The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

The question before the meeting was very simple. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only 22 years old. There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the Cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. He told Halifax to forget it. Britain had been at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be raised over Britain.

So he said no to Halifax. In another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation, we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been prime minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But it was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

Neville Chamberlain, second left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the Empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the Thirties, your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communisms’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British prime minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, GB Shaw – was lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had hardened. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that, in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the prime minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7pm. He then convened the Cabinet of 25, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as prime minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full Cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7pm, the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the Cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London

Boris Johnson: the woman who made Winston Churchill

He would behave like a spoilt child; by the age of 14, he had already persuaded one of his schoolchums to take down his dictation while he reclined in the bath. As Churchill’s sister-in-law Lady Gwendoline “Goonie” Bertie put it, he had a tendency to “orientalism”, and was never so happy as when a servant was pulling on his socks.

He may have shown outstanding bravery when he went to the trenches, but his luxuries were astonishing. To the Front with Churchill went a private bathtub, large towels in towel warmer, a hot-water bottle, food boxes from Fortnum & Mason, large slabs of corned beef, Stilton cheeses, cream, ham, sardines, dried fruit, and a big steak pie, not to mention peach brandy and other liqueurs.

“You must remember,” his wife once told his doctor, “he knows nothing of the lives of ordinary people.” He never took a bus in his life, she said, and had only once been on the London Underground. He got lost, and had to be helped to find his way out.

He was also a tyrant with his staff. Churchill would not only keep them up all night while he dictated; he could get quite testy if they got things wrong. “Where were you educated?” he would shout. “Why don’t you read a book?”

What is worse than being a spoilt and irascible bully? How about the general charge that he didn’t really have real friends – only people he “used” for his own advancement? Or what about the charge of ratting on his friends – in many people’s eyes, the ultimate crime? When he made his famous escape from the Boer jail in Pretoria, there were two men who were meant to go with him, called Haldane and Brockie. The suggestion was that Churchill had welched on the agreement, and scooted off by himself.

A spoilt, bullying double-crosser: what else can we add? The final charge is that he was too self-interested, too wrapped up in himself to be properly human. Suppose you were a young woman ushered into a dinner party, and found yourself sitting next to the great man. The allegation was that he was really fascinated by only one subject, and that was himself. As Margot Asquith put it: “Winston, like all really self-centred people, ends up by boring people.” So that is the case for the prosecution, Your Honour.

Let’s now call the counsel for the defence – a role I am also happy, for the sake of argument, to play myself.

Take first the assertion that he was a bully. Yes, of course he pushed people hard, and it is certainly true that poor Alan Brooke, his military adviser, was driven more or less round the bend in the war – silently snapping pencils in an effort to control his feelings. But think of the stress that Churchill was under, co-ordinating a war that we showed no sign of winning.

Yet on the death of Violet Pearman, one of his most faithful and put-upon secretaries, he made sure that her daughter got money from his own pocket. He also sent money to the wife of his doctor, when she got into difficulties. And when a friend of his was injured in the Boer War, Churchill rolled up his sleeve and provided a skin graft himself – without anaesthetic.

Was this the action of a selfish tosser? “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults,” said Pamela Plowden. “You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.”

Let us turn now to the allegations of his luxury amid the squalor of the trenches. It is true that there was a certain amount of dudgeon when he arrived at his command in January 1916. Who was this politician? grumbled the Scots Fusiliers. Churchill began by launching a savage rhetorical attack on the louse, Pulex europaeus. He then organised for unused brewery vats to be brought to Moolenacker for a collective delousing – and it worked. Respect for Churchill climbed.

He reduced punishments. He dished out his luxuries to all who visited the mess. Read With Winston Churchill at the Front, published by “Captain X” (in reality, Andrew Dewar Gibb), who saw what happened with his own eyes.

If a man left that mess “without a large cigar lighting up his mollified countenance, that was because he was a non-smoker and through no fault of Col Churchill”. He did the same with the peach and apricot brandy. Yes, there was a bath – but plenty of other people used it.

Churchill got the troops singing music-hall songs. He urged them to laugh when they could. One young officer, Jock MacDavid, later recalled that, “After a very brief period, he had accelerated the morale of officers and men to an almost unbelievable degree. It was sheer personality.”

Did Churchill really “rat” on his friends? Regarding his conduct towards Haldane and Brockie, his two would-be fellow-escapees from the Pretorian jail, it is clear from all the diaries and letters that when it came down to it, on the night, they just wimped out. Churchill went into the latrine and jumped over the wall, and then waited for them for an hour and a half in the garden, risking detection. But they never came: he can’t be blamed for that!

Let us deal lastly with the general charge of selfishness: that he wasn’t much interested in other people, that he wasn’t much fun at parties – except when bragging about himself. Of course he was self-centred and narcissistic – a fact that he readily acknowledged. But that does not mean he had no interest in others.

Read his letters to his wife, Clementine, worrying about such things as whether the baby is going to lick the paint off the Noah’s Ark animals. Think of his kindness to his mother, who had actually cheated him of his £200,000 inheritance. Note his endless generosity towards his younger brother Jack, who lived with Churchill in Downing Street during the war.

All the evidence suggests that Churchill was warm-hearted to the point of downright sentimentality. He blubs at the drop of a hat. He weeps at the news that Londoners are queuing to buy birdseed to feed their canaries during the Blitz; he weeps when he tells an ecstatic House of Commons that he has been forced by fate to blow up the French navy. He was openly emotional in a class and society that was supposed to be all about the stiff upper lip.

He had what the Greeks called megalopsychia – greatness of soul. Churchill was not a practising Christian. He never believed in the more challenging metaphysics of the New Testament. His abiding interest was in glory and prestige – both for himself and for the “British Empire”. But he had a deep sense of what it was right and fitting for him to do.

That is why I am here at this graveyard in east London. The lady before and beneath me is Churchill’s nanny. “Erected to the memory of Elizabeth Ann Everest,” says the inscription, “who died on 3rd July 1895 aged 62 years, by Winston Spencer Churchill and John Spencer Churchill.” The story of how it came to be here is in some ways an awful one, but also a physical testimonial to the fundamental goodness of Churchill’s nature.

Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was a remote and glamorous figure, swishing in panther-like in her skintight riding gear to kiss him goodnight; otherwise not much involved. It was Mrs Everest, a largish and middle-aged woman from the Medway towns, who gave Churchill the unstinting love he craved.

“My nurse was my confidante,” said Churchill. “Mrs Everest it was who looked after me and tended all my wants. It was to her I poured out my many troubles.” He called her “Woom” or “Woomany”, and we have many lovely letters from her to him: urging him to take heroin for his toothache, to watch out for the east wind, not to try to get on moving trains, to avoid the hot weather, and debt, and bad company.

On one famous occasion, neither of his parents could be bothered to come to his Speech Day at Harrow; so Mrs Everest came, and Churchill walked around town with her, arm proudly in arm, while the other boys snickered. That showed moral courage; and more was to come.

When Churchill was 17 and Jack was 11, it was decided that the nanny was no longer needed; and though there were plenty of posh English families that retained their superannuated nannies, Churchill’s mother made no provision for Mrs Everest. She was to be out on her ear.

Churchill was incensed and protested. As a compromise, work was found for her at the London home of his grandmother, the Duchess. But two years later that job, too, came to an end. Again Churchill was angry that she was being treated in this way – dismissed by a letter! He accused his mother of being “cruel and mean”.

It was no good. Mrs Everest went to live in Crouch End, and Churchill helped to support her from his own relatively meagre income. She continued to write to him, and while he was at Sandhurst she sent him some encouragement. “Be a good Gentleman, upright, honest, just, kind and altogether lovely. My sweet old darling, how I do love you, be good for my sake.”

By 1895, Mrs Everest’s health was failing, and on July 2 he received a telegram saying that her condition was “critical”. He arrived at Crouch End, to find her only concern was for him: he had got wet on the way there. “The jacket had to be taken off and thoroughly dried before she was calm again.”

He found a doctor and a nurse, and then had to rush back to Aldershot for the morning parade – returning to north London as soon as the parade was over. She sank into a stupor and died at 2.15am, with Churchill by her.

It was Churchill who organised the funeral and the wreaths and the tombstone, and indeed it was Churchill who paid for them all, out of his own exiguous resources. He was only 20.

It is hard to know exactly how much the world owes Winston Churchill’s nanny. But if anyone taught him to be good and kind and by and large truthful, it was surely her.

Once, at the age of seven, he was walking with his nanny in the grounds of Blenheim. “We saw a snake crawling about in the grass,” he wrote to his father. “I wanted to kill it but Everest would not let me.”

She it was, I reckon, who helped him to that vast and generous moral sense.

‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515; Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of ‘The Churchill Factor’) and are available from

Can Boris Johnson really go from self-styled joke to prime minister?

‘It is.’

‘… and that he was ploughing on towards the prime ministership.’

‘Er, no,’ Boris says.

It’s true. He didn’t say that. I knew the collaborative thing wouldn’t work.

We are in the library of the Churchill Hotel in London, a decidedly unclubby room in a business hotel chosen for its namesake about whom the Mayor of London, now also a prospective parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, has just written a book. Boris is his usual shaggy, bike-swept self. This is the first interview he has given in order to promote The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, and immediately the obvious difficulty presents itself: is the book intended as a veiled self-portrait? A manifesto? Certainly, there has been no better time to ask questions about Boris Johnson and leadership; is The Churchill Factor Exhibit A?

‘It is very, very important to stress that this book is in no way…’ Boris says, trailing off. ‘I think it would be impertinent for any modern politician to invite comparison with Churchill.’

So you’re not comparing yourself to Churchill?

‘I’m explicitly disinviting the comparison, yes. Because it would be absurd. And indeed many people will use their opportunity to review this book to say how absurd that comparison is, so it’s very important for me to make that point for them first! If I were reviewing this book, I know what I would do.’

Yes? I say.

‘Well, I would immediately rehearse the superficial points of resemblance and I would show that it’s all complete bollocks!’

One of the secrets of Boris Johnson’s success is the pre-emptive rhetorical strike. No criticism or mockery can match what he has already inflicted on himself. Even those who might want to laugh at him find that there is no such thing as laughing at Boris – you are always, inevitably, laughing with him. Today is no exception: he has foreseen all coverage, forestalled all criticism, with a familiar sweep of Wodehousian humour and theatrical modesty.

Boris Johnson, photographed exclusively for the Telegraph Magazine at the Savoy, London, September 2014. PHOTO: Nadev Kander

The habit must be hard to kick: Boris is a narrator turned protagonist. His writings – as a reporter and columnist for The Daily Telegraph (since 1987), as editor of The Spectator (from 1999 to 2005), in books fictional and non- – have been collected into numerous volumes of greatest hits. Some of them can be found in the Politics section of bookshops, others in Humour – which gives you some idea of the many strands he has to pull together when presenting himself to the world. Name one other successful politician who has written a history of Ancient Rome and an ingenious parable about pushy parenting in the style of Dr Seuss (‘He’d zap the programme off and holler /  Go and read some Emile Zola’).

But what are those superficial points of resemblance between Boris and Churchill? Well, to take a few samples from The Churchill Factor: Boris says Churchill was ‘funny’, ‘irreverent’ and – forgive me if this should be in a different list – ‘a glory-chasing, goal-mouth-hanging opportunist’. He is said to typify certain key British traits – a great sense of humour, eccentricity and individualism. Churchill was a maverick, not of the mainstream. He was a journalist. And despite his unplodding style, he worked incredibly long hours. (Boris, similarly, starts his day at quarter to six. ‘5.44,’ he says, to be precise.)

Biscuits arrive to accompany our coffee. ‘God,’ Boris says. ‘All yours. I’m not allowed anything like that for the foreseeable future. I’ve got to get fighting fit. Mind you, Churchill… I discovered many amazing things about Churchill in the course of doing this book. I couldn’t believe how small he was. His chest: 31 inches. I mean, for Christ’s sake! And yet, somehow, he managed to act it out – it was all performance, projection. He gave the air of massive bulk, and yet he didn’t really possess it.’

Whereas you… I prompt.

‘Whereas I, unfortunately… Although some people have been kind enough to say I don’t look as though I could conceivably be over 15 stone, I weigh almost 17 stone. Now, what else did I discover about Churchill?’

One of the things Boris describes is Churchill’s determination – a drive born partly from having a great deal to prove. Does he, I ask, feel he has been underestimated?

Boris slurps his coffee in alarm. ‘On the contrary!’ he exclaims. ‘On the contrary. I’m a toenail.’

As campaign slogans go, it’s not necessarily bound to win. But then, with Boris, you never know.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aged seven. PHOTO: Boris Johnson

Matthew d’Ancona, the Sunday Telegraph political columnist and author of In It Together, a recent book on the Coalition Government, thinks that within a year ‘we’ll probably know whether Boris Johnson is ever going to be prime minister’. If the Tories win the next election, d’Ancona thinks it’s unlikely Boris would ever become leader. But if Cameron loses, he says, ‘Boris has a very good chance, and that’s going to happen very soon. The crucial period in which Boris will have a shot at the top job within the party is imminent.’

So this book, whose timing can’t be accidental, might be seen, d’Ancona says, as ‘a personal manifesto by other means. Because he’ll be interviewed endlessly between now and the election, about the Tories, about Cameron, about his intentions, and all he’ll really be able to say is, “All I want to do is represent the people of Uxbridge and finish my term as Mayor.” This book is what a poker player would call the “tell”. It’s a gigantic wink to the gallery.’

How Churchillian is Boris, really? Andrew Roberts, the historian and biographer of Churchill, points out straight away that, unlike Boris, Churchill was for a time deeply unpopular. ‘One of the glories of Churchill was that he kept on saying the same unpopular things about Germany and the Nazis, and didn’t change his views at all. Whereas,’ Roberts speculates, ‘we don’t know whether Boris is someone who will change his opinion on things in order to stay popular. If you’re loved, as Boris seems to be, you want to carry on being loved, and it can therefore be a weakness and a danger – it can have a very corrosive effect on a politician. The fact is that until Boris goes through a fairly prolonged period of unpopularity as a result of saying something that 90 per cent of people fundamentally disagree with – and then is proved right – it’s not a valid analogy.’

Shoot Stories: Nadav Kander

One of the well-known aspects of the Churchill story, however, is that he changed parties – he was a Tory, then a Liberal minister, then a Tory again. (Roberts says Churchill would have said it was the party that changed, not him.) Of course, it’s not remotely on the same scale, but I can’t help being reminded of a famous anecdote about Boris when he was a student – that having failed to be elected as president of the Oxford Union as a Conservative candidate he was voted in as a Social Democrat. It’s Boris who brings up the party-switching, when praising Churchill. ‘He had an amazing feel for the electorate,’ he says. ‘I mean, who else has ever jumped parties like that?’

Well, I say, you did it. Didn’t you? At the Oxford Union?

Boris looks aghast. ‘No…’ He mutters, and growls. ‘Oh, Gaby,’ he says, effortlessly suggesting that such a low blow had not been expected of me. ‘That’s a slight exaggeration. There’s no real comparison at all.’ He laughs a little. ‘What happened there was that I attracted the support of the Greens – I think – and the Communists, and the Monday Club, and the Right-wingers, and what were then called the SDP. I didn’t forbid them to support me.’

That was noble of you, I suggest.

‘I thought that was reasonable!’

So it wasn’t like standing as an SDP candidate, I say, attempting to clarify. But that’s how it has been projected.

‘I know,’ Boris says. ‘That’s a monstrous untruth. The Oxford Union isn’t party political.’

I ask if he would consider defecting now – it’s been known to happen, after all; Conservatives defecting to Ukip, for example. Would you do that? You’ve said you like Nigel Farage.

‘I wouldn’t dream of…’ Boris begins. ‘I basically believe in what David Cameron is doing and saying. I think he’s absolutely right about the EU. And if you vote for any other party, then you will completely screw up our chances of a renegotiation, let alone a referendum. We haven’t had a referendum in this country since 1975 – it’s a scandal. And I think it would be a disaster if people are lured off into supporting anyone other than the Conservatives.’

You’re committed to the Conservatives? I say, quite annoying now, even to myself.


For life?

‘Well, I… I… You know… I cannot see any other party that interests me.’

At Eton, where he was a King’s Scholar PHOTO: Ian Sumner

You could interpret Boris’s professional trajectory as either a story about changing his mind or a story about finding solutions. In the late 1990s he said he wouldn’t be the MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator at the same time, but then he was. He said he wouldn’t seek to re-enter Parliament in 2015, but then, in the small print, it turned out he had said ‘before 2015’, so 2015 itself was fair game. It seemed unlikely that he should be Mayor at the same time as standing as an MP but now that’s what he’s about to do. You could call this loophole-surfing, or an impressive act of plate-spinning. You might also think, at least he’s fulfilling his duties to both rather than abandoning one. Halfway through The Churchill Factor, Boris writes, ‘The beauty and riddle in studying the motives of any politician is in trying to decide what is idealism and what is self-interest; and often we are left to conclude that the answer is a mixture of the two.’

Some observers have wondered what Boris really believes in. There may also be a reason why people choose not to know the answer. As d’Ancona says, ‘I described him once as a blond screen on to which people project their hopes and dreams. You know, he has this appeal to the Tory Right, which is actually absurd, because, with the possible exception of Europe, he’s more liberal even than Cameron. The idea that he’s the great hope of the Right is preposterous. But that’s part of his talent – this ability to persuade lots of people that you represent them.’

I was struck by a line in the Churchill book in which Boris says his hero was able to defy so many ups and downs because he ‘had so much to believe in’. When asked outright about his own beliefs, Boris is perfectly direct.

‘I believe in a society that is liberal,’ he says, ‘and welcoming, and allows people to progress by merit. And has plenty of opportunity. And that isn’t judgmental about people’s foibles insofar as they don’t hurt anybody else. I think I’m basically a liberal Conservative – I believe in low tax, spirit of free enterprise, and in making sure that we as politicians create the framework for business to produce the dosh that we’re going to need to pay for the poorest. And the longer I live, the more I think that we all have a duty to each other.’

There you go: Boris, not joking.

Boris aged 18, before going up to Oxford to read Classics. PHOTO: Boris Johnson

One morning in September, in the City Hall building Boris once referred to as ‘the glass gonad’, the Mayor’s Fund for London, Magic FM and Kellogg’s are celebrating the fact that their charity has fed thousands of school­children via its breakfast clubs. As tables full of primary-school children are drawing and eating bagels, Boris puts in an appearance. He is interviewed on the radio. He is interviewed for TV – though not before he has done up the button of his jacket, with a flicker of disappointment at the fit. He struggles to think what he himself has for breakfast, ‘apart from the spaghetti left over by my children the previous evening’. He poses for pictures holding up a packet of Rice Krispies and then – perhaps thinking better of identifying too closely with Snap, Crackle or Pop – he puts it down and swaps it for Corn Flakes. His shirt now officially hanging out of the back of his trousers, he moves around the tables full of children.

One 10-year-old girl shows him her drawing. It’s Boris in coloured pencil, with lots of yellow hair, bloodshot eyes of the kind you get in packets at Hallowe’en and a banana next to his head. At the top of the page she has written, ‘Some People Belive BORIS was Living with Monkeys!’ He holds it in his hands, raises his eyebrows and erupts into boyish laughter.

Really, Boris is more like a mascot than a mayor. We all recognise his gestures: the scowl of mock-annoyance, the ursine gait, the hand through the wilfully wayward hair. Watching him, I try to break this last bit down like a dance move (the Boris shuffle? The Boris hustle? The metaphors are too easy). I think it goes like this: up the side of the head, clutch the back of the hair, come forward with a slide, pat and ruffle. Is it a gesture of concentration or distraction?

If you are like this – a showman, a celebrity, often a self-styled joke – how do you go from there to being a leader? Will enough people take Boris seriously, now that he has started out this way? And if they do, as d’Ancona succinctly puts it, ‘does that mean that a funny, talented man can also be a serious, talented man – or does it mean that the whole thing has simply become a kind of cabaret?’

He is markedly different from American politicians – and actually, though I’m no expert on the rules, it occurs to me that Boris, who was born in New York, could conceivably be prime minister of the United Kingdom or president of the United States. (Perhaps, being Boris, he could do both jobs at the same time.) How would he play on an international stage?

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine and biographer of Barack Obama, suggests that ‘American voters, like British voters, have proven themselves able to elect idiots, heaps of them, but we tend to steer clear of wits. I’d like to think Mark Twain, or Jon Stewart, could win a seat in the very sad place that is the United States Congress, but I wonder.’

What is Boris’s plan? Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In a BBC documentary made last year by Michael Cockerell, he finally admitted, in tangential sporting terms, that he might not mind leading the party. ‘If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, it would be a great thing to have a crack at.’ At the Churchill Hotel, we speak at length about Isil; about home­grown terrorism in London; about how this issue that seemed to be international had turned out to be domestic in origin, and what that meant for politicians here; about Boris’s regrets over his support for the Iraq war; and about whether, given that London is often said to be cut off from the rest of the country, being an expert on London meant that he was, by definition, inexpert about the rest of the UK.

With David Cameron on being elected Mayor of London, May 2008 PHOTO: PA

On all of this, Boris is unerring and articulate. There is an archetypal throwaway in which he refers to London’s melting pot as ‘the Moulinex’, and he describes politics as being ‘like a huge lumpy mattress: one thing goes ping, another thing boings up’. But when I ask him why, given all these problems that require solutions, he wants to be prime minister, he becomes distracted by something that slipped out much earlier, which he asked to be scratched from the record.

‘I feel so bad about having said that,’ he moans, forehead in hand.

It’s fine, I say. But you seem to be regretting it just at the perfect point when I’ve asked you the question you don’t want to answer.

‘Oh, golly,’ Boris says, before reaching half-heartedly for the mental script. ‘I want to fulfil my mandate as Mayor of London – see out the job, and, you know, spend the next 20 months of my mayoralty doing all these things…’ He starts to mutter.

Yes, I say. You’ll do that, and then?

‘I’ll be a very old man.’

In less than two years you’ll be a very old man? (Boris is 50.)

‘OK, well then… Something will crop up.’

I’m afraid that at this point I burst out laughing. He is scraping the barrel of avoidance strategies. ‘That’s pathetic!’ I tell him.

Boris attempts to smother a smirk. ‘We’ll see. We’ll see what that is.’ Then he puts on his frown of disapproval. ‘But that is not my purpose today!’

The evening of the Scottish referendum, Boris hosts a fundraising event for a charity of which he is a patron: Classics for All, which pays for teachers to be trained to introduce Latin in state schools. His father, the writer and former MEP Stanley Johnson, is there, too. The Johnsons are a hi-visibility family. There’s Boris’s sister, Rachel, a well-known journalist, his MP brother Jo (who is now part of David Cameron’s policy unit), and his middle brother, Leo, a sustainability consultant and the least outspoken of them all. Boris himself has a wife, Marina, and four children. ‘Some people might say, “Enough Johnsons – Ed”,’ Stanley joked recently, but there’s strength in numbers – they are unstintingly supportive of each other, while also being characteristically unpredictable. Over drinks, I ask Stanley whom Boris is named after. ‘Alexander?’ he says. (Boris’s full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and his family still calls him ‘Al’.) He shrugs and smiles. ‘Alexander the Great, I suppose!’

Boris gets stuck in mid-air while riding a zipwire during the London 2012 celebrations. PHOTO: Rebecca Denton

For the fundraiser, Boris has brought a plaster cast of Pericles from his office, where its usual role, he says, is to ‘watch me go on about bus routes’.

‘Round of applause, please, for Pericles,’ Boris announces to the assembled classicists as he steps up to the mic.

In passing, as if it were obvious, he compares London’s cultural strengths to those of Periclean Athens – a favourite subject of his – then goes on to describe the modern capital as ‘the last place in Europe where we are still brave and quick-witted enough to take our lead from those soldiers who you can see on friezes, who were trained to leap – anabateis and apobateis – on and off – a moving chariot. As we do in London by boarding and dismounting from the open platform of buses!’ Within seconds, his voice has taken on the rhythm of an incantation, and as the tide of laughter from the crowd begins to rise, it launches Boris into a comedic fervour. ‘In spite of the safety fanatics of Brussels who tried to take them away! We have brought back that Great Periclean Tradition to our city!’

The speech lasts little more than five minutes. It is, not so secretly, about Scotland, since he cites Calgacus’s famous speech about Britain. ‘He was a bizarre-looking fellow, I imagine, Calgacus,’ Boris says in an aside. ‘Most of his body would have been covered in huge blue tattoos of animals. Much as people in Scotland are today…’ Cue peals of laughter from the crowd. ‘And as they are in England! – in case this is reported before the polls close.’ He ends by saying that if only Alex Salmond had studied classics rather than economics, the country would have been saved ‘a great deal of bother’.

I imagine it’s possible to get a bit blasé about Boris’s rhetorical skills. But to me this speech seemed dazzling, not only for its combination of erudition and slapstick, but because it was all so impressively fit for purpose: of its moment, for its crowd, efficient, hilarious and to the point.

During our original interview, I had asked Boris a question I knew would be an irritation. ‘I just have to ask you about your affairs,’ I said. ‘Right,’ Boris replied, before leaping into defensive action. ‘That doesn’t strike me as being a compulsory question! This isn’t on the syllabus!’

With David Cameron in 2012. PHOTO: Getty Images

He was right. I didn’t have to ask. But the reason I did was because I wanted to know why exceptions are made for Boris. And also, whether he thinks exceptions should be made for him.

On the latter, he appears to be democratic – one rule fits most. But on the former question, how has he emerged unscathed where others have succumbed to scandal? From his affair with Petronella Wyatt to his illegitimate child with Helen Macintyre, Boris has suffered the opposite of David Blunkett or Robin Cook or even Bill Clinton. ‘I’ve fought two massive campaigns in London, which got a huge amount of national scrutiny as well,’ he explains, ‘and my feeling at the end of them is that the public don’t really focus on that. What they want to know is what your agenda is, and whether you’re going to do any good in the job.’

Finally, something fairly obvious strikes me. What if Boris has earned it? All of the ‘only Boris’ type of comments, which may sometimes seem admiring, are really the opposite. They implicitly suggest there’s something jammy about his relationship to the world. No one asks how a person gets away with things unless they think, on some level, that those things shouldn’t be got away with. But what if, instead of thinking of Boris as a witty chancer blessed with insanely good luck, we were to give him the benefit of his charisma, and decide he had won his popularity through charm, intelligence and hard work?

As d’Ancona makes clear, a great deal of his appeal is projection: not all of Boris will turn out to be true. But for now any part of him might be, and we probably don’t have long to place our bets, since we have always like to do bets, some of us even have installed a paddy power mobile application for it.

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1515; Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of The Churchill Factor) and are available from

A Citizens’ Wealth Fund would create billions for investment

But it is worse than that, because this country is missing a huge opportunity, and one that is being exploited by more sensible governments around the world. Other countries have realised that it is mad to keep their pension funds divided into tens of thousands of relatively tiny jam jars of cash. They have smashed the jam jars, pooled the pension funds – and created gigantic sovereign wealth funds which they are using to invest in high-yield assets. The Dutch, the Canadians, the people of Singapore – they are all using pension-fund cash to invest tens of billions in infrastructure and housing, some of it in London.

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We welcome that investment, of course. We are grateful. But is it not absurd that we are not able to call upon British pension funds to perform the same function? If we amalgamated our local authority pension funds, we would have a war chest of £180 billion; and if we added in all the public-sector pension funds, we would be talking hundreds of billions – and suddenly we would be able to direct those vast UK assets to the support of projects that are both socially useful and vital for the economy. These people know the importance of social media, and how a higher visibility leads to many perks, including support.

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We will need to spend £100 billion in the next 10 years on power stations, if we are going to keep the lights on. If we pooled our pension fund assets, and created a Citizens’ Wealth Fund, we would be able to get those schemes going – from new roads to new tunnels to hundreds of thousands of new homes for sale or rent (to say nothing of the new four-runway hub airport we need). And these investments would be attractive, because typically they would have a much higher yield – 7 or 8 per cent – compared with the 2 or 3 per cent currently achieved by pension fund managers in bonds or gilts. Roads and tunnels can be tolled; airports have charges; railways have passengers – and so on.

There would be a decent revenue stream from such investments, which is more than can be said, frankly, for the investments made by British public-sector pension fund managers over the past 20 years. They piled into the banks, and lost colossal sums in the crash of 2008 – eight times more than it cost to bail out RBS. The NHS alone has a black hole of £300 billion in its pension fund, and across the public sector it is hard to see how we will meet our obligations to future pensioners.

In London, the local authority pension fund is already paying for 80 centenarians – people who have been retired for 40 years. Their numbers will swell inexorably as people live longer and longer; and you may be interested to know that the life-expectancy of the average Londoner has risen by about 18 months just since I have been Mayor. How are we going to pay for all these people?

Part of the answer is to increase the returns of the pension funds, with bolder and more strategic investments like those who decide to buy gold. And if we pooled those funds, we would find big and immediate savings in bureaucracy – perhaps £5 billion a year; enough to pay for an aircraft carrier or something more useful.

What is the obstacle to this plan? It is the vested interests, of course. For decades now, the public-sector pension fund has been the place where you stick old Doobury, the good egg who is coming up for retirement, the soon-to-be-ex-employee who is looking for another string to his bow. The little pension funds will fight for their independence; they will make all sorts of spurious arguments about the need for “localism” in managing this dosh, when of course the advice is all sub-contracted to the same legion of investment managers, and what they really care about is their fees and their tickets to Wimbledon from the investment managers and their golf-club bragging rights.

The vested interests must be ruthlessly overridden. It is time for Britain to have its own Citizens’ Wealth Fund, deploying our assets in a useful way, helping us to bolster the pensioners and cut pointless public expenditure at the same time. Away with the later Roman Empire, and forward with 21st-century Britain.