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What’s behind the Boris Johnson show?

To interview the Mayor of London is to witness an extraordinary performance

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Coming in from the pouring rain, I make my way to the office on the eighth floor of City Hall. With its curving windows, many books and bust of Pericles tucked away in a corner, it reminds me both of a classroom and the cockpit of a spacecraft. Its occupant is waiting for me, looking a little crumpled but less dishevelled than I had expected. He greets me very pleasantly but this is what I’m thinking. Here is the most famous person I have ever interviewed. In his own way, he is almost as iconic as the Queen or Churchill, the nodding dog in those insurance commercials. He is Boris, one of a tiny handful of politicians/celebrities instantly known by their first name. This is the man who dangled from a tripwire with two Union Jacks in his hands, who waved that gigantic flag in front of about a billion people in Beijing. He’s a bestselling author, a TV star. What can I possibly ask him that he hasn’t been asked before? Indeed, why on earth am I doing this? What’s the point?

Well, all right. Here’s how it will work. I will write a cheerful, fairly light-hearted piece. This is, after all, the Christmas edition of The Spectator. But along the way, I will set a few traps intended quite simply to trip him up. Somehow I will winkle out the self–interest, the naked ambition, the dishonesty that must surely lurk beneath that jovial exterior. He is, after all, a politician and right now the reputation of politicians has never been at a lower ebb. We just don’t respect them any more — do we?

I put this last question to Boris and his answer is disconcerting. ‘No. But that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of a healthy democracy. People often say, “Where are the next Winston Churchills? They were giants in those days!” And I’m afraid the answer is a rather optimistic one. The times, thank goodness, don’t call for creatures of that stature. They don’t call for warriors, thank heavens. They don’t call for people who have to relate to people in that way. But I have to disagree with you. I don’t think the stock of politicians is quite as low as the media perhaps likes to think. It’s possible to have a very positive relationship with the electorate and I think a lot of politicians do.’

And yet the whole point of Boris is that he is not like other politicians. I suggest to him that his popularity is down to the fundamental difference in the way he communicates, to the sort of man he is. ‘Of course not! Doing the right thing to the best of your ability, trying to do things that most people understand are right for the city and explaining it to the best of your ability — that’s what I try to do.’

But in The Churchill Factor, his breezily entertaining run-through of Churchill’s life, he writes: ‘The interesting question, when we consider his role in 1940, was how far he confected that identity… was he really the most brilliant self-image-maker of them all?’ It’s something one might well ask of the Mayor himself. ‘You mean — am I an invention?’ He considers. ‘I think the truth is, if I tried to be anybody else, you’d be even more dubious.’ (He actually says ‘ludicrous’, but I think this is what he means.) ‘You do what you can with what you have. The serious answer is you’ve got to play your shots as naturally as you can.’ He follows this with one of those constructions that litter his writing and which we have come to expect of his oratory and I begin to see that this is not so much an interview as a masterclass, a vaudeville performance for an audience of one. ‘Sometimes I can think of so many ways of expressing myself that I feel I’m an old typewriter and too many keys come forward at once — and I get jammed. People notice that and they say he’s bumbling and — I simply can’t help that.’

Boris Johnson is, of course, about to return to parliamentary politics. When I point out that he denied, no fewer than 17 times, that he would hold two offices at once, he is cheerfully dismissive. ‘My mind changed.’ I wonder if he will be more successful this time round. After all, he was sacked from Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet after an ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ turned out to be anything but, and following a generally lacklustre performance. I quote a passage from the Guardian, written following his departure almost ten years ago to the day. ‘The episode brings to an end an unlikely but uniquely engaging political career.’ He chortles with laughter. ‘I treasure some of those quotations.’


But this time, what’s going to be different? At once he is serious again. ‘This time, Anthony, the most important thing is that we’re going to be in government.’ He emphasises that last word with a claw-like grab at the air, one of the many gesticulations that have dramatised this encounter. To Boris, it’s all crystal clear. ‘This is what’s going to happen. The Lib Dems collapse in the West Country. They’re useless. They got 349 votes in Rochester! The Greens are going to take some of Labour’s votes in the West Country so we could take loads of seats there.’

‘Ukip?’

‘Wait, wait, wait… Scotland. Labour is having its chair-legs sawed away by the manse — and quite right too. I think Labour is losing to Ukip wholesale. Of course, we’re also losing a bit to Ukip but I think we’ve got a very good chance of winning back Rochester. Farage himself might be a contender wherever he’s standing but other than that I think it’s going to be Carswell and Farage. So that’s not going to make a huge difference to the outcome. You know it’s always interesting — what people think will happen, not what they say they’re going to do. In 1992 the Conservatives were six points behind two days before the election and we went on to win a working majority which lasted for five years. I think it’s highly probable that since we are neck and neck now, we’ll do better than that.’

I wonder if he feels sorry for Ed Miliband, who has been mauled so horribly for the past month.

‘The answer is — yes. I do a bit. Sometimes I write an Ed Miliband-bashing piece and I think I really am giving the poor fellow a kick in the slats here. But there’s a serious risk that, according to at least some opinion polls, he could be forming a government. I think it would be disastrous for the city. I think Labour has an agenda that’s hostile to wealth creation. Look at the policy they’ve got coming out today.’ He is referring to the suggestion that public schools should lose their business-rate relief. ‘These are fantastically successful institutions that set benchmarks for quality in our education system. Why persecute them just because they’re doing well? Isn’t the answer to invest in the rest of our educational system, to bring their standards up, to give hope and encouragement rather than trying to shoot down people you find ideologically unacceptable?’

In the next breath he attacks Labour’s mansion tax as ‘total Paraquat for the economy of this city’ — Paraquat, of course, being a highly toxic, fast-acting herbicide. Even Myleene Klass didn’t come up with that one.

And this is what I get from my encounter with Boris Johnson. He uses verbal dexterity and an extraordinary quickness of mind to embellish very straightforward Conservative thinking. Ask him about his legacy as Mayor, and although he will mention falling crime rates, cycling, housing and transport, what clearly matters most to him is the fact that the City has recovered to become such a powerhouse following May 2008, when ‘the whole thing nearly went off the cliff’. He acknowledges the team around him but takes much of the credit for this himself. ‘Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai… London bye bye. That was the line. Actually that isn’t the case now. The city’s doing fantastically well. We are now dealing with the problems of success and they’re very serious. Massively overpriced housing. How to build more homes. We’ve got a whole new set of problems.’

I do not ask him if he wants to be prime minister. He has already said, famously, that he is more likely to be ‘decapitated by a Frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork or reincarnated as an olive’. But given that everyone who knows him speaks of this unspoken but quite calculated ambition, I ask him why he continues to deny it. He dodges the question. ‘There is no vacancy for the job of prime minister. The job is being done extremely well by David Cameron.’ But surely, in four or five years’ time…? ‘Who knows what the political landscape will look like then? The drumming roar of young men and women in a hurry I hear all around me.’

So let me answer the question for him. In the time we spent together, Boris did go off on extraordinary tangents: about different forms of rhetoric (‘I do tend to have quite a lot of tricolon with anaphora’), about the Flashman books and a lunch he once had with their author, George Macdonald Fraser, about Churchill’s prodigious literary output. There were plenty of his stock-in-trade interpolations — ‘gosh’, ‘crikey’, ‘yikes’ etc. — and he did treat the interview, partly, as a game. ‘Devoted though I am to The Spectator in every way, my objective is to get through this without a single quotation being sufficiently interesting to merit what we used to call a pick-up.’ This is, incidentally, a trope which I’m sure he’s used before.

But even so, I was struck by his underlying seriousness, his honesty and good nature. This was apparent from the very first question I asked him. With his many talents and his ability to earn money in almost any field he chooses, why is he in politics at all? ‘I’m in politics to change things — if possible for the better. I was a journalist for a long time but I had a kind of midlife crisis and I decided I needed to do something, to get on the pitch and stop endlessly kicking over other peoples’ sandcastles. I’ve always sort of thought that politics was a high and noble calling and a good thing to do.’

In short, he oozes likeability and although his enemies think of him as an Eton/Bullingdon Club toff who’s completely out of touch with reality and even his friends sometimes write him off as a joke, I’m not sure they’re right. After 14 years in the front line, nine and a half of them as an effective, twice-elected mayor of London, he must surely be considered a serious politician in every sense of those words. Put those two qualities together and is there any reason why he shouldn’t be prime minister before he finishes his career? I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but when the Frisbee has done its bloody work, the champagne manufacturers have been sued and that last olive is on a spike, he may well get my vote.

Anthony Horowitz is the author, among many other things, of Foyle’s War, the Alex Rider series and the next James Bond novel.

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