Throughout this fractious summer, one thing has united all the warring pundits and politicians. Left, right; Leave, Remain, everyone at least agrees that it was crazy to leave the country in Boris’s hands. He’s not serious, they say, looking, as they make this pronouncement, jolly pleased with their own relative gravitas.
They should instead be ashamed. The endless jeering at Boris isn’t justified — he was a decent mayor of London — and it is not in good faith. What purports to be considered criticism is almost always just sour grapes.
Why the bitterness? More often than not, Boris-bashers — in Parliament or press — are his contemporaries. A lot of them went to Oxford with him and they measure their success against his. It makes them cross. Even if they console themselves that Boris is lightweight, as an author or politician, there’s still his celebrity to contend with, here and (more galling) in America. Even teenage girls like him. ‘Boris?’ says my 13-year-old niece. ‘Boris is mint!’ No wonder his peers put the boot in.
I don’t mean that Boris doesn’t have flaws. Who knows what sort of Foreign Secretary he’ll make? Who knows if he has the determination or the will to beat back against the civil service? I suspect he’s best motivated by a deadline, like most journalists, which isn’t ideal. But the carping isn’t proportionate.
Boris-bashing was popular long before it could feasibly be thought of as a response to his political skills. He employed me 15 years ago to work as a reporter on this magazine. Soon after that I went to the first of many dinner parties at which his old Oxbridge buddies spent the evening cutting him down to size. It was, maybe still is, a sort of parlour game for them. The trick was to claim great friendship with Boris in the breath just before taking him down. ‘Oh yes, I know Boris very well… of course he’s totally immoral, a sociopath.’
Many of his peers hopped with indignation over his affairs, especially the one with Petronella Wyatt, the then deputy editor. To my shame, as the years went by, I got stuck in too. I was forever holding forth about his moral character — not because I thought him so very bad but because people were so very interested. They wanted to hear about Boris.
But if his wife forgives him, if Petronella does too (she wrote a very sad and touching piece about him recently), then what business is it of ours? Lust, as a vice, is less significant in a politician than greed. If more column inches are devoted to Boris’s sex life than to Liam Fox’s cash-for-access scandal or Jeremy Hunt’s tax avoidance, it’s simply because Boris isn’t boring.
‘But Boris isn’t a serious person.’ It’s often MPs who take this line — the likes of Tim Farron, who compared him to the Chuckle Brothers, or our new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. What they mean, I think, is that Boris doesn’t take them seriously. Unlike, say, George Osborne, who spent his entire adult life forming political alliances in preparation for power, Boris doesn’t have many Commons pals. He doesn’t hang out with MPs for fun, which makes them uneasy. In some ways it’s daft for an ambitious politician not to have a circle; not to play the schmoozing game. In other ways it makes him the perfect politician for this age — for a public mistrustful of Westminster insiders.
There are those like my good friend Bruce Anderson who will say that Boris isn’t serious because he has no real political plan, no clear philosophy. But then what exactly did David Cameron stand for? It’s not obvious to me that Dave had more clout than Boris. Both are socially and economically liberal, with a conservative love of institutions and history. Faced with an issue like the EU, Boris considered both sides carefully, then stood up for the one he felt right. Perhaps he thought Euroscepticism a good career move. I’m quite sure he also means it. At every turn Cameron simply picked the path he thought would keep him in power.
It’s true that Cameron did take himself pretty seriously — but that’s a very different thing from actually being serious. Because he took himself so seriously, Dave, by all accounts, couldn’t tolerate even constructive criticism. Instead of employing advisers un-afraid to tell truth to power, he surrounded himself with yes men. Yes sirs, we might call them now, since they’ve all been ennobled.
Boris, when I worked for him, was all for confrontation and debate. Our editorial conference was a happy riot of disagreement. We argued ceaselessly over Iraq: Boris was pro; the rest of us, led by his deputy, Stuart Reid, anti. The world is still waiting for Cameron to admit he might have misjudged Libya. Boris has publicly said he was wrong about Iraq.
If you consider yourself part of a more serious set of superior mortals, to the cabinet born, you’re in great danger of being caught sneering at the people you wish to lead. Gordon Brown’s gaffe over Gillian Duffy was a classic of the genre, but Cameron was caught out in his own way too. He was snooty and dismissive to the staff at Buckingham Palace. He was, I’ve heard, the only senior minister never to say hello to any of the Downing Street drivers. He never knew their names or asked about their lives. This isn’t just bad manners — it’s bad politics. It’ll come back to bite you. Boris, the subject of so much de haut en bas ridicule, is no respecter of persons. The Vote Leave team, who worked with him for months, said that Boris and Michael Gove were the only senior politicians who were unfailingly polite to everyone irrespective of rank. I hope one day, one way or another, they’re in power together.
Columnists often write about Boris’s popularity as if it’s an unearned talent — a dangerous gift in the hands of an unscrupulous maniac. But he’s popular not just because he’s funny, but because for all his Wodehousian ways he doesn’t see himself as part of a superior, more serious class. He communicates to British people still smarting from the recession, whose wages haven’t risen in years, that he’s one of us. He cheers us up. If he holds fast on Brexit, we might even trust him. It’s very foolish of anyone to dismiss him as a joke.