Brexit with Boris?

Many episodes in Boris Johnson’s life seem to belong more properly in the pages of a comic novel. Early on, he realized how he could entertain his audience. A buffoon at times he has a brilliant mind. Now the role of his life is waiting: He might become Britain’s next Prime Minister to lead the country out of the EU. Is he up to the job?

Boris Johnson possesses an almost unbelievable ability to thrust himself to the centre of events. Often he does so by flouting the rules observed by conventional politicians. It is hard to think of another Conservative who, on the brink of becoming Prime Minister, would take the risk of going to live with his girlfriend in a flat in south London with such thin walls that the neighbours, who disapprove of him, were able to make a recording of a late-night row between the lovers, which last Friday [21st June] was handed over to the Guardian, a left-wing, anti-Johnson newspaper. The neighbours also summoned the police, who were obliged to come and see if anything was seriously the matter, and went away after establishing that nothing was.

This event embarrassed Johnson’s supporters. It made them question whether he was serious about becoming Prime Minister. But people also asked which of us could stand having our domestic arguments published to the world. And although they could see that if you were worried for the safety of the woman next door, you might send for the police, they could not see how giving the story to the media would help her.

Many episodes in Johnson’s life seem to belong more properly in the pages of a comic novel. He himself first leapt to wider notice 30 years ago when he became Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. He saw that Jacques Delors was intent on gaining more power for the European Commission at the expense of the nation states, and he mocked the process by reporting on the threat posed by Brussels to the British way of life, including such treasured products as the great British sausage. His rival correspondents found themselves forced to follow up stories in which the detail turned out to be wildly exaggerated, and some of them are convinced to this day that Johnson is a scoundrel and a fraud.

Johnson was born in 1964 to British parents in New York, but knew Brussels better than his Englishman abroad act suggested. He had lived there as a child, when his father, Stanley Johnson, got a job with the European Commission. Stanley was inclined to treat everything in life as a great joke, and Boris is capable of giving brilliantly funny speeches.

But not everything in his early life was at all amusing. When he was ten, his mother, Charlotte, had a nervous breakdown and spent nine months in hospital in London. This was a harrowing period for Boris and for his three younger siblings. Stanley and Charlotte in due course got divorced, by which time they had lived at no fewer than 32 different addresses. Johnson connects with the public in part because beneath his bold and humorous exterior, they perceive a vulnerable child with deep feelings of insecurity.

At the age of 11, he was sent away to an English boarding school, where in under two years he learned so much Latin and Greek that he won a scholarship to Eton College. If Johnson wins the contest to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, he will be the 20th Prime Minister, out of a total of 55 holders of that office since 1721, to have been educated at Eton. He had a brilliant career there, and discovered that forgetting, or seeming to forget, his lines in the middle of a performance, and then recovering, was more entertaining for his listeners than glib perfection.

He won a classics scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he did so little academic work that he failed to obtain a first-class degree. He did, however, become one of the best known students in the university, and managed, at the second attempt, to get himself elected President of the Oxford Union debating society. In order to achieve this distinction he pretended to be a Social Democrat rather than a Conservative.

It was in 1987, when he was about to leave Oxford, that I first met Johnson. I was at that time deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, and his fiancée, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, asked me if I would help him to get into journalism. His gifts were so considerable that he needed very little help. The Times took him on as a trainee, but then sacked him for making up a quotation, a bad habit he had carried over from his student journalism. He got a second chance on the Daily Telegraph, and made his name in Brussels.

On returning to London, Johnson reached a yet wider public by appearing on a joky television show called Have I Got News For You. He also became editor of the Spectator, and in 2001 a Conservative Member of Parliament. He had promised Conrad Black, who owned the Spectator, that he would not try to play both roles simultaneously, and a clear conflict of interest now arose, for the magazine, though conservative in outlook, often criticised the Conservative Party.

For some years, Johnson with great energy and manic audacity managed to ride two horses, journalism and politics, simultaneously, but he then suffered a series of crashing falls. The Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, got furious with him for publishing a deeply critical and inaccurate article about Liverpool, and ordered him to go and apologise to the city. Howard was a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and feared being booed the next time he went to a game. Johnson then compounded matters by denying a true story which the press had got hold of, namely that his mistress, Petronella Wyatt, had just had an abortion. This was too much for Howard, who sacked Johnson from the role of arts spokesman.

This in turn meant that the following year, after Howard had lost a general election and relinquished the Conservative leadership, Johnson was too tarnished a figure to compete to be his successor. David Cameron got the job, and kept the gifted but unreliable Johnson at a distance. Johnson therefore went off and in 2008 managed to get himself elected Mayor of London, a considerable achievement in a generally Labour city.

On returning to national politics after two terms as mayor, he placed himself at the head of the campaign to leave the European Union, and here too, in the summer of 2016, he was victorious. It seemed only reasonable that he should become Prime Minister and see Brexit through, but his closest ally in the leave campaign, Michael Gove, unexpectedly denounced him as unfit for the highest office, and Johnson had to withdraw from the race. He received the consolation prize of the Foreign Office, in which, as a man averse to the tedious formalities of diplomatic life, he did not distinguish himself, and from which last year he resigned in protest at the kind of Brexit the Prime Minister, Theresa May, was trying to achieve.

Her position eventually became unsustainable, and he is now the strong favourite to succeed her. Conservative activists, who over the next few weeks will make the final choice between him and another candidate, Jeremy Hunt, trust Johnson to deliver Brexit, love him for his ability to make them feel good about being Conservative, and believe he will win the next election when it comes. They see a touch of genius in him, and find him more approachable, and life-enhancing, than his stiff, professional rivals. Johnson is better educated than Trump, but a Trumpian dynamic is now at work in British politics. The more the Establishment denounces Johnson, the better his supporters like him.



Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson [author of Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson, Simon & Schuster, £9.99]



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