‘… 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.
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.’
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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.
‘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; books.telegraph.co.uk). 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 telegraph.co.uk/borisjohnson.