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Boris Johnson's art of war

Toby Young on how his old pal rebranded himself in order to become President of the Oxford Union

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

‘The thing about Boris is that he really, really wants to be President,’ said an Old Etonian contemporary of his. This was back in 1984 when we were all at Oxford together.

‘Yes, I know,’ I replied. ‘He’s already announced his candidacy.’

‘I don’t mean President of the Union,’ he said. ‘I mean President of the United States.’

Could that possibly be true? Boris was born in New York in 1964 so he isn’t disqualified on those grounds. But wasn’t it a tad ambitious to think he could become President of the United States? I checked with his sister, Rachel, who was then a fresher at New College. As expected, she pooh-poohed the idea. ‘Last time I checked he wanted to be World King,’ she said.


Be that as it may, he still had to conquer the Oxford Union — and his first attempt wasn’t successful. He ran in Michaelmas term of 1984 and was soundly defeated by Neil Sherlock. There were several factors working against him. For one thing, Boris was at Balliol, a left-wing college with only a handful of Union members, whereas Sherlock was at Christ Church, which commanded a huge voting block. In addition, Sherlock was essentially a Liberal, whereas Boris had the backing of a political machine known as ‘the Establishment’ — High Tory and, therefore, less appealing to the Union’s broad-based membership. Finally, Boris was an Old Etonian, whereas Sherlock was the product of a state school. This enabled Sherlock’s campaign manager, Tim Hames, to paint Boris as a ‘rah’.

‘I ran a campaign of unremitting class warfare against him,’ says Hames. ‘If I threw a punch that landed above the belt that was entirely unintentional.’

Historians of the Tory party may be curious to know why this tactic worked in the Oxford Union, but not in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election or the race for London Mayor. The fact that Boris wasn’t up against the representative of a party which had run the Union into the ground over the previous 11 years probably helped. More importantly, Boris was vulnerable to this line of attack because he hadn’t yet worked out how to ‘decontaminate’ the Tory brand. That came later, during his second run at the presidency in 1985.

Much has been written about the accommodations Boris made to win that election, with various people coming out of the woodwork to accuse him of pretending to be a Social Democrat. In fact, that isn’t what happened. As a member of the SDP faction within the Union, I can finally reveal the truth about this affair.

We called ourselves ‘the Limehouse Group’ and modelled ourselves on the Canning, a Magdalen-based society that was the intellectual nerve centre of ‘the Establishment’. But in reality our sole raison d’être was to get our candidates elected within the Union. By no means all of us were card-carrying members of the SDP. The only thing we had in common was that we weren’t Tories.

The Limehouse Group had supported Sherlock in Michaelmas of 1984 — the first of a string of candidates to win the presidency with our backing. Sherlock was followed by Roland Rudd, now a successful PR guru, and Rudd by Anthony Goodman, now building networks of business leaders and based in Boston. By the time Boris decided to run again, we had more or less run out of candidates. His main opponent was Mark Carnegie, the Antipodean son of a multi-millionaire, and from our point of view Boris was the lesser of two evils. He had the advantage of being a brilliant debater and the Oxford Union was first and foremost a debating society. We also thought Boris was likely to win and felt it was important to be seen to be backing the winner. After all, we needed to maintain our reputation as the most powerful voting block in the Union. In short, Boris did not have to convert to the SDP in order to win our support. We were willing to give it to him anyway.

That’s not to say he didn’t do a certain amount to court us. He didn’t formally join the Limehouse Group — there was some pathetic initiation rite that involved drinking a noxious cocktail — but he did attend one of our drinks parties. As good little lefties, we pretended to be unimpressed by Boris’s glamorous credentials — Eton, Bullingdon Club, best-looking girlfriend in the university — but we were secretly flattered that he bothered to turn up to our humble little gathering.

More importantly, he stopped describing himself as a Conservative and rebranded himself an ‘environmentalist’. No doubt this had some basis in reality — his father, Stanley, is an environmentalist — but the main point was to detoxify himself. I think we all knew in our heart of hearts that he was still a Tory, but by not drawing attention to that fact Boris provided us with the figleaf we needed in order to support him. As he himself wrote in The Oxford Myth, a collection of essays edited by his sister Rachel, ‘The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.’

Fast-forward 24 years, and we see the same tactic being employed by David Cameron and his team. The Conservatives realise that, like Boris in 1985, they can only win the forthcoming election by persuading people who don’t think of themselves as Tories to vote for them. The people in the centre are already inclined to do this, so great is their dissatisfaction with New Labour, but they need an excuse, a way of justifying such a decision to themselves. Hence Cameron’s hug-a-hoodie rhetoric, and his embrace of environmentalism. As Boris understood all those years ago, it is all a question of facilitating a bit of self-deception.

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