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Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man: A Profile of Boris Johnson

The next three months, between now and October 31st, will reveal whether that was a historical premonition or a sophomoric illusion.

· 20 min read
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man: A Profile of Boris Johnson
Photos By Andrew Parsons/ i-Images, and Daffyd Jones

I first set eyes on Boris Johnson in the autumn of 1983 when we went up to Oxford at the same time. I knew who he was since my uncle Christopher was an ex-boyfriend of his mother’s and he had told me to keep an eye out for him, but I still wasn’t prepared for the sight (and sound) of him at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union. This was the world famous debating society where ambitious undergraduates honed their public-speaking skills before embarking on careers in politics or journalism, and Boris was proposing the motion.

With his huge mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt escaping from his trousers, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy. Yet with his imposing physical build, his thick neck and his broad, Germanic forehead, there was also something of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about him. You could imagine him in lederhosen, wandering through the Black Forest with an axe over his shoulder, looking for ogres to kill. This same combination—a state of advanced dishevelment and a sense of coiled strength, of an almost tangible will to power—was even more pronounced in his way of speaking.

He began to advance an argument in what sounded like a parody of the high style in British politics—theatrical, dramatic, self-serious—when—a few seconds in—he appeared to completely forget what he was about to say. He looked up, startled—Where am I?—and asked the packed chamber which side he was supposed to be on. “What’s the motion, anyway?” Before anyone could answer, a light bulb appeared above his head and he was off, this time in an even more orotund, florid manner. Yet within a few seconds he’d wrong-footed himself again, this time because it had suddenly occurred to him that there was an equally compelling argument for the opposite point of view. This endless flipping and flopping, in which he seemed to constantly surprise himself, went on for the next 15 minutes. The impression he gave was of someone who’d been plucked from his bed in the middle of the night and then plonked down at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union without the faintest idea of what he was supposed to be talking about.

I’d been to enough Union debates at this point to know just how mercilessly the crowd could punish those who came before them unprepared. That was particularly true of freshmen, who were expected to have mastered all the arcane procedural rules, some of them dating back to the Union’s founding in 1823. But Boris’s chaotic, scatter-brained approach had the opposite effect. The motion was deadly serious—“This House Would Reintroduce Capital Punishment”—yet almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter. This was no ordinary undergraduate proposing a motion, but a Music Hall veteran performing a well-rehearsed comic routine. His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings. You got the sense that he could easily have delivered a highly effective speech if he’d wanted to, but was too clever and sophisticated—and honest—to enter into such a silly charade. To do what the other debaters were doing, and pretend he believed what was coming out of his mouth, would have been patronising. Everyone else was taking the audience for fools, but not him. He was openly insincere and, in being so, somehow seemed more authentic than everyone else.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. A few years before arriving at Oxford I had watched the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel, and had been expecting to meet the modern-day equivalents of Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche: larger-than-life, devil-may-care aristocrats delivering bon mots in between sips of champagne and spoonfuls of caviar. But the reality was very different: warm beer, stale sandwiches and second-hand opinions. Lots of spotty students, all as gauche as me. Less like an Oscar Wilde play than a Mike Leigh film.

In Boris, though, it was as if I’d finally encountered the ‘real’ Oxford, the Platonic ideal. While the rest of us were works-in-progress, vainly trying on different personae, Boris was the finished article. He was an instantly recognizable character from the comic tradition in English letters: a pantomime toff. He was Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night demanding more cakes and ale, Bertie Wooster trying to pass himself off as Eustace H. Plimsoll when appearing in court after overdoing it on Boat Race night. Yet at the same time fizzing with vim and vinegar—“bursting with spunk,” as he once put it, explaining why he needs so many different female partners. He was a cross between Hugh Grant and a silverback gorilla.

My uncle had described him as a “genius” and as a boy he’d been regarded as something of a wunderkind. There was the occasion when he was holidaying with his family in Greece, aged 10, and asked a group of Classics professors if he could join their game of Scrabble. They indulged the precocious, blond-haired moppet, only to be beaten by him. Thinking it was a one-off, they asked him to play another round and, again, he won. On and on it went, game after game. At the prep school he attended before going to Eton, Britain’s grandest private school, he was seen as a prodigy. A schoolmaster who taught him back then told his biographer, Andrew Gimson, that he was the quickest-learner he’d ever encountered. In the staff room, the teachers would compare notes about the “fantastically able boy.”

He was without doubt the biggest man on campus—the person most likely to succeed. He made no secret of his desire to be Prime Minister one day, and not just a run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden PM, but up there with Gladstone and Disraeli. And this was a scaling back of his ambitions—as a boy he’d told his younger sister Rachel that he wanted to be “world king.” (There was an intermediate stage during his teenage years when he harboured fantasies of becoming President of the United States—something that’s technically possible, given that he was born in New York.) He was by no means the only member of the Oxford Union to express such hopes during that period, but in his case you felt it might actually happen. Unlike so many other privileged undergraduates, with their vaulting sense of entitlement, Boris’s gargantuan self-belief seemed of a piece with his outsized personality. He had an electrifying, charismatic presence of a kind I’d only read about in books before. Our mutual friend Lloyd Evans, who knew Boris better than me at Oxford, put it well. “He’s a war leader,” he told Andrew Gimson. “He is one of the two or three most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. You just feel he’s going somewhere. People just love him. They enjoy going with him and they enjoy being led.”

Thirty-Six Years Later

Fast-forward 36 years and the 55 year-old Boris is about to become the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am writing this just after the result of the Conservative leadership election has been announced and the British constitution is such that the winner of that contest will now automatically be sent for by the Queen and invited to form the next government. Ten Tory Members of Parliament entered the fray six weeks ago and, after a series of debates and votes, only two remained: Boris and Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. In less tumultuous times, Hunt, who is regarded as a dependable, ‘steady Eddie’ type, might have prevailed. But the view of the Conservative Party is that extraordinary times demand an extraordinary leader—and few moments in the UK’s history have been as messy as this.

Three years ago, the British people voted to leave the European Union by 17.4 million votes to 16.1 million in what was the largest democratic contest of its kind in our island’s history. The result of the referendum was immediately contested for all sorts of reasons, some of them bad (the mean age of Leave voters was higher than that of Remain voters and therefore their votes should count for less) and some of them…well, not good, exactly, but less bad. (I supported Leave and, predictably enough, regard the result as legitimate.) Many prominent people on the losing side felt that some of the statements made by the leaders of the Leave campaign—notably Boris, Britain’s most prominent Brexiteer—were dishonest, such as the claim that membership of the European Union costs the British taxpayer £350 million a week. That’s not a lie, exactly, since our annual contribution to the EU is £20 billion, which works out at about £350 million a week. But it fails to take account of the £10 billion or so we get back each year in the form of rebates and subsidies. Boris was guilty of conflating the gross and the net. My view is that this falls within the bounds of normal hyperbole during a hard-fought electoral contest and was matched by comparable elisions on the other side. But the losers were, understandably, less charitable. Earlier this year a Remainer managed to crowdsource a private prosecution against Boris for “misconduct in public office,” although it didn’t get very far.

David Cameron, who was Britain’s Prime Minister during the referendum, resigned on the morning the result was announced, having led the Remain campaign, and everyone assumed Boris would succeed him. But his campaign manager in the ensuing leadership contest—Michael Gove, a Conservative politician, and the second-most prominent backer of Leave—decided he couldn’t in good conscience continue to support Boris and threw his own hat into the ring instead. With the two victors of the Leave campaign at each other’s throats, Theresa May, a Conservative Member of Parliament who had campaigned for Remain, was the surprise winner of that contest and is still Britain’s Prime Minister, although she’s about to tender her resignation to the Queen. Boris, in effect, has had to wait three years to claim the prize that many think should have been his after the referendum.

May inherited a small parliamentary majority from David Cameron, but unwisely decided to call a General Election in 2017. One of her reasons for taking this gamble is that she had committed herself to leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union—completely resetting our trading relationship with the EU—and she felt she needed a larger majority to get that through Parliament. Unfortunately, she proved such a poor campaigner that the Conservative Party lost its majority, forcing her into an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, a small group of Northern Irish hard-liners, and making the kind of Brexit she wanted more difficult to achieve. She and her team of advisors negotiated a compromise deal with the EU that some members of her party felt was too mushy, while others thought it was too extreme, and she tried and failed to get it through Parliament three times. This took so long and involved so much fruitless horse-trading that the Government missed not one but two deadlines for leaving the EU, having originally promised to exit by March 29th. The new deadline is October 31st, but May fell on her sword eight weeks ago, having abandoned hope of getting any deal through by then and, crucially, being unwilling to leave with no deal. (There is much disagreement about how damaging no deal would be to the British economy, with some, such as May, believing it would be catastrophic, and others comparing it to the millennium bug.) That triggered the current leadership contest.

One of the reasons Boris won by a margin of two-to-one is that he has been unequivocal about his intention to take Britain out of the EU by October 31st, with or without a deal. The hope is that this tough stance will force the EU to return to the negotiating table and offer some major concessions, thereby enabling Boris to get a new deal through Parliament before the deadline. But there’s a risk that the EU won’t improve its offer—at least not sufficiently—in which case Boris will have to make good on his ‘no deal’ threat. That, in turn, could trigger a constitutional crisis. As things stand, a vote of Parliament isn’t required before Britain can leave the EU—our departure on October 31st is the default legal position and remains so unless the Prime Minister asks for another extension. But pro-Remain MPs have been frantically scheming away, trying to think of ways to obstruct a no deal Brexit, and they have an ally in John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, who’s proved willing to bend the rules to make the life of Brexiteers more difficult. Within weeks of Boris entering Downing Street, possibly days, we could see an impasse in which the executive and legislative branches of Britain’s parliamentary democracy are at loggerheads. In that scenario, it would be unclear where authority lies and unless Boris can figure out a way to break the deadlock there would almost certainly be another election.

PODCAST 67: Toby Young on Boris Johnson’s Victory in the UK General Election
Sydney. London. Toronto.

And that’s a huge risk because waiting in the wings is Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Leader of the Opposition in Britain’s history. In normal circumstances, a Labour leader who venerates Hugo Chavez and is promising to hike the top rate of income tax, introduce a raft of property taxes, force companies to appoint workers’ representatives to their boards, take Britain’s gas and electricity industries into state ownership, and who regularly appears on state television in Iran and counts the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” would not have much hope of becoming Prime Minister. But Theresa May’s failure to take us out of the EU, in spite of promising to honor the result of the referendum, has prompted a large number of Conservative voters to defect to the Brexit Party, a new, single-issue political vehicle that was formed earlier this year by Nigel Farage, the charismatic ex-leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a long-standing Eurosceptic. Farage retired from British politics after the referendum, declaring that his work was done, but came storming back earlier this year—one final push, etc.—and led his new party to victory in the European election, beating the Tories into fifth place. The fear is that if there’s a General Election before we’ve left, right-of-center voters will be split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party and Corbyn will be able to come up through the middle, sneaking into Downing Street with less than a third of the vote.

Which is another reason Boris has prevailed in this contest. Unlike Jeremy Hunt, who campaigned for Remain in 2016, Boris was the only Big Beast in the leadership election who can credibly take on Farage and hope to win back some of those Brexit Party defectors. No one in the Conservative Party relishes the prospect of an election before October 31st, but it cannot be ruled out and making Boris the leader is a way of mitigating the risk. Paradoxically, the most gaffe-prone politician in contemporary Britain—he averages at least one snafu a week—has managed to position himself as the ‘safety first’ candidate. It’s not just that his Brexit bona fides are second to none. He’s also a proven election winner. He beat the Labour incumbent to become Mayor of London in 2008—the only Conservative to be elected to that office in what has always been a Labour city—and won re-election in 2012. Throw in his victory in the EU referendum against overwhelming odds and he begins to look like the Conservative Party’s white knight. If anyone can slay the twin dragons of Corbyn and Farage, Boris can.

A Marmite Figure

Boris is often described as a “Marmite figure,” a reference to a salty, brown, waxy substance that some British people like to smear on their toast. You either love Marmite or you hate it and the same goes for Boris. Just as some sections of America’s coastal elites suffer from Trump derangement syndrome, large swathes of the UK’s intelligentsia are afflicted by Boris derangement syndrome.

He has certainly engaged in some pretty egregious behavior during his climb up Britain’s greasy pole—a litany of sins that would be enough to end the careers of less gifted politicians. He was sacked from his first job as a news trainee on the Times of London in 1988 when he was caught making up a quote. He went on to become the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, where many of his stories about the EU’s harebrained bureaucratic directives—new regulations governing the curvature of bananas, for instance—fell under the heading of “too good to check.” He landed the editorship of the Spectator in 1999 at the age of 35 and tried to combine that with embarking on a political career, becoming the Member of Parliament for Henley in 2001—a twin-track approach that the magazine’s proprietor, Conrad Black, described as trying to ride two horses at once. (“My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” Boris responded.) This eventually came to a head when stories began to circulate that he was having an affair with Petronella Wyatt, the Spectator’s deputy editor. Boris was on to his second marriage at this point and had been appointed the Conservative’s shadow arts spokesman, so this was a potential scandal. When asked by Michael Howard, the leader of the Party, whether the rumors were true, Boris described them as “an inverted pyramid of piffle.” In fact, they were true—it turned out Petronella had become pregnant and had then had an abortion—and Boris was fired by Howard for being less than forthright about it.

During this period I was sharing the job of drama critic on the Spectator with Lloyd Evans and we decided to write a sex farce set in the magazine’s offices called Who’s The Daddy?. It enjoyed a sold-out run in an off-West End theatre and we were terrified that Boris, who we mercilessly sent up in every scene, would sack us. After all, not many editors would do nothing if two junior employees lampooned them in such a public way. To give you a flavor of the play, the Boris character—who was named “Boris”—had a life-size portrait of Margaret Thatcher on his office wall that doubled as a pull-down bed and was in constant use throughout. It ended with the publisher giving birth to triplets, all of them sporting thick blond hair. But Boris took it on the chin. He didn’t demote us, didn’t withdraw any of our editorial privileges, didn’t stop inviting us to office parties. Our relationship with him was entirely unaffected. His only response was to send us a postcard on opening night that read: “I always knew my life would be turned into a farce. I’m just glad it’s been entrusted to two such distinguished men of letters.”

Boris Johnson as editor of the Spectator with Toby Young second from right.

When Boris stood as the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral election in 2008, his Labor opponent and his campaign team dredged up everything “offensive” he had ever said or written—an embarrassment of riches. No need to employ any opposition researchers; it was lying around in newspaper columns and magazine articles for anyone to find. This was ‘offense archeology’ of a kind that’s become all too common in public life and which derailed my career at the beginning of 2018. But Boris has always been immune to this line of attack.

To take the most notorious example, in a Telegraph column in 2002 about the visit of Tony Blair to the Congo, he wrote:

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.

The same column included the line:

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.

Even by the less racially-sensitive standards of the time, this was inflammatory stuff. But Boris claimed to be “satirizing” neo-colonialism rather than expressing neo-colonialist sentiments himself and got away with it. His references to “watermelon smiles” and “piccaninnies” didn’t stop him winning in a city that is 55% non-white. His critics still bring up these and other quotes at every opportunity—last year in another Telegraph column he compared niqab-wearing Muslim women to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”—yet the mud never sticks. This is partly because the line between sincerity and insincerity is always so blurry—he is never fully in earnest, so can always wriggle out of taking responsibility for whatever it is that’s upset people. Sometimes he apologies, but always with a mischievous glint in his eye. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote about this sleight-of-hand in a blisteringly unsympathetic profile for the New York Review of Books:

The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.

But there’s another, related reason why so many people are willing to forgive Boris for his transgressions which burrows deeper into the divided English soul. George Orwell in The Art of Donald McGill, his 1941 essay about seaside postcards, describes a conflict at the heart of our national character—one we fought a civil war over, no less—that captures Boris’s appeal. On the one hand are the pointy-heads, the scolds, always wagging their fingers and pursing their lips, constantly on the look-out for moral failings. Elsewhere, Orwell refers to these puritans as the “boiled rabbits of the left” and “the Bloomsbury highbrows,” but in this essay he compares them to Don Quixote, the high-minded hero of Cervantes’ eponymous novel. He contrasts this archetype with Sancho Panza, Quixote’s comic foil, and when listing the little squire’s down-to-earth qualities he could easily be describing Boris:

He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures.

It is that saturnalian streak in the British character that Boris appeals to and helps explain his popularity with ordinary voters. Orwell expands on his theme—contrasting the unlettered masses with the sanctimonious “Europeanized intelligentsia”—in The Lion and the Unicorn:

One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.

Another quote that’s often dragged up by Boris’s enemies to discredit him is from a Conservative campaign speech in 2005: “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” In their minds, this is appallingly sexist, as well as environmentally suspect. But if Orwell is right about the enduring appeal of the “overwhelming vulgarity,” the “smuttiness,” the “ever-present obscenity,” of Britain’s seaside postcards you can see why constantly reminding people of Boris’s politically incorrect remarks won’t necessarily hurt his electoral chances. It just serves to embed him in the public imagination as a stock British character whom many people still feel an instinctive affection for: the lovable rogue, the man with the holiday in his eye. He’s the guy that tries to persuade the barman to serve one more round of drinks after time has been called, the 14-year-old who borrows his father’s Mercedes at two o’clock in the morning and takes it up to a 100mph on the motorway with his friends shrieking in the back. He’s Falstaff in Henry IV, Sid James in the Carry On films. He’s a Donald McGill postcard.

Orwell concludes his essay by praising this rebellious, licentious streak in the British character. In his view, it’s an important bulwark against the censoriousness of our would-be governors and regulators:

I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of flihrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.

Cometh the Man?

Having said all that, it’s still quite a leap to think the right man to lead Britain during this period of national crisis is…Sancho Panza. Can the clown prince conquer his Falstaffian urges and discover his inner homme sérieux? Can Hal become Henry V?

The most damning indictment of Boris is the two years he spent as Foreign Secretary under Theresa May, his highest political office to date. He shouldn’t have accepted the job since it made him complicit in May’s failings—although he did resign in 2018 when the shape of her deal  with the EU became clear—but having done so he should have applied himself more assiduously. He wasn’t an unqualified disaster, but he often seemed to take his eye off the ball. For instance, in an appearance before a House of Commons committee he said of a British woman who had been arrested in Iran that she’d “simply been teaching people journalism.” The Iranian authorities had accused her of spying and her defense was that she in the country visiting relatives, so Boris’s remarks weren’t helpful. She remains in prison to this day.

His stint as Mayor of London, by contrast, was a triumph. He cut the murder rate in half, reduced traffic fatalities, embarked on an ambitious house-building program, introduced a popular rent-a-bike scheme and presided over the barn-stormingly successful 2012 London Olympics. The key difference between his Mayoralty and his two years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that he was the baton-wielding conductor at City Hall, but a member of the orchestra in Theresa May’s Cabinet. Boris has never been good at playing second fiddle. He’s an alpha, something that’s been apparent from a very early age. His sister Rachel once told me that at her fifth birthday party she stood up on a table to make a speech and the six-year-old Boris, furious that she was getting all the attention, leapt up beside her, pushed her aside and gave a speech of his own. Now that he has given Theresa May the elbow, my hope is that he will recover the focus he displayed as Mayor.

Britain’s veteran political commentators are, for the most part, pessimistic about Boris’s premiership. His lack of a parliamentary majority, the byzantine complexity of Brexit, trying to win over the soggy center while being flanked by Farage—all of this adds up to a grim reality check that could see him being the shortest-lived Prime Minister in the UK’s history. (That record is held by George Canning who lasted 119 days.)

But when I hear these prognostications of doom I cannot help thinking of another Prime Minister who entered Downing Street at a moment of national crisis with the odds stacked against him. When Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in 1940, most members of the Establishment thought he’d embarked on a foolhardy course. What hope did Britain have of holding out against the might of the Nazi war machine? Yet he overcame those doubts about his leadership, in part because he succeeded in bending reality to his will. In politics, there are few fixed parameters. Everything is fluid and uncertain, with too many variables for the human brain to compute. What is considered completely impossible one week, becomes possible the next. Through sheer force of personality, Churchill was able to change the narrative and persuade people that military defeat wasn’t inevitable. He did this by using the same alchemy that was attributed to Steve Jobs: a reality distortion field. It’s a superpower possessed by those rare individuals that come along once in a generation, combining bottomless self-belief, exceptional cognitive ability and spellbinding charisma. Boris is one of those people.

The rational part of my brain is still full of doubts and uncertainties. What sensible person would look at Boris’s peripatetic career and rakish personality and conclude that he is the right man to lead Britain at this moment of maximum danger? But at a more primitive level, a level impervious to reason, I cannot help but believe. From the first moment I saw him, I felt I was in the presence of someone special, someone capable of achieving great things. And I’ve never quite been able to dispel that impression.

The next three months, between now and October 31st, will reveal whether that was a historical premonition or a sophomoric illusion.

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