Sex, piffle and politics
Being editor of 'The Spectator', a 'Daily Telegraph' columnist and the Tory MP for Henley is hard work enough without getting involved in a massive sex scandal. But Boris Johnson is determined to put that behind him, writes Sholto Byrnes
Monday 11 July 2005
This week a play about The Spectator will open in London, but the magazine's editor will not be in the audience. Despite its being performed at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, not far from where he lives, Boris Johnson has no intention of attending the play. "I don't know whether I'll have time to catch it before it closes," he says dryly. This is possibly because Who's the Daddy?, by the Spec's theatre critics Toby Young and Lloyd Evans, delves into history that Johnson hopes will soon be "wiped from the slate of memory" by "the blessed sponge of amnesia".
Using the series of affairs involving Spectator staff which were revealed last year, and which led to the magazine being dubbed the "Sextator", Young and Evans have devised a farce comprising much dashing about the office, hiding in cupboards, and even a six-way "shagathon". The liaisons which inspired the play include those between the magazine's married publisher, Kimberly Quinn, and David Blunkett; Boris, who is also married and is a father of four, and Petronella Wyatt (a former deputy editor of the Spectator); and the then married columnist Rod Liddle and the Spec's receptionist, Alicia Munckton. Blunkett had to resign as Home Secretary, Liddle's marriage ended, and Boris was sacked from the Tory front bench. No wonder he is disinclined to go.
"I'm certainly issuing no instructions to staff about it," says Boris, over coffee in his comfortably shambolic office at the magazine. "It will not be deemed an act of disloyalty to go and see it." He claims to feel "eirenic", "stoic", and even "ataraxic" (serenely indifferent) to this gross betrayal by his theatre critics; although when he adds sarcastically, "I'm sure it will be a thoroughly good lark. Ha....ha....ha," one senses that his ataraxia is not as "complete and total" as he says it is.
Until nine months ago scarcely a cloud had darkened the Johnson horizon. Eton, Oxford, spells in local papers and then the Times, followed by a fast rise up the ranks of the Telegraph, led to the editorship of the Spectator in 1999. Under his bumbling but shrewd rule, the magazine was selling more copies than ever before (with a circulation of 70,000), and was widely considered to be a lively read with a sharp sense of humour which leant it appeal beyond its right wing political base. The Boris phenomenon appeared unstoppable. Not only the Spectator and the Telegraph, where he is a columnist, but also parliament provided a platform from which Johnson's unique blend of Wodehousian buffoonery and classical erudition won him an ever-increasing audience of admirers. He appeared on Have I Got News For You, wrote a well-received book about becoming the Tory MP for Henley (Friends, Voters, Countrymen), and was promoted to the front bench as shadow arts minister.
Then came a catastrophic month late last year. First Johnson was humiliated by Michael Howard, who made him apologise in person to the people of Liverpool after a Spectator editorial accused them of wallowing in their "victim status" over the death of Ken Bigley and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Next details of his affair with Petronella Wyatt, which had long been hinted at in the gossip columns, became public. After the then Tory communications director, Guy Black, accused Johnson of lying to him about the affair, Howard relieved Boris of his shadow ministerial post. Johnson denied that he had lied, but his earlier public comment that stories about the affair were "an inverted pyramid of piffle" meant no one believed him. The sketchwriters also had a field day with the pleasing similarity between the word "piffle" and Johnson's third name, "de Pfeffel".
Johnson was photographed trying to avoid the press while going jogging in a hat that might have suited Ice T or Will Smith, but which looked decidedly odd on the head of a pale-skinned, tubby, Old Etonian. His response to reporters' queries - "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" - may have delighted students of Voltaire, in whose novel Candide Dr Pangloss frequently utters the sentence, but seemed somewhat gnomic under the circumstances. Speculation was rife that the new owners of the Telegraph group, the Barclay Brothers, would sack him from his editorship as well.
Only a couple of months before, Johnson had been the subject of a highly sycophantic interview in Vanity Fair, in which he was described as a " beloved, nearly Queen Mum-ish national figure" and "arguably the English language's most successful pundit". Was this a case of pride before the fall? "Yes, I was due for a good kicking," says Boris. Had he begun to believe some of the fawning articles written about him? "I think we all construct a series of alternative illusions about ourselves," he says after a long pause, "verging from the modest and miserable to the really rather demented and grandiose. And the truth is probably towards the modest and miserable end. But there's no harm in allowing yourself, on a Wednesday evening, after you've drunk something and produced what you think is a particularly snorting column, to feel that you're quite good."
At this point I tell him that I must ask about the events of last year. Boris becomes excited. The pitch of his voice goes up, he leaves his desk, and he paces quickly around the room, laughing nervously as though he were auditioning to replace Herbert Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films. "You don't, believe me, you don't," he begins. "You're at liberty not to. Indeed, there is no chorus of media commentators who would say that this interview would be the poorer without whatever question it is you're about to ask. Believe me, you don't have to. You can fall back! Even before the tsunami!"
Preliminary enquiries prompt him to waffle vaguely about "the blessed sponge of amnesia". Next I ask if he felt badly treated by Michael Howard. He looks rather shocked. "Ooomph," he says. "Errrm, we need to go back to Kew to look at the records. I'm not disposed to..... I'm certainly not a man with a grievance." How are relations with Guy Black, who in his new job as director of communications for the Telegraph group is now a colleague within the Barclays' empire? "Little short of superb. Why, what's going on with Guy Black?" I say that Black said Boris lied to him about the Petronella affair; and that Black had expressed his extreme dismay to me over lunch around that time. "Really? Well, I don't want to..errm, I'm sure there are lots of good points to Guy Black."
In fact, Boris could not contain his rage in conversation with colleagues at the very mention of Black's name while l'affaire Petsy was breaking. But he is nothing if not skilled at maintaining a front. It comes up again when I ask how he feels about the constant stream of stories suggesting he is about to be replaced as editor of the Spectator by figures as varied as Michael Portillo, his fellow Tory MP Michael Gove, the Times columnist Andrew Pearce, and the Tatler editor Geordie Greig.
"Really?" he says, affecting innocence. "I haven't read this stuff." Come on, Boris, I say. "I must live in a state of insulation." [On the contrary, longstanding associates say that he reads everything that is written about him.] "Look. If you do any job like this, particularly if you do all sorts of other jobs, people are going to want to take a pop at you. There's going to be endless speculation about leadership challenges and struggles. And a good thing too.
Is it not a tribute to the Spectator that its editorship should be the most sought-after position? Bring it on! I think it's a very good thing that so many people are evidently keen to have this job - and they're not wrong."
Given that this talk is so widespread, how confident of his position does he feel? "You're saying how much longer are you going to do this job, mate. That's what you mean." Is he unassailable? "No one is unassailable," he replies. "I may be unsailable, ha, ha, but I'm going to keep plugging away for a little while yet. Or a big while yet. There will come an evening or a morning or a noon day when I will be gathered to the Valhalla of ex-Spectator editors, but I haven't yet."
But, I say to him, there is even speculation about his tenure in the pages of the magazine. A couple of weeks ago Taki wrote in his "High Life" column that when he met an American tycoon on the plane to New York, " his first concern was about Boris's future". "Well," says Boris, "they talk of little else in New York. That's the big subject. The big one." Isn't it rather extraordinary for an editor to be referred to so often in his own publication? His predecessor, Frank Johnson, for instance, regularly mentions Boris in his column, not always in particularly flattering tones. "Yes, well, he's got a vendetta, let's face it." He's still cross about being removed to make way for Boris? "I think it just amuses him. I don't know what effect it has on the poor readers. I could urge him to desist on artistic grounds, but he might think that was veiled cowardice."
Boris makes much of his contributors' freedom to write whatever they want. "It should be a place for uninhibited candour," he says, "although obviously I do edit things, ha ha." What, then, if Frank Johnson wanted to make fun not of Boris, but of Andrew Neil, who became chief executive of the Spectator after the Barclays moved the magazine to the Press Holdings division of their empire? "Well, I see absolutely no reason why he shouldn't," he muses, warming to his theme. "I think he should be encouraged. I'm amazed that he hasn't. It's cowardice! I think Frank's a wimp. You big girl's blouse, Frank. Chuck in some Andrew Neil jokes."
Humour is the weapon Johnson uses to great effect, both to charm and to deflect criticism. It is one of the reasons why people like him, and also why they are willing to forgive him. Since he represents the Spectator and has a public profile far higher than any of his predecessors, perhaps through him that forgiveness has extended to colleagues who have erred as well. I ask him how last year's scandals affected the magazine. "I think people are grown up enough to see the difference between the intellectual output of a magazine and a load of tittle-tattle about the people who produce it. What it also did was draw quite a lot of people to ask 'what is this Spectator?', and when they picked it up they really liked it."
It made it sound as though loose morals were a prerequisite for working on the magazine. Didn't the Barclay Brothers mind? "Oh, they've been absolutely fine. I know that highly misleading newspaper reports may have given another impression, but we live a life of almost embarrassingly monastic seclusion and contemplation," he says. "It is no exaggeration to say that we are capable of arguing for three hours about Anselm's ontological argument. There is a Name of the Rose kind of atmosphere here. You know, monks bent over...." He drifts off for a moment, leaving open just what the monks are up to while 'bent over'. " I can't quite remember what happens in The Name of the Rose. Oh, it gets rather racy, doesn't it? Okay, forget it!"
But humour is also the quality that could hold Boris back, if not at the Spectator, then possibly in politics. A few years ago Max Hastings, who had been his editor at the Daily Telegraph, warned that Boris would have to develop more gravitas if he wanted to be taken seriously. "I'm sure that's true," he says. "It's very nice of Max to take a care to my interest. But, hrrrrrrrrm. I mean, I find I don't have much difficulty getting people to listen to me seriously when I want to. And I'm not going to produce a series of spine-crackingly tedious pamphlets for the sake of gravitas. I think it's important to remember that most people find politics unbelievably dull, so I don't see any particular vice in trying to sugar the pill with a few jokes.
"The real point is that if I did try to acquire gravitas in a calculated and systematic way, I'd probably fall flat on my face. So I think better to fly by the seat of your pants." Boris certainly did a fair amount of that when he was appointed shadow arts minister. While his knowledge of Plutarch and Catullus was never in doubt, his grasp of the finer details of arts funding seemed shaky, to say the least. When juggling so many balls, as he continues to do - he enters the Spec's offices clutching a phone to his ear and is immediately called off one call to another on a land line - a couple are going to be dropped from time to time.
Neither was gravitas particularly evident when he was photographed jogging in that skull and cross bones hat. What was he thinking of? "It was raining and I wanted to go for a run, and it was the only thing I could find, " he explains.
"It's my son's ski-hat. I saw the bloody photographers outside, so I jumped over the garden wall at the back and eluded them. Then I totally forgot they were there on the way back." Why didn't he climb over the wall again rather than stand, locked out, by his front door? "You know when you go for a run, you get rather elated?" he says. "I sort of had this idea that I would mow them down, like a scene in an old Sylvester Stallone film. Anyway. It didn't work."
In the long term, Johnson, who is 41, sees politics as being his main calling. "It's a great privilege to do this job," he says, " but I'm also a member of parliament. There must come a point when the two horses start to diverge." The parliamentary career would take precedence? "I think it would be pretty rotten to keep asking the people of Henley to return me to Westminster and not give it a really good kick of the can."
Johnson is a supporter of David Cameron's bid for the Tory leadership, but whatever protestations he makes about not being after the job himself - when asked if he would stand this time, he said: "my hat is firmly in my sock draw, where it will remain" - intimates suggest he does entertain his own hopes for the future. Until then, his time is divided between his two main jobs.
Luminaries can always be relied on to attend the magazine's parties, and to contribute to its pages. What about the readers, I ask Johnson. Who are they? "It would be the height of impertinence for me to draw any kind of psychometric profile of the Spectator reader," he says. "He or she could be anyone who likes to be provoked in their journalism and likes good writing."
So he doesn't have a figure in mind, just as the Daily Mirror, for instance, once targeted "Swindon Woman"? "We love Swindon, we've got lots of readers in Swindon, and I once gave a speech in Swindon," he says. "Actually, I tell you something. We sell a lot more copies in Liverpool than we used to. There were quite a few people in Liverpool who agreed with at least some of what we said. But I don't know who the Spectator reader is. I could not say that the Spectator reader has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe, the mind of Einstein, and the legs of, errm, Kermit the Frog. Just people who like the feel of something civilised and different."
Perhaps they are people who, like Boris, enjoy the serious and the ridiculous. People who, like Boris, have both "Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the battle for the Tory Party" and " Roger's Profanisaurus" in their libraries; and who rather like the fact that they nestle next to each other on their bookshelves - just as the qualities those two books embody do in Boris himself.
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