at prompting chuckles from foes for his foibles and, until recently, shambolic appearance as well as his witticisms.

Nor to be discounted is his deftness at connecting with 'Middle England' — with the tweed-wearing middle-class Conservative faithful in the rural shires of the country, who are incensed that Britain has not already left the European Union.

Boris Johnson, who unlike most other British politicians has international name-recognition, is the front-runner to succeed Theresa May as Britain's Conservative leader, and prime minister — that is as far as the bookmakers and many party activists are concerned.

He has made no secret over the years about his ravenous hunger for the job, announcing precociously when a teenager at Britain's storied private boarding school, Eton, that one day he would be prime minister. The onetime journalist and former mayor of London was furious, reportedly, when David Cameron, an Eton contemporary but three years his junior, acceded to the party leadership.

Cameron, who campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union, resigned immediately after a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the bloc in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Johnson switched on the eve of the referendum campaign from being pro-EU to a Brexiter, an unabashed career-enhancing move, say his critics.

Crowded field

FILE: Britain's Secretary of State for Environment
FILE: Britain's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove speaks at a fringe meeting during the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen, Scotland, Britain May 3, 2019.

Johnson was seen as a shoo-in three years ago to replace Cameron. But he lost out to Theresa May, partly thanks to the defection of his Brexit ally Michael Gove, who withdrew as his campaign manager, stood against him, saying his friend and Oxford University contemporary was unfit for the highest office.

Gove, a brainy politician with greater ministerial experience than Johnson, is running again and is seen by some party insiders as the dark horse in the febrile contest to succeed May. The competition also features the current foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, who is running on his businessman credentials and positioning himself as a compromise candidate, and Dominic Raab, a former Brexit minister, who is trying to compete with Johnson as the man who can deliver Brexit.

With Gove, the current environment minister, in the race, the Conservative leadership contest, which will take nearly two months to conclude, has the whiff of fratricide about it.

"I want the job! I want the job! I want the job!" Johnson reportedly told one Conservative lawmaker last week as his opening gambit when pleading for the parliamentarian's vote in the crowded leadership race featuring nearly a dozen aspiring contenders. Naked ambition, though, may not be sufficient for Johnson, a short-lived and gaffe-prone foreign minister.

The 54-year-old has under the supervision of his latest partner, a 30-year-old former Conservative party communications official, spruced up his appearance, trimming his trademark tousled hair and modernizing his suits. But a neater appearance and ambition cannot compensate for seriousness and ability, say his foes.

What the critics say

In a devastating column in The Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson, a former national newspaper editor who gave Johnson a job, describes him as “epically unreliable.”

He noted his star quality, describing how once when walking with him in Britain’s capital city “men of no obvious Tory persuasion [and certainly not of Johnson’s class and background] called out to him as if he were their favorite drinking companion.” People, he noted swarmed around him “as if he were a soap opera star.”

But he added: "He manifests chaotic jollity. The jollity is, as so often, the mask of a depressive character. But the chaos is genuine — and the last we need in a new prime minister."

Lawson's public dismissal of Johnson's steadfastness reflect the criticism expressed by Conservative lawmakers. They argue Johnson, popularly known just as Boris,' is too reckless and unpredictable to plot a course out of the Brexit mess the country — and the fractious Conservative party — has been mired in for nearly three years.

His foes maintain he might light up a room, attract crowds and has a startling ability to recover from grave missteps, but he is too tumultuous to occupy Downing Street — especially at a time Britain is facing its thorniest and potentially biggest policy challenge since the 1954 Suez crisis, which risked Britain's important ties with the U.S..

Conservatives in crisis

Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage and newly
Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage and newly elected Members of the European Parliament from Brexit Party attend a news conference following the results of the European Parliament elections, in London, Britain, May 27, 2019.

Last week, in the elections for the European Parliament the Conservatives were trounced by Nigel Farage's newly-formed Brexit Party, suffering their worst ever electoral setback, attracting just over nine percent of votes cast.

With Brexit overturning traditional two-party politics, some Conservatives fear their party is in an existential crisis and could easily split in two. "The future survival of the Conservative party is at risk," according to onetime deputy prime minister Damian Green. "Too much political blood has been spilt," he argued.

As the Conservative leadership race accelerates, and more rivals enter, Johnson's supporters, many firm Brexiters, counter he remains the best candidate for the job — and the only one able to match the blustery Farage for campaigning nous.

"With Boris what you see it's what you get and some people find it very attractive and other people have concerns," said Jacob Rees-Mogg, lawmaker and Brexiter. "Boris is the real deal," he told a British broadcaster.

While acknowledging his shortcomings, the editor of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine agrees.

"In an era when exasperated voters seek mould-breaking politicians, he is the best candidate to present the Conservatives as a force for change," argued Fraser Nelson. "In fact, he might be the only candidates able to do so."

Potential court action

His supporters say Johnson's inventiveness is what his party needs. But his creativity has got him in trouble in the past: he was fired while a journalist at The Times for making up a quote. This week a private prosecution against him was unveiled for lying during the referendum campaign, a court action that might cloud his leadership bid.

One sobering fact has Johnson and his backers nervous. No initial frontrunner has won in eight Conservative leadership races since 1965. And the knives are out for him. While opinion polls suggest Johnson is the favorite among Conservative activists to be the next leader, he is deeply unpopular among his fellow party lawmakers.

Many of them disdain his unbridled opportunism, envy his showmanship and worry about his chaotic private life, which include serial relationships, children fathered out of wedlock, terminated pregnancies and a couple of divorces, one of which is being wrapped up now.

But for all of that Johnson is the key candidate — the one his rivals know has to be knocked out of the race quickly or he will only get stronger. His backers say Johnson has the Midas touch when it comes to lifting party morale.

"The bottom line is that the only person who can deliver Brexit and defeat Labour is Boris Johnson," said former defense secretary Gavin Williamson. "He reaches out to a lot of people," he added.

Unlike most of his rivals, Johnson is upbeat when describing what he sees as post-Brexit benefits for Britain.

"He has a very bold vision for the country and very much wants to see the opportunities that Brexit can present realized," said Williamson. His optimism fires up the party faithful. He is also liberal when it comes to social policy — a clear electoral benefit for the Conservatives, who have struggled to shake off the tag that they are the "nasty party."

The resistance to him among fellow Conservative lawmakers is a possible race-killer.

Conservative lawmakers hold a series of knockout votes to reduce the field to a pair of candidates to present to the broader party membership in a head-to-head runoff. Currently Jermey Hunt has more public endorsements from lawmakers than Johnson.