LONDON — After a week when protesters battled with police outside his residence, spray-painted “racist” on a memorial to Winston Churchill and dumped the statue of a 17th-century slave trader into Bristol harbor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson knew he was going to face questions about race and justice in Parliament.
Yet, standing in the chamber on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson seemed nonplused when a lawmaker from the opposition Scottish National Party, Kirsty Blackman, condemned President Trump’s response to the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, and asked Mr. Johnson if he still believed his assertion that Mr. Trump had “many, many good qualities.”
“Yes, black lives matter,” he replied, “and yes, the death of George Floyd was absolutely appalling.” As for Mr. Trump, the prime minister said, he is the president of the United States, Britain’s most important ally, which is “a bastion of peace and freedom, and has been, for most of my lifetime.”
Mr. Johnson’s statement landed with a thud — and not just because Parliament was sparsely populated as part of coronavirus-related social distancing measures. At a time when the unrest in the United States is prompting many in Britain to ask questions about racial injustice in their society, the prime minister is still struggling to find his voice.
As with his response to the virus, Mr. Johnson was late to address the protests that erupted in London and other cities after the death of Mr. Floyd. And when he did, he oscillated between a hard message of authority and a more conciliatory tone: strident calls for law and order followed by promises to listen to the anguish of black Britons and other minorities.
On Monday, after days of silence about the events in the United States and their reverberation in Britain, Mr. Johnson posted a video, in which he said the death of Mr. Floyd at the hands of a police officer had “awakened an anger and a widespread and incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice.”
But a day earlier, he accused demonstrators who clashed with the police of “thuggery.” He threatened those who vandalized statues with legal prosecution and warned them not to flout the government’s rules on social distancing, saying they could ignite a second wave of infections in the country.
Mr. Johnson’s past use of racist language makes his position as a leader all the more complicated. As a columnist in 2002, he once referred to “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies,” an offensive term for a black child, and to African people as having “watermelon smiles.” He wrote that seeing “a bunch of black kids” in the street made him uncomfortable.
“We have a prime minister who is on the record making racist statements,” said Afua Hirsch, a columnist at the Guardian who writes and speaks about race in Britain. She said Mr. Johnson led a government that was “quite transparently unfair and racist,” which added fuel to the protests.
For some critics, there is little difference between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump. “You’ve got a bad guy on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University.
Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Johnson has not used tear gas to break up the demonstrations outside 10 Downing Street. He has not propagated conspiracy theories about the motives of the protesters. And he regularly invokes the phrase, “black lives matter,” which Mr. Trump has not done.
Defenders of Mr. Johnson argue that when he was mayor of London, he pushed for people from ethnic minority groups to be promoted in the Metropolitan Police. Ray Lewis, a Guyana-born adviser who worked with him as mayor, said Mr. Johnson had a genuine interest in working to improve the lives of young people from the Afro-Caribbean community.
More recently, Mr. Lewis said, Mr. Johnson has spoken privately of his anger over the Windrush scandal, in which Caribbean and other immigrants were wrongly detained and, in some cases, deported from Britain in 2018.
“He, like most other people from privileged circumstances, responds to the world according to how he has been brought up,” said Mr. Lewis who is chief executive of Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, an organization he founded to help Afro-Caribbean boys in east London. “I have about as much in common with him as I do with Vladimir Putin, and yet there was a kind of connection.”
Mr. Johnson noted that two of the top four members of his cabinet are of Indian descent: Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer; and Priti Patel, the Home secretary, whose criticism of the protesters’ skirmishes with the police has been more vociferous than Mr. Johnson’s.
One of the prime minister’s ex-wives, Marina Wheeler, is the daughter of an Indian mother. Mr. Johnson likes to bring up his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, a Muslim journalist who fled the Ottoman Empire for England in 1909, because, Mr. Johnson has said, it was “a beacon of generosity and openness.”
“Is he racist?” said Sonia Purnell, a British journalist who wrote a critical biography of Mr. Johnson. “Probably not.”
Instead, Ms. Purnell, who is white, said Mr. Johnson tailors his statements to please his audience. As a columnist for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, his slurs against black people drew little blowback. As the leader of a right-wing Conservative government, his call for law and order after the protests appealed to his political base.
“He is a crowd pleaser,” Ms. Purnell said, “so the question is, What crowd is he pleasing?”
In the early days of the pandemic, Mr. Johnson resisted unpopular measures like shutting down pubs. As a result, Britain imposed a lockdown later than its European neighbors. Neil Ferguson, an influential epidemiologist at Imperial College London, told a Parliamentary committee on Wednesday that if Britain had acted a week earlier, it would have cut its current death toll of 41,000 in half.
Mr. Johnson’s reluctance to order a full lockdown also reflects his instinctive aversion to government interference, the “nanny state” he often lampooned as a journalist.
“He wants folks to have fun,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “But I’m afraid that we are in a situation where folks can’t have fun, and he finds that difficult.”
For Mr. Johnson, his seven months as prime minister have thrust him into a series of awkward issues that often seem to leave him flailing. He had hoped to launch Britain into its post-Brexit future. Instead, he is dealing with a grinding public-health crisis, an economic collapse and, now, thorny questions about how Britain should confront its racist past.
“This is not the job he thought it would be,” Mr. Bale said. “He thought it would be about Brexit and surging forward into the new global Britain and sunny uplands.”