The make-up lady at the BBC’s Millbank studio in Westminster has noticed a change in Boris Johnson’s look. ‘His hair is much smarter now,’ she told me as she slapped anti-shine talc on my pate for the Daily Politics show. ‘But he still messes it up a bit after I’ve combed it.’
Boris Mark II has entered the fray. As his conference speech this week showed, he’s still making the gags but they play second fiddle to his more serious aspirations — as a successful Foreign Secretary and, ultimately, PM.
Like some rare species of blond cockroach, Boris survived the post-referendum nuclear fallout while the other Bullingdon boys and the Notting Hill Set were wiped off the face of the earth.
Even though he fought for Brexit, he was astonished at the aftermath — just look at his face, and Michael Gove’s, in that press conference on 24 June after David Cameron resigned. Boris — normally so good at hiding his feelings beneath a thousand onion skins — was shell-shocked.
Insiders say he was amazed to be offered the Foreign Secretary’s job. His future had seemed to offer little more than a backbencher’s life, well-padded with the money from his Telegraph column, his books and a few celeb outings. He was destined to become little more than an upmarket Ed Balls, dismally touring the TV studios, living off the crumbs of yesteryear’s fame.
For some time after he started the job in July, he went into comic purdah as he jettisoned the clown costume. Craig Brown warned that ‘Boris’s chosen destiny is to become a sort of blond Jack Straw, flying all over the world to read boring speeches to bored audiences. Any possibility of offence or excitement will have been expertly excised, leaving nothing but a prolonged drone of unimpeachable waffle.’
That was the case for a few months — a bit of a worry for someone like me, trying to add more wit and wisdom to an updated collection of Boris’s greatest hits. Would I have to just add in a few extra blank pages to cover his post-referendum life? Thank God, his conference speech showed funny Boris has taken over once again from shocked Boris.
Welcome back the lovely P.G. Wodehouse similes: asking people if they were in favour of democracy is ‘like asking Maria von Trapp whether she was in favour of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’. There were the bathetic comparisons: ‘political freedom went with economic freedom like buying a two-for-one ice cream Snickers bar (only free markets could produce something so ingenious) and a copy of Private Eye (free speech of a kind still unknown in much of the planet)’.
Boris also returned to his bewitching habit of raiding the dictionary and minting his own vocab. Here he was, enjoying ‘vast and ruminative feasts of lunch or dinner in the castles of Mitteleuropa’, having ‘wonderful conversations in my various Euro-creoles’, taking on the ‘lingering gloomadon-poppers’.
So, Comic Boris returns. But there’s a subtle shift. The jokes are no longer the main course; they are the hors d’oeuvres. His conference jokes were gaffe-free and uncontroversial, and the serious message beneath was clear: that liberal democracy and British soft power are forces beyond compare.
Now Boris no longer has his Telegraph column, he doesn’t have to pull in readers with the histrionic touches or OTT lines that were then turned by the press into gaffes.
Will the new-found seriousness take him all the way to No. 10? Who knows? But I recall a story an Eton friend of Boris Johnson’s told me. At every big hurdle in life, this friend thought Boris wouldn’t quite pull it off. Every time, Boris has proved him wrong. Boris had done too little work, this friend thought, to get into Oxford — he strolled into Balliol with a Brackenbury Scholarship. Boris was too much of a maverick to make it in the Oxford Union — he became president. Boris was too chaotic to become Spectator editor/an MP/the London mayor. We all know what happened next. This schoolfriend has been proved wrong so many times that he thinks Boris is bound to become prime minister.
I once asked Boris’s old-classics tutor about his chances of making it to Downing Street. ‘Capax imperii nisi imperasset…’ said the tutor, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: ‘He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor.’
I’m not so sure. The imperial wreath is now tantalisingly close.