Boris: 'I hadn't grasped it: those out to get you are the ones on your own side'
Back on the front bench, the ex-'Spectator' editor has a new role - as a purveyor of, um, some third way
Sunday 18 December 2005
The exits and entrances of Boris Johnson's life have the seasonal flavour of pantomime. Last week's "amicable departure" after six years editing The Spectator dovetailed conveniently with his resurrection on the shadow front bench, just a year after being sacked from it.
Like someone receiving nice but slightly dull socks for Christmas, Boris maintains this was just the job he wanted. "Shadow higher education minister is an immensely good job. I became obsessed when I was doing the arts job with university finance and I do think it's grossly underfunded."
Yet, for a tense few days, there hovered a question over whether David Cameron would forgo the claims of old friendship - Eton and Oxford - plus months ofSpectator support, because of the Boris risk.
"Risk, what risk?" queries Boris, slightly disgruntled. Well, his reputation for strict accuracy has come under question a couple of times in his Fleet Street career. Take the association with fraudster Darius Guppy, whose desire to have a journalist beaten up Boris seems to have done little to discourage. Or the infamous Liverpool saga and the activity surrounding the "Sextator". Some might say he lacked judgement. "Judgement?" he expostulates. "What sort of judgement? Literary judgement? Aesthetic judgement?"
The kind of judgement that made Andrew Neil, The Spectator's chief executive, send unambiguous signals that Boris must go by year's end. "Yes. Well, I think I wanted to, um, make a move and it was a very good time to do it and, um, whatever signals you may have received, I didn't get any signals myself and the figures speak for themselves [a record 70,000 circulation high]. It's a good time to go. I've done it. You start to coast, you shouldn't hang around."
In any event, for all his apparent dishevelment, the shiny new Conservative front bench seems keen to have him. And yet, disorganised is not the word for someone who has been up since 5am writing 3,000 words about the Roman Empire.
"It's a book about how the Romans ran Europe, a meditation on the themes of identity and loyalty. Obvious modern parallels. It goes with this TV programme coming out in the new year for BBC2. But it's just proving immensely intellectually draining, having to soak up so much and squeeze it out ... Then there's my Telegraph column ... exhausting."
Between writing jobs he will have the small task of unravelling the hitherto ambivalent Conservative policy on tuition fees. "Oh God, I don't want to go into any detail. But you look at Oxbridge and the Russell Group, and look what Yale and Harvard have ... We've got to have globally competitive universities ... You certainly cannot expect the entire funding shebang to come out of general taxation." So what would he favour? "Erm, some third way perhaps ..."
Boris's use of language is the key to his political skills. In conversation he takes caesura to a new level. On paper, his prose flows beautifully, and he has an articulacy unmatched in public life. Yet he can deploy it to deflect difficult questions.
Sometimes, but not always. Did he regret the shenanigans that brought The Spectator such notoriety and a shudder to the puritan souls of the Barclay twins? "Bugger the shenanigans! I don't give a monkey's about the shenanigans! It's absolute balls. I could not give a flying fig. It boosted sales, what's the harm? I really, really don't have any cause for ... you know ... whatever ... "
What about embarrassing his wife, putting his four children on the front pages? And the allegation that he lied about an office affair rather than going for the "it's a private matter" option? "Oh Jesus Christ! I did not lie to Howard! I did not! I don't want to go over it again - it pisses me off and fills me with an unutterable sense of tedium."
The sacking as shadow arts minister followed Johnson's pilgrimage to Liverpool - an event about which he is unexpectedly savage, seeing it as a Tory set-up to make him look foolish. "It was a mistake to go to Liverpool because Howard told me to. I didn't see it coming. I didn't understand what they were trying to do. Basically the guys who want to get you are the guys on your own side. It's always been the way in politics and I hadn't kind of grasped it."
Boris arrived in journalism from management consultancy. "I wanted to make money but the trouble was it was so spine-crackingly boring and everybody there was so unbelievably dull, I kept falling asleep," he explains. "Then I remember reading a political commentary in The Times. I used to stare at this as an undergraduate totally hung over in Balliol JCR and think, 'What crap this is! I could have written this myself! People get money for this!'"
Thus inspired he joined The Times, where he underwent his first sacking for fabricating a quote, before joining the Telegraph. "I learned to love and respect journalism. It's a fantastic job, intoxicating. But in the end you start to think there's got to be more. All I'm really doing is kicking over someone's sandcastles, and if I'm so smart why don't I do it?"
Boris's next book is on class. "It's about Britain and the class problems we've got. It's very noticeable that social mobility has declined in the last 10 years, not increased. The Tories set people free, they shook the whole thing up, but I think it's all closing down again." So an Etonian who would like to send his sons to Eton is writing a book on social mobility? "I was a scholarship boy. And it's a fantastic school. Besides, people don't give a monkeys about Etonians any more."
True or not, hold on for another entertaining instalment of What Boris Did Next.
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