With four minutes to go, Boris Johnson ran in. I was already concerned – maybe more concerned than Boris. It was an awards ceremony at the Hilton, Park Lane. The room was packed with financial people in bow ties. It was a couple of years before Johnson became Mayor of London. At this point he was a backbench Conservative MP and newspaper columnist. Right now he was due to make a funny speech.
In four minutes.
There I was, at 9.26pm, sitting with a table-load of London bankers, trying to answer their questions. 'Will Boris actually arrive?' 'Is he normally this late?' 'Has he got lost?'
I answered them all as best I could:
(a) I’m sorry
(b) I don’t know
(c) I don’t see Boris Johnson that often
You see, I explained, I am only here to hand out the awards for... (I consulted the sign at the back of the stage)... 'for International Securitisation,' and Boris is making the after-dinner speech. So we have not coordinated at all. I don't know where he is. Yes, I'm a little worried too.
To be perfectly frank, I had not the first idea what securitisation was either. The event was named something grand like The International Securitisation Awards 2006 and I really did not want to ask what exactly the prizes were being handed out for, since I was the one handing them out.
Suddenly – BOOM. A rush of wind from an opened door, a golden mop, a heave of body and dinner jacket onto the chair next to mine, and the breathless question, at 9.28pm:
'JEREMY. Where exactly AM I?'
I actually had that stress feeling – a kind of sunburn, creeping across my arms and back. So he was late and he had not prepared a speech. And he was due onstage in ninety seconds.
I said, 'It is the Securitisation Awards, Boris.'
He said, 'Right-o. And who is speaking?'
'Good God,' he cried. 'When?'
I looked at my watch. 'Um – pretty much now.'
Eyes widened around me. I speak at quite a few dinners and always feel most comfortable if I do some research a couple of weeks before – what’s the occasion (that helps), who is attending, etc. – then write the speech longhand in advance. It is not that I am the school swat. It is just that underpreparedness, that dream where you are sitting final exams in a subject you didn’t know you were supposed to revise, scares the pants off me. Later we will talk about public speaking and what I've learnt about it. But right now, this was an emergency.
I noticed we now had the attention of the whole table.
Boris said: 'Okay, first up. What IS securitisation?'
Nervous laughter. A man from one of the big Far East banks, who had the luxurious rich-person’s coiffe you see on magazine covers, explained quietly in a mid-Atlantic purr. 'It is where we take your debt, your mortgage, say'
Boris is staring at him.
'...and we split it into tiny pieces, combine each of them with other similar slivers of debt, and sell them around the world so the risk effectively disappears.'
The words would echo back to me two years later, when all those invisible slivers of debt would suddenly return to sender, flooding back at us in one huge avalanche of manure that kept flowing until it buried banks, businesses and homes across the western world and almost stopped the cashpoints working.
For now, this guy was the expert and we were listening.
Boris asked for a sheet of paper. Someone produced a piece of A4, the reverse side of our menu for the night. He laid it on his thigh, below the tablecloth.
'Anyone got a pen?' he said. 'Quick!'
A biro slid across the table. Very quickly, taking it, the future Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary began to write what looked like a plan for a speech. It was now past nine-thirty. One of the organisers was staring at us imploringly from the other side of the room, as if thinking: 'How much longer can we give him?' I felt that pricking of the skin again. If I could sense the stress on his behalf, what on earth was Boris feeling? This was going to be a catastrophe. He was going onstage in a minute or two with barely-legible notes written on the back of a menu and no idea even of which event he was attending. An after-dinner speaker normally talks for twenty to thirty minutes. How much material did Boris have? Looking at the scrap of paper I could make out very little of what his scrawl said. There seemed to be about ten words. There was one at the very top that I could make out:
and then, a few inches below that, another in capitals:
but I could not read the rest of the scrawl. Boris harrumphed and groaned, as if straining at an idea. Then his arm was tugged and I heard the announcement: 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome MP and journalist, Boris Johnson, to the stage.'
I pressed my palms into my trouser legs, ready for the catastrophe. And then I noticed: he had accidentally left his page of notes on the table. Could I run up with them? It would be too obvious. He was already at the podium.
'Ladies and gentlemen... errrrrrrrr,' he began.
This could be even worse than I imagined. They might have to cut out of it early and go straight to the awards. I had a five-minute speech myself, followed by the eighteen securitisation awards. The script was in my hand. I would need to be ready.
Boris had the look of a man who had been dragged out of a well by his ankles. His blond hair seemed to spring vertically from his head as he embarked on some opening remarks, where the occasional word, not always the obvious one, was shouted at double-volume.
'...errrrr, Welcome to THE International. Errrrr...'
The catastrophe had happened. He did not know, could not remember, what event he was at. This is one of the biggest fears any speaker has, forgetting where they are.
Johnson then did a crazy thing. To find out where he was, he very obviously turned around and looked at the large logo projected at the back of the stage.
'...to the International SECURITISATION Awards! YES!' he cried triumphantly, and to my amazement it brought the house down. There was a huge cheer. Everyone realised this was not going to be a normal speech. The chaos had descended on us, we were in it, and we were going to enjoy it.
'SHEEP,' he began. He started a story about his uncle’s farm and how OUTRAGEOUS it was that they couldn’t bury animals that had JUST died, as they used to do back in the sixties, seventies and eighties. No, he said, EU regulations meant an abattoir had to be involved. 'One died today. A SHEEP. And my uncle had to RING a fellow at an abattoir fifty MILES away. His name was Mick – no, it was Jim – no, sorry, MARGARET, that was it, MARGARET...”
People were now, not just roaring with laughter, but listening. He continued.
'Which is why my political hero is the Mayor from JAWS.'
'Yes. Because he KEPT THE BEACHES OPEN.'
More guffawing around me. He spoke as if every sentence had only just occurred to him, and each new thought came as a surprise.
'Yes, he REPUDIATED, he FORESWORE and he ABROGATED all these silly regulations on health and safety and declared that the people should SWIM! SWIM!'
'Now, I accept,' he went on in an uncertain tone, 'that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the MAJORITY get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the Mayor in Jaws?'
Brilliant. The whole room is hooting and cheering. It no longer matters that Boris has no script, no plan, no idea of what event he is attending, and that he seems to be taking the whole thing off the top of his head.
I realise that I am in the presence of genius.
The speech is now about halfway through. Perhaps gaining in confidence after the disaster with the timings and his forgotten notes, Boris embarks on a story about a former Foreign Secretary, George Brown.
As soon as he starts, I know what to expect. The 'George Brown in Peru' story is so well-known that most people have stopped telling it. The tale is probably untrue. George Brown was a high-ranking Labour politician in the sixties and seventies who took to drinking as a result of the pressures of high office (he famously said, 'A lot of politicians drink and womanise – I’ve never womanised'). He was said to have been at an official reception in South America when he saw a beautiful Peruvian in front of him and asked for the honour of waltzing with her.
The reply came in three parts.
'I cannot dance with you, Foreign Secretary, sir, firstly because you are drunk. Secondly, sir, because the band is not playing a waltz, as you imagine, but the Peruvian national anthem. And thirdly, I cannot dance with you because I am the Archbishop of Lima.'
So the story goes. Boris ploughs into it with gusto. 'And the reply came back, from this vision in red, NO, I cannot DANCE with you, firstly because you are drunk.”
'SECONDLY because this is not a WALTZ but our national ANTHEM.'
Again, a pause. 'And – and thirdly because...'
Now Boris had stopped.
He looked around.
There was silence.
He looked behind him at the logo on the screen, as if International Securitisation Awards was going to help.
A lone person at the back burst out laughing as we waited.
Finally, from the stage: 'I am terribly sorry, everyone, I have forgotten the third reason. Very sorry about that.'
It brought the house down. He had spent five minutes starting the story about George Brown and forgotten the punchline. I had never seen anything like it before.
Something about the chaos of it – the reality, I suppose – was utterly joyful. The idea that this was the opposite of a politician, that suddenly we had an MP in front of us who was utterly real, who had come without a script or an agenda and then forgotten, not just the name of the event but his whole speech and the punchline to his funniest story. I watched in awe.
Finally he said, 'Right-o. Jeremy VINE is out here and he will be presenting the...' (looks behind him again) '...International Securitisation Awards...” (cheering because he has said the name a second time) '...and I ACTUALLY have some of those very trophies here.' He starts handling one of the glass awards. 'I suppose you could call this, not really an award, but a sort of elongated lozenge.'
Laughter. A wave. Cheering. Applause.
I did something I have never done before. Ditched all the funny things I had planned to say as a warm-up to the awards, because I realised what I was saying could not be even faintly amusing after that. I had been completely blown off the stage.
Later I sent Boris a postcard: 'Boris. Brilliant. Inspired. Funniest speech I have ever seen. In the presence of the master. Jaws!'
He responded a week later in the scrawl I remembered from the back of the menu:
'Jeremy. You were INCREDIBLE.'
I thought about that night for a long time. During the Blair years, we got used to a way of presenting information that was so mechanically smooth, so professional, that in the end we stopped believing any of it. This mastery of the message eventually backfired completely and came to be known as spin. When Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister, his first public performance was praised because his head was blocked by a pillar, meaning that the main camera was unable to get a proper shot of his face. Was Boris, with his total lack of varnish, part of the new wave?
Eighteen months after the marvellous securitisation night, I arrived at an awards ceremony for a totally different industry. I cannot recall whether it was concrete or chiropractors, but once again I had dutifully done my research and brought my script. However, the organisers had asked for only five minutes of opening remarks.
'Is someone else speaking?' I asked.
'Boris Johnson,' the organiser said, a frown appearing on her brow. 'Do you know where he is?'
And here we were again. He was due to speak at nine-thirty. He arrived seven or eight minutes before the actual moment, heaving and laughing himself into the chair beside me.
'Jeremy,' he said, 'what is this?'
I told him. Others at the table helped. Did they have a pen, paper? Both were produced. A better ballpoint this time, and the back of the menu again. I watched, fascinated, as Boris pulled the paper tight across his thigh and wrote a few words – yes, SHEEP was definitely one – in a barely-legible scrawl.
Then he was on.
'It is wonderful, and a privilege, to be here at – oh goodness.'
He turns, reads if off the screen.
Shocked expression, as if that has honestly never happened before, my God, I am so sorry, how embarrassing to forget which awards I am at.
Louder laughter. The hair everywhere.
Into the tirade about the uncle who is not allowed to dispose of a dead sheep on his farm and had to call the man at the abattoir. 'I can’t remember his name. Mick – no, Jim. No. Hang on. It was MARGARET...'
Then to the Mayor from Jaws, who kept the beaches open.
A moment’s pause. 'I do accept that some small children were eaten by a shark as a result...'
The hair really is all over the place now, as if rising to meet the level of the audience’s appreciation, the script left on the table beside me again, people at the tables lapping it up.
On we go to the George Brown story. This time he will remember the first, second and third reason, won’t he? He can’t forget the punchline to this story again, can he?
'SECONDLY because this is not a WALTZ but our national ANTHEM. And, and thirdly because...'
I sit forward in my seat. I can’t believe what I am watching.
'This is very embarrassing. I am awfully sorry, I have forgotten the third reason. Very sorry, let’s move on, forget about it.'
Brings the house down.
Now he is about to introduce me and I think I know what will happen, and it does.
'I actually have some of the – er, well, I suppose you could call them AWARDS here. A sort of trophy. Well, really this looks like a kind of elongated LOZENGE...'
As he said that phrase for the second time – elongated lozenge – I had the Hercule Poirot moment. Having read all sixty-six of Agatha Christie’s detective stories as a teenager, I came to realise the vital moment was actually not the scene where everyone assembles in the living room to hear Poirot explain how the murder happened and who did it. No, the key instant in each book comes just before the denouement as the solution suddenly falls into place in the brain of the great man. At that point the crime-busting Belgian touches the delicate ends of his moustache, winks at the air and utters the key phrase:
'Now, mon ami, now I understand everything.'
Watching Boris at that second event, in the middle of a crowd of dinner-jacketed businesspeople all laughing and hooting, I was momentarily apart from the proceedings. I would have touched the ends of my moustache if I had one. People who speak after dinner don’t usually get to observe each other because no one books us in pairs. So when we do accidentally come together, we watch with close fascination. Now, I thought, now I understand everything.
Since then we have all seen Boris’s progression: MP, then a twice-elected Mayor, then Cabinet Minister. Now on the brink of being Prime Minister.
And watching him from a distance I have often remembered those two speeches and wondered.
Johnson became Foreign Secretary after leading the argument for Brexit. He has had his ups and downs – before deciding that everything he does is part of a brilliant act, we should probably call as evidence his shambolic run at 10 Downing Street in the summer of 2016. His leadership campaign was kyboshed at the very press conference he had booked to launch it. MPs who turned up to support him sat with their jaws slack as he told the world he would not be able to do the job. Surely that was a real accident? People who fake car crashes tend not to get hurt in them.
I realised that those two Boris speeches had made me pose the fundamental question, the one that concerns you most when you listen to a politician:
Is this guy for real?
This article originally appeared on Jeremy Vine's Facebook page.