Boris Johnson's family: Putting ties before Brexit, begrudgingly

Boris Johnson and his family are minor celebrities in Britain because of their high profile in London's concentrated media-political hothouse. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (NYTIMES) - This month, Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit human juggernaut who is likely to become the next prime minister of Britain, declared that British immigrants should be required to learn English. In some parts of the country, he complained, "English is not spoken by some people as their first language."

This naturally upset many Britons, including those in Wales who speak Welsh and those in Scotland who speak Gaelic. ("The utter arrogance of Boris Johnson is yet again apparent," said Angus MacNeil, a member of Parliament from the Scottish National Party.)

It also upset Johnson's sister, Rachel, in a manner peculiar to the competitive, tight-knit, look-at-me Johnson clan, which holds a place in British life somewhere in the large, amorphous space between the Kennedys and the Kardashians.

Like her youngest brother and her father, both of whom were once implacable opponents of Brexit (and both of whom have since changed positions), Rachel Johnson has had to perform a complicated jujitsu around her big brother's candidacy. So, for that matter, have many Conservative politicians who were once in the Never-Boris camp but who in recent weeks have come around to something like an "Only Boris" philosophy.

It is perhaps more complicated within the family itself. Whether because of sibling loyalty, or because they have been warned to behave, or because they just want to burnish their personal brands in preparation for Boris's ascent, the Johnsons appear to be taking the approach that blood is thicker than political conviction.

So Rachel responded to the English-first flap with a tweet that was classic Johnson. It ensured that she was part of the story. It obscured its implicit criticism of her brother's remarks with an ad hominem jab implying that political disagreements can be reduced to family jokes. And it allowed her to demonstrate how rarefied the Johnsons are, how different from you and me, in this case because of their classical educations and hyper-articulate cleverness.

"We spoke Ancient Greek at home," she wrote, presumably exaggerating, though Boris has been known to drop the occasional Latin and Greek bon mot at unexpected times. "I genuinely don't know what he's on about."

The presidency of Donald Trump thrust his family into a loud and central position in American public life. The Johnsons are minor celebrities in Britain because of their high profile in London's concentrated media-political hothouse. If all goes as expected and Boris Johnson becomes prime minister this coming week, this family of overachievers with duelling opinions will have to adjust to a reality in which one member has overachieved his way to the top.

Rachel, 53 - a columnist, novelist, former magazine editor, talk-show talking head and reality TV star who ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat in the European Parliament this spring on a pro-Remain platform - is not the only high-profile relative of Boris.

There is also Stanley, the 78-year-old family patriarch and a lifelong Europhile who now supports Brexit after opposing it; and Jo, 47, a younger brother and Conservative member of Parliament who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum and changed his position later.

Interestingly enough, the family all calls Boris "Al" - short for Alexander, his actual first name. "Boris is like some sort of public construct that is wheeled out" in nonfamily occasions, novelist and political commentator Robert Harris said in an interview.

A third brother, Leo, 51, the only brown-haired person in a family of blinding blondness, is a sustainability expert and BBC radio host who once said that "I love Boris as a brother but I don't want to talk about his day job." There are also two half siblings from Stanley's second marriage.

In private, the Brexit debate has caused all sorts of difficulties for the family.

"There are various tensions going on," said Sonia Purnell, author of the biography "Just Boris." "It's clear that Jo and Rachel are totally pro-Remain and were aghast and dismayed at what their brother did, but they're perhaps a bit scared of him, particularly Rachel. There's also the historic feeling that they had to fend for each other as kids, and so they have a pretty unbreakable bond." The family's current public position is that nothing would be better than for Boris to get the job.

"I'm delighted and proud as punch. What father wouldn't be?" Stanley said in an interview. A writer, broadcaster, campaigner for environmental causes and former Remainer, Stanley has the same shock of white-blond hair, I'm-thinking-wicked-thoughts expression and air of dishevelment as his more famous son.

Ian Hislop, editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, called the Johnsons "our comic version of the Kennedys," though with everyone else existing somewhat unhappily in Boris' shadow. Not that there aren't opportunities.

In recent years, Stanley has parlayed his Johnson-ness into appearances on numerous British reality TV shows.

"Of course this is a bittersweet moment for me given that I spent 20 years in Europe, both as a member of the European Parliament and as a senior official of the European Commission," he said.

Indeed, even as Boris was orchestrating the "Leave" campaign before the Brexit referendum, Stanley was campaigning on the Remain side as co-founder of a group called Environmentalists for Europe.

"But we lost," Stanley said. In 2017, he switched positions, became a Brexiteer and is now Fan No. 1 on the Boris bandwagon. Stanley and Rachel - who has spent much of the past three years publicly lamenting her brother's political views - were in the audience at the most recent Conservative Party conference, applauding Boris' speech.

"I believe Boris is probably the one person capable of sorting out the Brexit mess," his father said.

Stanley Johnson said he could not speak for Boris' siblings and their own internal moral calculations. Rachel, known for rarely passing up a chance to voice her opinion, among other things, demurred on this occasion.

"Aieeee!!" she said via text. "I want to help but if I help you, I have to rebuff a million trillion outlets."

The family's youngest brother, Jo, the Conservative member of Parliament, said via email that he was "sorry not to be helpful on this occasion."

But Jo's own political journey - from anti-Brexit to reluctantly pro-Brexit to full-fledged Boris-ite - has perhaps been more tortuous than most. After his side lost in the Brexit referendum, he joined Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet with the goal of helping to deliver a good Brexit agreement.

Last fall, he resigned, saying that Brexit had been so badly handled that the only way to avert disaster would be to hold a second referendum. In an indirect swipe at his brother, he said the pro-Brexit campaign had offered "a fantasy set of promises" and a "false prospectus."

"Brexit has divided the country," he said in his resignation letter.

"It has divided political parties. And it has divided families, too."

But Jo's effort to lead the movement for a new referendum fizzled. And soon, the family divisions he had written of seemed to fade away. When Boris eventually announced his candidacy for party leader, Jo was by his side.

Recently, the two campaigned together in Kent, where several shoppers at a plant nursery heckled Boris and told him he was "crazy." ("It's a shame your brother's not running," a passerby said to Boris, speaking of Jo.)

It is true that Boris has a history of provocative I'm-just-speaking-the-truth pronouncements that appeal to right-leaning and grassroots Tories but tend to offend the sort of progressive-minded people that his siblings (and he) generally socialise with.

And so last August, he precipitated a typical Johnson-style imbroglio when he asserted, in his regular Daily Telegraph column, that women in burqas look like "bank robbers" and "letter boxes." Responding in her own column in The Mail on Sunday, Rachel affected a general tone of airy amusement, as if the issue were nothing more than another family quarrel.

Boris' column, she said, sounded as if it had been "written on a Sunday morning while on holiday in Italy, with a bottle or two of Asti Spumante chilling in the fridge for lunch." But her main criticism was that Boris should have called for an outright ban on burqas - a position that Stanley took, too, in an interview the next day.

The whole thing spurred Leo Johnson - the sibling who once said that "I'm the nonpolitical one. I'm not blond. I'm not Tory. I'm born with the gene for self-publicity missing" - to break his usual neutrality. Leo, whose wife happens to be an Afghan-born Muslim, responded with an angry Twitter post directed at his family.

"Silence does not mean consent," he said. "Would be great if this round of competitive bigotry could end."

As Rachel wrote in The Mail on Sunday: "If I had a pound for everyone who has said to me since the referendum, 'Oooh, must be interesting around the Johnson Sunday lunch table,' I'd be a rich woman."

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