I got Boris Johnson into trouble once, without meaning to. The two of us had been driven hither and thither across Uganda by Unicef in the back of an expensive Mercedes 4x4 to gaze at the fatuous projects they had delivered for the benighted natives. We had been chosen for the trip because we were perceived, rightly, to be unconvinced by the efficacy of some western foreign aid programmes and even less convinced — in my case, at least — by the UN.
Our chaperones were two humourless Scandinavian women who ferried us both from one remote village to the next: ‘Look, here we have built a women’s drop-in centre,’ one of them would remark proudly of a breezeblock edifice in some pitiful settle-ment which primarily needed a road, a school, some industry etc. But the Unicef women had an agenda and the Ugandans had bloody well better get on board with it. At each village the natives would be rounded up to meet us and explain how exceptionally grateful they were.
Shortly before we arrived at every stop, the Scandi harridans would smear thick layers of insulating cream on themselves, and then don rubber gloves and face masks. They urged us to do the same — there is bilharzia here, they said, and perhaps worse — but we declined. It seemed staggeringly rude. And so that is how these matrons greeted the natives each time — stepping out of an air-conditioned limo which cost the GDP of their entire country and shaking hands encased in rubber gloves because the black people are all diseased. And then lecturing them about women’s rights.
It eclipsed satire. This seemed to me racist, patronising and as fine a case of cultural neo-imperialism as you could ever wish to find. After we left one settlement and climbed back in our limo, Boris remarked, with acid on his tongue: ‘And so on to the next bunch of grinning piccaninnies.’ It was one of the most apposite statements I have ever heard; anti-racist in its intent, mocking the attitudes of the Unicef staffers and the purpose of this charade.
I wrote about it afterwards and quoted Boris, in context. But it still got him into trouble. There is no nuance allowed. Boris is possibly the least racist person I have ever met — unsurprisingly, considering he is the esoteric product of millennia of Eurasian toff miscegenation. You could not be elected mayor of the world’s third most achingly right-on city — after Brighton and Freiburg — if ordinary people detected even a scintilla of racism in your bones.
I thought I’d bring it up again now because it seems to be open season on Boris, the date having been set by No. 10. The newspapers have been full of entertainingly spiteful attacks on the man, largely from people fortunate enough either to have been employed by Boris or shagged by him or, in Petronella Wyatt’s case, both. In fairness, Petsy attempted to disguise her attack as a sort of semi-affectionate defence.
The most stinging and bitter effusion came from our own Matthew Parris, who I have always regarded as a beautiful and elegant writer who is nonetheless wrong, always, about everything, without exception. It was remarkable in its fury, a kind of eloquent hissy fit seemingly predicated upon the fact that Boris had once referred to gay people as ‘bum boys’and voted against the repeal of Clause 28. God knows what Matthew thinks about most of the rest of his former party colleagues, then, who also voted against the repeal of Clause 28 and, when off-duty, perhaps use similar terminology or — hell, who knows — worse.
There was recycled tat about Johnson having once, when he was about nine years old, fabricated a quote for a newspaper and the old inaccurate story of him having provided his friend Darius Guppy with the address of a journalist who it was claimed had smeared the Guppy family. (Not smeared them enough, in my book.) The address was never given, a fact Matthew decided not to report.
Matthew went on to describe Johnson’s chief qualities as being: ‘casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal; and, beneath the betrayal, the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained’. Oh, and incompetence and a lack of attention to detail.
I have to say, it seems to me a tirade which is histrionic in temperament and somewhat selective in its litany of real or imagined crimes. As well as being deeply disloyal, of course — but the referendum looms and I suppose we might consign such recondite qualities as loyalty to the dustbin for a bit. The supposedly substantive stuff is that, undoubtedly uniquely among politicians, Boris Johnson has been known to change his mind from time to time on certain issues and hasn’t always kept his promises. If we were to strike out all those in the House of Commons guilty of these misdemeanours, we would be left with Frank Field and Kate Hoey.
And then there is the incompetence and lack of a grasp of detail, which seem to be one and the same thing. This is a charge often levelled at Boris and I suppose there is some truth in it. I do not think he would make a particularly effective Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for example. But he might make a decent leader. I am not at all sure that good leaders do need the sort of grasp of fine detail to which Johnson’s critics frequently allude — which is why the undoubtedly fastidious and competent Andrew Tyrie is where he is, and why Boris Johnson is where he is.
Leaders surely need to have hold of the bigger picture, the stuff well above the fine print, the things which resonate with the public. I can’t think of many politicians who do that better than Boris Johnson. Hell, I wouldn’t vote for him — unless he was standing against his polar opposite, Jeremy Corbyn — but then, I’m not a Tory.