It is the Tory rutting season again. In Manchester, the party's two alpha males will once again compete for the love of the faithful. David Cameron may be top stag but the doe-eyed adoration of the rank and file is more often reserved for Boris Johnson.
Conference is the Mayor of London's natural arena and he knows it. The Prime Minister may have the top job title but so often it is Johnson who has the party eating out of his hand. It crystallises the tensions in their relationship.
This annual joust between the two Eton and Oxford men – in which Johnson invests the same indecorous will to win as his sweat-drenched efforts at wiff-waff or tennis – began even before Cameron became leader in 2005. That year, it was Cameron who came out top. His leadership campaign had started badly, but his impressive note-free address to conference in Blackpool that October won him the day.
Whatever the outward appearances, Johnson's nose was out of joint. He drafted a subtly wounding Daily Telegraph column that week that cleverly left the impression that Cameron should be seen as an over-praised unknown. Noting that he had "lost count" of the number of people who had asked him why he was not standing himself, Johnson contrasted this surprise with the "look of anxious blankness" when he told them he was backing Cameron instead.
He describes this look as one that "you see when people are sure that they ought to have read some classic work, and are in two minds whether to bluff it out or admit ignorance".
But when Cameron was voted in as leader in December 2005, he promoted Boris from the backbenches (where he had languished since being fired from the shadow arts job for lying about his affair with Petronella Wyatt). The higher education portfolio, however, was something of a pyrrhic victory. Johnson was forced to resign from the editorship of the Spectator, losing a handsome salary and stock-option package.
In public, Johnson maintained his usual act of cheery buffoonery. But in private he was fuming at the injustice of a man two years his junior becoming leader and omitting to give him a "proper" job. After all, Johnson had been one of the first MPs to back Cameron for the leadership and he had done so, in his own words, "out of pure, cynical self-interest". He expected greater pay-back than third fiddle on education.
Perhaps these feelings of resentment were in his mind when canvassing ideas from his staff one Wednesday afternoon for one of his Daily Telegraph columns. The search for inspiration led to a peculiar competition to suggest the theme most likely to derail Boris's career. Boris seized on one suggestion with such glee that he immediately sat down and began composing an introduction beginning: "One thing that has become apparent to me in my years of Parliamentary service is that David Cameron is a complete ****." All good public-schoolboy fun of course, but his enthusiasm left few unclear of Johnson's true thoughts.
At the next party conference in October 2006, Cameron's first as leader, Boris exacted his revenge. The Tory leader was due to deliver a crucial message about the NHS being "safe" in Tory hands and the media were keyed up to cover this pivotal moment in the party's march back to electoral acceptability.
Only instead of focusing on the leader's words, most political hacks were in hot pursuit of Johnson, who had attacked Jamie Oliver, the patron saint of healthier school dinners, only days after Cameron had lavished praised on him. Cameron joked about the incident the next day but no-one believed he really considered it either funny or accidental – whatever Boris's protestations of innocence.
How Boris really thought he would benefit from stealing the attention away from his boss is unclear. His motive seems to be in part an explosion of envy, but tinged with a certain death wish. As one friend put it to me: "Boris is incapable of seeing a button marked 'self-destruct' without giving in to the urge to press it."
Within a month he appeared to be at it again when he laid out the case in his column – apparently seriously – for giving the Iranians the nuclear bomb.
So incensed was the leadership once again that Boris's team were given to understand that he had lost an imminent promotion to shadow Europe minister as a direct result. It all added to Boris's reputation as untrustworthy.
Despairing of his parliamentary career, in March 2007 Boris began talking to confidants about trying for Mayor of London as an "interesting" exit route that would also cash in on his undoubted box-office status. But Cameron was "pleasantly dismissive" of the idea, preferring to pursue a string of other big names who, however, for one reason or another, all faded away. The idea of a Johnson mayoralty was considered preposterous and dangerous.
In July, Cameron reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet, bringing in a number of younger and less experienced MPs (such as Michael Gove) but again leaving out Johnson. It was a seminal moment. His hopes dashed, Boris began sizing up the mayoralty in earnest. Although he insists it was his idea to run, at the time he went out of his way to make Cameron (now devoid of any other plausible candidate) sweat by playing hard to get. He knew that the leader, who had once been so dismissive of him, was now the one in Boris's power. So concerned was Cameron that he texted him with the message: "Don't go wobbly on me now."
"Boris really didn't want to do it," according to one well-placed Cameroon. "We – George Osborne, Dave himself, Andy Coulson, Steve Hilton – endlessly had to go on about the fact he could win. There were a lot of meetings and calls, and Dave would keep asking, 'Is he there yet?'" Johnson was, and he won the 2008 mayoral election.Reuse content