Exposed, embarrassed, lampooned. How on earth has Boris survived?
Magazines » Notoriety is now the name of the game at 'The Spectator'. Which seems to be great news for its editor. Sholto Byrnes reports
Sunday 31 July 2005
A protective knot formed around Boris Johnson's wife, Marina Wheeler, as a balding figure pressed his way through the crowd in a garden in Doughty Street, central London. Toby Young - The Spectator's theatre critic, and co-author of Who's the Daddy?, a play about the sex scandals involving the Spec's staff - had dared to turn up to the magazine's annual summer party on Thursday night.
Boris's affair with Petronella Wyatt, a former deputy editor of The Spectator, David Blunkett's disastrous passion for Kimberly Quinn, the magazine's publisher, and associate editor Rod Liddle's conquest of the Spec's receptionist are all alluded to in Young's highly graphic play, which has received enthusiastic reviews since opening at the King's Head Theatre in Islington. There is talk of the play transferring to the West End, while others have been working on a musical about Blunkett and The Spectator, and Channel 4 is making a film on the magazine's affairs.
It is exactly a year since the first of the trio of scandals, all of which compromised marriages, broke. After the 2004 Spectator summer party a large group moved on to a pub further down Doughty Street, where Rod Liddle openly introduced Alicia Monckton, then the magazine's receptionist, as his girlfriend, only a few months after Liddle had married his long-term partner, Rachel Royce.
Later in the summer this was followed by the astonishing story of David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn. By mid-autumn Boris Johnson was already in difficulties after the Spectator published an editorial which offended the people of Liverpool. Shortly after Michael Howard forced his shadow arts spokesman to apologise to the city in person, Johnson's four-year, on-off relationship with Petronella Wyatt was exposed, and Howard sacked Johnson from his shadow post.
The Boris phenomenon appeared to be grinding to a halt. Stories circulated that his wife had had enough. Many predicted that he would be sacked as editor of The Spectator, especially since the magazine was no longer owned by Conrad Black, who doted on him, but by the Barclay brothers.
Nine months on, Johnson is still firmly ensconced in Doughty Street. At the summer party this year there was no sign of Blunkett, Quinn, Neil or the Barclay brothers. Instead, Telegraph executives past and present, including the recently departed editorial director Kim Fletcher, his wife, the new Sunday Telegraph editor Sarah Sands, and Con Coughlin, sacked as executive editor of The Sunday Telegraph in one of Dominic Lawson's last acts, mixed with the historian Andrew Roberts, Sir David Frost, Tina Brown, passing through London, the Tory leadership contender David Willetts, the New Statesman's editor John Kampfner, and Lady Wyatt, mother of Petronella.
The Observer's editor Roger Alton turned up late and greeted a friend by playfully pinching his buttocks. Boris Johnson and Toby Young attempted to have a quick word in a corridor, but were spotted by photographers. Johnson sprinted up the stairs two at a time and the conversation was over before it had begun.
Young's appearance raised the subject of the play. Boris's sister Rachel has disinvited the playwright from her forthcoming birthday celebrations. Boris's PA, Ann Sindall, declared that she thought that what is already becoming known as "the blow-job scene", in which Boris and Blunkett are pleasured by a Brazilian chef named Renaldo in a cupboard, went too far. But the consensus was that Johnson can survive it.
"If anything," says Young, "this play should help his cause. The fact that a play about The Spectator has been able to sell out five days after opening is testimony to how effective Boris has been in raising the magazine's profile. Anyone taking a long-term view would acknowledge that this is extremely good for increasing visibility. The best thing for magazines like The Spectator is to be talked about."
He even believes that Johnson's political career can still be saved. "Any politician who's been in a scandal has to go through a period in the stocks. Then when all this has died down, I think he will resurrect his career."
Johnson seems phlegmatic about Who's the Daddy? keeping the scandals in the news. When Young asked him if he should step down from editing a special issue of the magazine later this year, Johnson said no. "I believe in spreading peace and love," he replied. While Johnson behaves himself, and concentrates on the portfolio of jobs he already has - Spec editor, Tory MP, Telegraph columnist - and the magazine continues to maintain its circulation (it has reached a peak under Johnson of around 70,000), his position appears relatively safe.
When the Barclays took over the Telegraph group, it was said that they wanted The Spectator to be more serious and cerebral. But the point about Johnson's Spec, as Young points out, is that "he has reinvented it as being something much sexier than the intellectual conscience of the Tory Party, which, frankly, is destined for the graveyard".
There's no doubt which vision of The Spectator attracts more publicity and makes more money. Such success has come at a high price for the editor and some of the staff at the magazine. If the Barclay brothers are content for them to continue to pay it, then Johnson and his cohorts may continue to be given licence to make The Spectator the most talked-about political publication in the country.
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