‘Steady on, old chap. You’re a bit hard on the boy.’ The arm around my shoulder was that of Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley. I remember where we were standing – it was outside the entrance to the Birmingham International Convention Centre – and I remember the occasion: a Conservative party conference. But which one? All I can say is that this was a long time ago. It was after Johnson minor had become Mayor of London – he was speaking at that conference – and it must have been after (and probably responding to) a column I wrote in the Times more than six years ago: ‘Tories have got to end their affair with Boris.’
I’m proud of that column – seeing it no doubt conceitedly as a significant piece of journalism amid a waste of routine other stuff in the 6,000-odd articles I’ve written in my career as a columnist. It caused something of a flutter at the time, with the Guardian quoting the paragraph I now quote here:
‘Somebody has to call a halt to the gathering pretence that if only you’re sufficiently comical in politics you can laugh everything off. Somebody has to remind us that it’s not enough for those who seek to govern us simply to be: they must do. Incompetence is not funny. Policy vacuum is not funny. Administrative sloth is not funny. Breaking promises is not funny. A careless disregard for the truth is not funny. Advising old mates planning to beat somebody up is not funny. Abortions and gagging orders are not funny. Creeping ambition in a jester’s cap is not funny. Vacuity posing as merriment, cynicism posing as savviness, a wink and smile covering for betrayal… these things are not funny.’
Though I was 64 at the time, the outburst had a somewhat adolescent quality: a kind of wide-eyed youthful shock at the sheer wickedness of the world. And as I went on to say, I felt uncomfortable about attacking my former Spectator editor in this way: ‘a fellow columnist… an essentially liberal-minded fellow Tory, a wonderful entertainer, and a man who has never been anything but friendly towards me.’
I did feel uncomfortable. From the columnist’s point of view, Johnson had been the perfect editor, often absent, even when present disinclined to interfere, and happy to let a thousand flowers bloom, plus a fair quotient of weeds too. His deputy at the time was an under-sung hero, Stuart Reid, a kind, scholarly and careful man, and an unobtrusively deft editor with a good eye for quality – besides being a patient clearer-up of his boss’s messes. So whenever anyone starts telling you about Johnson’s glorious reign at The Spectator, spare a thought for the man who made it possible. Indeed, whenever anyone starts telling you about any significant achievement in our Prime Minister’s career, spare a thought for the somebody-else who made it possible.
Stuart at least survived in one piece this chapter in both their lives. A notable feature of the Johnson journey so far has been the bodies left in ditches along his way. As with a vampire’s victims, they have this in common: their lives got caught up for a while with his, they fell, and there is no obvious sign of attack or brutality. With Johnson, even the bite marks are invisible after the kiss.
Leaving his personal life aside (I confess to a sneaking regard for Carrie Johnson, the only lover so far to have cornered this rascal), look at the professional engagements: senior civil servants, chief whips, private secretaries, ethics advisers… Owen Paterson and Rishi Sunak are only two of the more recent casualties. So many damaged men and women. When Johnson is finally driven from the field, someone is going to have to come in and bayonet the wounded. What hope Priti, Jacob, Nadine, Grant, Suella, Anne-Marie?
But there I go again, beginning to rant. My life too has been marked indelibly by this destructive force with his undoubted streak of a music-hall genius. Luckily I never wanted an honour, but it would have been pleasant to jog into this last lap of my own career before retirement with a reputation for balance, geniality, fair-mindedness and gentle humour. It was almost within my grasp. There was even an outside chance of becoming a sort of C-list national treasure de nos jours, maybe a notch or two down from Kate Adie, Bernard Levin or Alan Coren. Gone, all gone. I’ve turned into a mini-me Captain Ahab, jaw set, obsessively in pursuit of his own Moby Dick: Moby Johnson, the great white sperm whale. It’s not a good look, I freely confess it. Gentle humour goes out of the window as my readers groan: ‘Oh, not another thrust at Boris by this embittered old journalist – and Matthew used to be such fun! Why can’t he move on?’
Ah me. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Brace yourself for a little flight of pomposity. I know this sounds sanctimonious, but I truly believe that the present Prime Minister has stained his country in the eyes not only of the world, but of its own citizens. We have lost confidence in the essential propriety of democratic politics, we’ve started telling ourselves that they’re all like that: that politicians as a breed are mendacious, insincere and shallowly ambitious; and our faith even in the rule of law has been shaken. One of our two great political parties has been poisoned, mutilated and defaced.
This week the Conservative party, of which, for all its terrible faults, it was once possible to feel proud, nearly shook the incubus off its back; and before too long it will succeed. But the repair of the Tories’ own self-belief and reputation will be the work of a decade or more.
Johnson is routinely accused of having achieved nothing. Not so. He may not have entered politics to make a difference, but he has made a signal difference. Single--handedly he has blighted his party and disfigured the politics of a whole great nation. And I told you so: six years ago.