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Boris Johnson wants to stop name calling in politics, but he sure is good at it

He has called his opponents mugwumps and elves. Now he wants name-calling to end

A picture of UK foreign minister Boris Johnson
Johnson called for the end of name-calling after being heckled by passersby today
Christie Goodwin / Getty Images

British foreign minister and Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson wants people to stop insulting British politicians. It’s a noble sentiment slightly undercut by the fact that he’s one of the worst offenders.

Johnson was interrupted by sporadic heckling during a televised interview with the BBC Wednesday. In the video below, he is answering a question when passersby at Westminster begin to hurl insults from across the barricaded lawn. Johnson barely makes it through half a sentence before becoming visibly distracted and using a gloriously British locution.

“We face a very different political climate from the one we used to ... we have a lot of argie-bargie going on,” Johnson said, gesturing to the hecklers. “The abuse and the name calling, I think all that kind of thing, is slightly turning people off politics.”

Many quickly took to Twitter to point out the irony of Johnson, a politician who made his name slinging creative insults, now appealing to people’s better angels. Johnson, after all, is a man who once compared Vladimir Putin to an elf and likened Hillary Clinton to a “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”

For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Johnson, here are eight of the highlights (or lowlights) from his long insult career. A fair warning: Johnson uses some bizarre phrases that are quite possibly of his own creation. Enjoy.

1) When he called female Olympic volleyballers “semi-naked women” who “glisten like wet otters”

In 2012, Johnson wrote a listicle for the Telegraph titled “Here’s 20 jolly good reasons to feel cheerful about the London Olympic Games.” The list in its entirety is pretty banal (number 12 is: the buses are running on time), but there’s one particular entry that’s absolutely slimy:

“As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers,” Johnson wrote.

2) When he called members of the London Assembly “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies"

In 2013, when Johnson was serving as the mayor of London, he called the entire London Assembly “invertebrate jellies” for voting against a two-hour interrogation on his budget for 2014.

The city council, which takes charge of monitoring the mayor’s policies, decided to skip the grilling because Johnson’s deputy, Victoria Brown, had been late, but Johnson protested the move because without Brown present, his opposition would’ve been able to gather the two-thirds majority to vote down his budget. A conservative member of the assembly eventually arrived in time to prevent this majority, but “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies" had already been etched into the Johnson insult hall of fame.

3) When he called Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump”

In the lead-up to the historic and nail-biting UK election earlier this month, Johnson came out in support of conservative leader Theresa May in a strongly worded column for the Sun. In it, he calls Corbyn a national threat and not just “a mutton-headed old mugwump” or a “benign Islingtonian herbivore.”

In the wake of this column, various news agencies scrambled to decipher what a “mugwump” actually is. The best attempt is probably this explainer from the Guardian, which dives deep into the meaning of “mugwump,” from its use in 19th-century British politics to its appearances in the Harry Potter series and the fictional world of Roald Dahl stories.

4) When he called African people “flag-waving piccaninnies”

In 2002, while criticizing then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Johnson also managed to disparage the entire British Commonwealth.

“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England,” he wrote. “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.”

The next paragraph is almost worse:

“They say [Blair] is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

5) When he called Hillary Clinton “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”

This might be the most passive-aggressive endorsement ever. In a 2007 article for the Telegraph, Johnson described the moment he realized he would be supporting Clinton for the US presidency:

“I hum and I brood and then to my amazement a face seems to form in my mind's eye. She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital; and as I snap out of my trance I slap my forehead in astonishment.”

He later said this description should be taken in a “light-hearted spirit,” though this is clearly much too personal, and much too offensive, to brush aside as mere banter.

6) When he compared Russian President Putin to an elf

“Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, [Putin] is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant,” wrote Johnson in a 2015 column for the Telegraph. We take issue with this portrayal because Dobby is absolutely heartwarming, but Johnson’s name-calling intentions are clear.

7) When he said former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was basically a condom

Johnson has long-running feuds with a long list of people, but Nick Clegg is definitely near the top. He has called Clegg an “idle bum” and a “wobbling jelly of indecision,” but in 2014 he took things to a weirder and even more personal level:

"He’s there to serve a very important ceremonial function as David Cameron's lapdog-cum-prophylactic protection device for all the difficult things that David Cameron has to do,” he said. In other words, he’s suggesting Clegg works as former Prime Minister David Cameron’s condom.

8) When he suggested President Obama was part Kenyan with an “ancestral dislike” for the UK

In response to Obama’s support for the UK to stay in the European Union, the Brexit leader wrote an article for the Sun in which he called into question Obama’s nationality:

“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” he wrote.

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