Stanley Johnson is adjusting to his new constitutional position in the life of London: not least deciding which clubs to avoid at lunchtime in order to dodge Boris’s journalist foes
Last July, soon after Boris had announced he would be a candidate for the post of mayor of London, the editor of The Spectator very kindly invited me to give my reaction in the columns of this magazine. In the article I wrote then, I described the circumstances of Boris’s arrival in this world, in a hospital on New York’s East Side, around 70th Street.
I recalled that, as a modern man, I was perfectly ready to be present at the birth but that unfortunately I missed it, having slipped outside for a moment to buy a pizza. So the first view of Boris that I had was in the crèche of newborn babies. I couldn’t see much of him, since he was neatly wrapped in swaddling clothes. I did, however, note that for security reasons the soles of his feet had been dipped in black ink and his ‘footprints’ taken.
‘It didn’t occur to me at that moment,’ I wrote, ‘that I might be looking at the insteps of a future mayor of London.’
Well, those tiny feet have marched a long way since then! As I suspect most people know by now, the Conservatives under David Cameron, with Boris leading the charge, took London and over 250 seats in the country as a whole, signalling emphatically a revival in the fortunes of the opposition and a considerable crisis for the government.
As the proud father, I was interviewed on a couple of occasions by the BBC and Sky News and invited to comment on the results. I argued that I had probably known Boris as long as anyone, apart from his mother. Over more than 20 years I had read most of his articles in the national press and all of his books, including The Dream of Rome, and it was absurd to suppose that just because he wrote in a readable and often humorous way, or just because he appeared on programmes like Have I Got News for You, he was somehow not a ‘serious person’. I have a lot of time for journalists. Some of my best children are journalists. But when the press and media pursue an easy headline in defiance of the evidence, I can’t help thinking that they are guilty, at the least, of sloppy thinking.
Well, as the Daily Mail front-page headline put it on the day after the night before, Boris had ‘the last laugh’.
I know it is hard for me to be objective, but some of the press comments seemed to me to be worse than sloppy. By chance, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian and I were both invited by the BBC to be part of a small group of commentators at City Hall on election night.
‘I think calling Boris a sociopath was extremely impolite and probably actionable,’ I protested.
‘I’m not going to talk to you,’ Polly replied, ‘you’re Boris’s father.’
I wanted to pursue the issue but Emily Maitlis of Newsnight whisked her off for an interview.
In my new father-of-the-mayor role, I find I am faced — as the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown would say — with increasingly ‘tough and difficult decisions’.
To give an example, when I leave my house around 12.45 p.m. to cycle through Regent’s Park and down Regent Street for lunch, there comes a moment near Leicester Square when I have to choose whether to go to the Garrick or the Beefsteak.
If I go to the Garrick, there is a danger of meeting Simon Heffer. Heffer’s first charge against Boris was that he is a buffoon. Well, having been comprehensively worsted on that front, Heffer’s particular gripe now is the question of Boris’s ‘competence’ to run London. I know Heffer is not talking about me but still I regard myself as implicated by reasons of paternity, if nothing else.
If, to avoid Heffer, I put on the brakes, and aim for the Beefsteak instead, I run the risk of encountering Bruce Anderson. Writing this week for example, in the Independent, Anderson seems to be no less disobliging as far as Boris is concerned than Heffer. Anderson appears to believe that Boris is bound to screw things up. The line seems to be that he is ‘not a details man’. If they start talking about ‘management skills’, I shall know they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
In one of those post-vote TV interviews I was kindly invited to give, I opined, only half-frivolously, that a man who could master Ancient Greek and Latin as well as Boris has can certainly run London. I say only half-frivolously because in the days when Britain ruled more than a quarter of the world rather successfully (from our point of view at least), a classical education was considered a more than adequate training for the job of handling populations certainly as large and diverse as London’s.
By chance, Clive Williams, headmaster of Ashdown House, the Sussex prep-school which Boris and three of his siblings (Rachel, Leo and Jo) attended, telephoned me as I sat down to write this article to congratulate me on becoming First Father.
‘What about this charge, Clive,’ I asked, ‘that Boris doesn’t pay attention to detail?’
‘Codswallop!’ Clive replied. ‘You can’t write Greek and Latin prose as well as Boris did without having a supreme ability to master detail. If you’re going to get it right, you have to be meticulous.’
I ought to make it clear that my main concern during Boris’s campaign, apart from any practical help I might give, was not to rock the boat with some unwise remark which could be seized on by the Livingstone camp. For example, various articles appeared about my Turkish antecedents. They correctly pointed out that my grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last interior minister of the last Turkish Sultan, but quite incorrectly suggested that my father, and therefore Boris’s grandfather, was a Turkish immigrant. He wasn’t. He was born in Bournemouth in 1909. But any comment from me at that point might have given rise to the unhelpful headline: ‘Boris’s dad denies he is a Turkish immigrant descended from Circassian slaves!’
There was just one occasion when I thought I might have a larger role to play. One afternoon Boris’s campaign people rang me and asked me to make a speech in Greenwich to a gathering of 400 potential Tory voters when it seemed that Boris would be delayed in Westminster by vital House of Commons business.
I drove down with Dan Ritterband, Boris’s chief of staff, ready to give the speech of my life. They gave me a set of notes on the main themes (bendy buses, crime, congestion charge, etc.) but I planned to throw in some unscripted remarks as well, such as a promise to rip up as many speed-bumps as possible!
Happily, Boris showed up with minutes to spare, so I missed my moment of glory. But I had a mean time in Greenwich that night anyway.