Boris Johnson: the man who always gets away with it?
Boris Johnson (AFP / Ben STANSALL)

He was once described as a "greased piglet", with an uncanny knack of wriggling free from politically perilous situations -- usually of his own making.

Now Boris Johnson could again need his powers of political escapology, after an internal report blamed his leadership for a culture of lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street.

Even before civil servant Sue Gray's verdict, Johnson had become the first British prime minister to be fined by police for breaking the law while in office.

The 126 penalties issued to 83 people at his office, for partying while the rest of the country was in lockdown, made it Britain's most fined address.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine saved Johnson's bacon and he wriggled free of a leadership challenge, when calls mounted for his resignation in January.

But his own MPs -- chastened by the Conservative party's roasting in recent local elections -- will be closely watching the public mood before making a move.

'Cavalier attitude'

With his tousled blond hair and disheveled appearance, Johnson has been a vote-winner for the Tories, despite his unconventional style.

In December 2019, he was the conquering hero who landed a thumping 80-seat general election victory on a single-issue promise to "Get Brexit Done". The UK left the European Union just over a month later.

But his flagship domestic plan to address regional inequalities and promise to take the UK to the "sunlit uplands" after Brexit was soon upended when coronavirus struck in early 2020.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson took a conventional Conservative route to prominence, from the elite Eton College to Oxford University.

At both he displayed many of the traits by which he has become known -- and not just the flashes of rhetorical flair that made him an entertaining, if often controversial, newspaper and magazine columnist.

In 1982, one of his teachers at Eton wrote to his father, bemoaning Johnson's "disgracefully cavalier attitude" to his study of Greek and Latin.

"I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else," he wrote, according to the biographer Andrew Gimson.

At Oxford, the man whose sister said he wanted to be "world king" became president of the Oxford Union, a backstabbing den of student politics where his cohort provided many leading Brexiteers.

After Oxford, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote but still bagged a job as Brussels correspondent for its rival, the Daily Telegraph.

From EU headquarters, he tapped into the growing Tory Euroscepticism of the 1990s, feeding the party grassroots and MPs popular, if dubious, scoops about Brussels bureaucrats' purported plans to standardize the sizes of condoms and bananas.

Exasperated rivals charged with matching Johnson's questionable exclusives described some of his tales as "complete bollocks".

Shopping trolley

Brussels -- and television quiz show appearances -- gave Johnson a high profile, and he entered politics in 2004, but was sacked from the Conservative front bench for lying about an extra-marital affair.

Shifting shape into a self-styled, pro-European "one-man melting pot", he served two terms as mayor in left-leaning London from 2008 before returning to parliament in 2016.

By the time the EU referendum came around that year he was torn, but threw his weight behind the "leave" campaign and became its figurehead.

Much of its success was based on Johnson's own particular brand of relentlessly upbeat boosterism, appealing to emotions but with often little foundation in fact.

His former boss at the Telegraph, Max Hastings, called him a witty raconteur but said he was "unfit for national office because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification".

Familiarity has bred more public contempt, polling suggests, yet he has survived repeated claims of cronyism and corruption "like a cat with nine lives", as one reporter put it recently.

Johnson's disgruntled former chief aide and strategist Dominic Cummings has likened his chaotic governing style to an out-of-control shopping trolley.

But Johnson -- a father of seven children to four women, including two born to his third wife Carrie -- refuses to believe the wheels have fallen off.

© 2022 AFP