The chances of my 20-year-old student son being at an Ariana Grande concert on a Monday night were, my head told me, zero. But as I watched ambulances converge on the arena, my maternal heart was in my mouth. Oliver had just been to the premier league darts at the venue (like me, there is no sport my son doesn’t enjoy watching). I called. No answer. I sent a text. ‘Don’t go near Manchester Arena — explosion.’ Then another one. ‘Let me know you’re OK.’ He was. But those teenagers, all those girls. Eight years old. The nation weeps for other people’s children.
The day I went Yellow Tory and joined the Lib Dems, I got a two-word text from David Davis, the Brexit secretary. ‘Lib Dem?’ My two-word text back: ‘For now.’ That evening, I was on the stage of the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Cecil Sharp House, in Primrose Hill. Alongside me was the people’s snowflake, Gary Lineker, one of the few public influentials who shares my EU-philia and my view that the PM’s refusal to allow both MPs and the public any buyers’ remorse in the shape of a meaningful vote on the deal is the opposite of democracy and good government. ‘You’re the only proper opposition now!’ I said to him. ‘I think you should be in politics.’ Even the Corbynistas in the auditorium rustled their plastic bags with approval. At the drunken dinner afterwards, the next step was clear. Gary (six million Twitter followers to Corbyn’s less than a million and the Lib Dems’ scant 184,000) should be the new Macron of the middle ground. But what to call our new party? In the back room of Odette’s restaurant, some of Remain’s best brains — among them Jemima Khan, Piers Morgan, Emma Tucker and host Alain de Botton — stopped their jabber for a second. Alain’s wife Charlotte said, ‘Centre Forward’ into the hush. Boom! This was brilliant. ‘Who’s in?’ I asked, tinging a glass. Everyone’s hands shot up. Back of the net! We all looked at Gary. ‘I’m not,’ he said. I still think it’s a good idea. Who’s in? At the back there — you? Oh, OK, you were just scratching your head… George? Tony? Anyone?
The Victoria Derbyshire Show rang in the wake of my Lib Dem defection. Would I be filmed having lunch with a mystery guest on the opposite side of the Brexit debate? I agreed, on the condition it wasn’t Michael Gove, with whom I was booked to do Any Questions? I thought twice in one week was too much. I turned up at the Boisdale, where a smart table was laid for two. I sat down and in walked Nigel Farage, the man who has done more than David Cameron to destroy my dream of a prosperous, peaceful and united Europe, followed by Bafta-winner Victoria Derbyshire, got up like a Lyon’s nippy, who took our orders and waited at the table. We tanked up and Farage, in between telling me I was in a hopeless muddle about the European Union, admitted the best moment in his career was in 2004 when ‘all these beautiful women from Eastern Europe came in’. I then made a blue joke about ‘enlargement’ which will not make the cut on BBC2 next Tuesday.
In the end Gove pulled out so I was on with David Gauke, chief secretary to the Treasury, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Tommy Sheppard of the SNP. On the train to Surrey I thought I’d warn the producer that I tend to go into a decline if I’m called the sister or daughter or wife of anyone at the beginning of the show. She passed on my allergy to the presenter, Jonathan Dimbleby, who emailed me a chilling but courteous note asking me not to tell him how to do his job, and I reverse-ferreted in fright faster than Theresa May on the dementia tax. I practically begged him to refer to me only as ‘Sister of Boris’. Of course, he didn’t, being a ‘Brother of’ himself. You can’t hear this at home, but before the show goes on air he tells funny stories, teases the audience and everyone is putty in his hands.
On the way back from West Horsley, the driver told me he’d had that Diane Abbott in the back of his Jag the week before and that the shadow home secretary had whispered to herself out loud for four hours. To prove I was not mad myself, and not remotely like Diane Abbott, I sat shotgun and we had a jolly singalong to Abba’s Greatest Hits, even though all I wanted to do, in truth, was sit in the back and weep softly that instead of going Forward, Together (copyright TM’s manifesto), we seem to be going Backwards, Alone, and there isn’t the slightest thing me, Gary or anyone else can do about it.
Rachel Johnson is a columnist at the Mail on Sunday and the sister of Jo Johnson.