LONDON (Reuters) - It may not seem surprising that Boris Johnson, who first made his name by lampooning European regulations on everything from condoms to cucumbers, is now campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union.
But the London mayor’s stance has raised eyebrows among those who knew him as a young journalist in Brussels, and who say that his colorful, sometimes imaginative eurosceptic dispatches masked his own europhile instincts.
Famed for his comic talent, disheveled style and tousled platinum hair, Johnson is seen as a leading contender to replace David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and prime minister.
Cameron and the other likely candidates to succeed him are campaigning for an “in” vote in a referendum on Britain’s EU membership that will take place on June 23. Johnson is by far the biggest name to defect to the “out” camp.
In his Brussels glory days, he lambasted the then European Community (EC) as a bastion of bureaucrats bent on imposing their federalist agenda and absurd regulations on Britain.
But people who knew him then say his views were nuanced and harder to pin down than his articles for the eurosceptic Daily Telegraph suggested. They say he was driven by a desire to stand out from a then largely pro-European press pack, and to further his career by giving his Telegraph editors what they wanted.
“Boris was fed with European milk. He was a European child in many ways,” said Pascal Lamy, who knew Johnson’s family well during his decade as chef de cabinet for European Commission President Jacques Delors, a frequent target of Johnson’s pen.
Johnson’s father Stanley, a committed europhile, was a Conservative member of the European parliament and later a senior Commission official. As a boy, Boris attended school in Brussels for two years and later shuttled between boarding schools in England and the family home in Brussels.
He returned to the city as a journalist in 1989 and spent what he has described as five happy years covering the EC at a time when it faced momentous challenges as the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Germany re-unified.
“Boris felt before others that euroscepticism was an incredibly good mine for media,” said Lamy, who later went on to be the head of the World Trade Organization.
“Whether he had any adherence to the belief that the EU is a danger to the UK, I never thought that. He is too clever for that. He just found a way to make himself known.”
His stories certainly made a splash, gaining him a devoted readership that included Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister who frequently clashed with Delors.
“I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall. I’d listen to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door, over in England,” Johnson once said during an interview on BBC radio.
“Everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing explosive effect on the Tory Party and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he added, referring to divisions over Europe that were plaguing the Conservative Party.
Johnson has also said that an article he wrote in May 1992, headlined “Delors’ plans to rule Europe”, played a part in the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by Danish voters in a referendum that caused consternation in Brussels.
“It was huge in Denmark,” he wrote in a 2003 book. “The story was seized on by the ‘No’ campaign. They photocopied it a thousandfold. They marched the streets of Copenhagen with my story fixed to their banners.”
Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, then Denmark’s foreign minister and a “yes” campaigner, said he did not remember whether the article was used on posters — that may have been typical Johnson comic hyperbole — but he did recall the “no” camp had seized on it.
“Boris Johnson’s article was very imaginative,” Ellemann-Jensen told Reuters. “The claim that Delors would rule Europe was well out of proportion and was water on the paranoid wave that opponents of the Maastricht Treaty were trying to create.”
Lis Jensen, a eurosceptic Danish former member of the European parliament who was a very active “no” campaigner in 1992, said she had no memory of Johnson’s article.
Whether or not Johnson did play a part in the Danish “no”, he clearly relished firing broadsides at Brussels.
He has reminisced fondly about a story in which he asserted that the Italian rubber industry had fallen foul of EC rules by making undersized condoms, and another that warned British prawn cocktail crisps were under threat. “EC cheese row takes the biscuit” was one memorable headline.
In a front-page story that has passed into Brussels legend, he wrote that the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission, was to be blown up because of the danger from asbestos used in its construction.
“Sappers will lay explosive charges at key points so that the structure can implode and subside gently. British sources suggested wryly that detonation day could be declared a European holiday,” he wrote.
Now free of asbestos, the Berlaymont is still standing.
“Boris got away with things that less charismatic journalists wouldn’t get away with,” said Geoff Meade of the Press Association news agency, who knew him well in Brussels and who likes and admires the mayor.
David Gardner, a friend and rival from the Financial Times, said Brussels was always full of plans, proposals and ideas, and it was easy for Johnson to spin those into a good story, whether or not they were likely to become a reality.
“There was almost a split personality there,” said Gardner, who remembers many of Johnson’s Brussels-bashing stories but also caught glimpses of his sometimes pro-European leanings.
Gardner said Johnson once berated him in strong terms for an article criticizing a European directive on natural habitats, which had been drafted by Stanley Johnson. After an irate phone call, Boris then started faxing Gardner reams of drafts of the directive to reinforce his points in support of it.
“Literally for more than an hour all these drafts of the habitats directive came out of our fax machine until it ran out of paper and we turned it off,” Gardner recalled.
Johnson’s ambivalence about the European project has been such over the years that some good friends have reacted with dismay to his decision to campaign for Brexit.
“I am so sorry that Boris is to campaign Out not least because he really isn’t an Outer by conviction,” tweeted friend and fellow Conservative member of parliament Nicholas Soames, who wants Britain to stay in the EU.
“Am sad to be opposing old friends.”
Additional reporting by Ole Mikkelsen in Copenhagen; writing by Estelle Shirbon