Boris Johnson: Hard work - and blond ambition

His bumbling personality and well-publicised love life have made him a figure of fun. But in his job as shadow higher education minister Boris Johnson is winning over the doubters. Lucy Hodges discovers his serious side
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The Independent Online

Boris looks immensely chuffed. She has done him proud and given him a cut price. I suggest he hang the painting in his office in place of some dreary parliamentary prints, but he looks worried. Perhaps a portrait of himself would make him seem narcissistic - and Boris, for all his eccentricities, is not that.

Friendly, chubby, disorganised, he doesn't give a toss what he looks like. "What are you here to talk about?" he asks. Um, higher education, I say diffidently. "Ah yes," he replies.

Boris Johnson, or "Bozza" as he is known in some newspapers, has been the Conservative higher education spokesman for six months. Appointed by his friend and fellow Oxford graduate, David Cameron, he has brought some welcome fun and games to a world that is not known for its pizzazz.

He wants everyone to know that he loves the job and regards it as terrifically important. Why do journalists think that higher education is such a lowly portfolio, he asks.

"In what sense is higher education a lowly job in politics? It's not as though it doesn't absorb my time. I have never worked so hard in all my life."

The new Tory higher education spokesman is whizzing round the country visiting universities and talking to vice chancellors. So far he has been to Leeds, Sheffield, Oxford, Exeter and to various London institutions. Oh, and Edinburgh, where he stood for the position of university rector and was beaten into third place.

The only new universities he has visited are Sheffield Hallam, Oxford Brookes and Westminster; he will have to visit more if he is to get a feel for the largest group of universities in the sector educating half a million students.

Has he visited any of the newest universities created in the past year, such as Southampton Solent, Worcester and Northampton? Boris looks blank.

Nevertheless he has been doing plenty of reading and research, as is evident in his new pamphlet, published by the Conservative think tank Politeia, Aspire Ever Higher: University Policy for the 21st Century.

This is an attempt to rework Conservative policy on higher education, which hit rock bottom in the last election when the Tories opposed tuition fees and demanded a cut in student numbers.

The pamphlet is well written and funny, as you would expect, full of literary references, quotes from Thomas Gray's "Elegy written in a country churchyard", and so on. But it is thin on policy and, as Roger Brown, vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, points out, its emphasis on more private funding for higher education, less interference with universities and being tougher on standards is not very different from New Labour's agenda.

"I wrote the pamphlet to set out some of the thinking," he explains. "I don't see any point in constructing great divisions (between Labour and Conservatives) where there are none."

He then tries to think of how he does differ from Labour. "I read a piece by Estelle Morris recently where she said all universities are the same and we should not run away with the idea of too much differentiation," he recalls. "I think 'absolute bollocks'. These places are not the same. I believe passionately in academic inequality.

"There's a huge amount of good that can be done to liberate universities. If Gordon wants to demonstrate to middle England and the political classes that he is not going to be some ghastly old socially engineering leftie, he should do a complete U-turn on the universities, drop the Laura Spence nonsense, and announce a programme of much greater liberation. That would be a cool stunt by Gordon."

Laura Spence was the schoolgirl from the Northeast who got a clutch of A grades at A-level from her local comprehensive but failed to win a place to read medicine at Oxford. She went off to Harvard. Gordon Brown said this showed how elitist Britain's top universities were, a charge they vehemently rejected.

Does Boris's reference to Laura Spence mean that he is against widening participation? He answers carefully. "I think widening participation is a good thing," he says. "I am not in favour of university entrance procedures being used as utensils of social engineering.

"You can't solve at university entrance level all the problems and mistakes in British secondary education. You can't have discrimination against everybody who's had a good education."

What does he think about the Government's performance indicators that check up on the social class and independent school intake of universities, and lead to league tables in the newspapers? Universities dislike them. He is careful again.

"It seems to be OK so far," he says. "You do, however, come across cases where people think they have been kept out because they came from a good school. That's not right."

Deftly he moves on to a less politically contentious issue, the fact that students are giving up on difficult subjects such as chemistry and maths. A recent survey showed it was easier to get an A in exams in English or history compared with maths, physics, chemistry or a language.

"That's the real disaster of what's going on in education," says Boris. "Teachers and students have a built in incentive to do the softer option. That feeds into the problem in higher education where you don't get enough kids doing chemistry. The whole thing is an absolute scandal. You can't get hold of exam papers. You can't compare A-level exam papers over the past 40 years. The papers vanish."

As he talks one gets the feeling that he is seriously interested in his subject and has really got his head around the funding problems of higher education, and the serious political repercussions of moving to a system more like the USA's, where students and families pay more.

His candour is endearing, particularly compared with Tories of old. "I think it's going to be so politically difficult," he says. "We have to deal with the limits of what middle England will take. It's going to be very, very hard. People have spent a long time thinking about university education as basically free. I am not convinced that we can rapidly habituate the British middle classes to paying an awful lot more. That doesn't mean I don't believe in making the argument."

Higher education experts are impressed. "I think he is a serious figure trying to engage with the sector," says Professor Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter. "He is willing to think afresh about how to fund universities and to listen to what we say."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has been similarly won over. "I am a Boris Johnson fan," he says. "He is thoughtful and self-deprecating and I like him a lot. He has some interesting ideas about higher education. The problem for the Tories will be turning those into policies."

Boris should be pleased that higher education takes him seriously because the rest of the world does not. He has a colourful history. His love of women is legendary. In 2004 he was dismissed as Shadow Minister for the Arts over accusations that he lied about his four-year affair with Petronella Wyatt. In April this year it was alleged in the News of the World that Johnson had had a second affair with the Times Higher Education Supplement journalist Anna Fazackerley. A video on the paper's website showed him emerging from her flat and waving to her in a taxi.

David Cameron clearly regarded the possible affair as a private matter and said that Johnson would not lose his job.

That is just as well, because students love him for his irreverence and affability. He is game for anything. When campaigning to become rector of Edinburgh University, he stayed up most of the night, visiting nightclubs and signing a female student's bare chest.

He slept in a tiny room in a hall of residence. When he had a pint of beer thrown over him he said: "I am most grateful because it was the first of many drinks I received one way or the other over the evening."

Nothing is beneath him. He has appeared a number of times on the TV programme Have I Got News For You, admitting on one show that he had once tried to snort cocaine but sneezed and failed.

His appointment is brilliant for the Conservatives' image. Boris tells me that he is a liberal. He is certainly nothing like the Tories who used to sit around Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet table. Whether he will ever become a minister in a future Conservative government is debatable.

Some people believe that, if the Tories were to make him leader, they would probably get back to power.

The comedian Paul Merton, however, has said: "Boris Johnson is the person to lead this country back into the 14th century," highlighting the perception that, once in power, Boris probably wouldn't know what he was doing.

A life in brief

Born: New York City, 1964

Educated: Eton and Oxford, where he read Greats

Jobs: 1. Management consultant 2. Trainee reporter for The Times 3. Telegraph leader writer, then European Community correspondent, then assistant editor 4. Editor of The Spectator and Shadow Minister for the Arts 5. Shadow Minister for Higher Education

Family life: Married twice, second time to Marina Wheeler, a barrister and daughter of broadcaster Charles Wheeler, with whom he has two daughters and two sons. The two youngest attend Canonbury primary school in north London. The other two have been removed to the fee-paying sector. He will not say if he has put his sons down for Eton. His older daughter attends City of London School for Girls.

Also known as: Bo-Jo and Bozza

Worst moment: Being fired by Michael Howard as Shadow Minister for the Arts over accusations that he lied about an affair with Petronella Wyatt.

Books: Two collections of journalism, Johnson's Column and Lend Me Your Ears. His first novel was Seventy-Two Virgins. His latest book is The New British Revolution.