Lunch is still two hours away, but Boris Johnson is talking food. I feel sure I've just asked him whether he's ever been offered the editorship of The Sunday Telegraph. Consequently, I am somewhat taken aback to be presented with selected extracts from the Eton College canteen menu. "Absolute grade-A apple sauce," says the Spectator editor. "Grade-A mashed potatoes."
I persist. You're telling me there is nothing in the gossip, common currency across Fleet Street, that Conrad Black sounded you out for the top job at The Sunday Telegraph, but you told him you were interested only in Charles Moore's job at the daily?
Johnson has, by now, shut his eyes and is shaking his head so vigorously that I fear a filling might come loose. Unfortunately, his vocabulary still hasn't left the kitchen. "Blah, blah," he says. "Fishcakes."
I'll take that as a no, I say. This, I can see, is a wise move. Within seconds, the head stops shaking, thousands of bright blond hairs gradually return to their original setting - all over the place - and Boris returns to Earth. There was no job offer; he is happy where he is, at the magazine. "Are you saying this is just an anteroom?" he asks in mock shock. "I love The Spectator very, very much."
The feeling is pretty much mutual at the moment. Since Johnson took over four years ago, the magazine's sales have risen by more than 5 per cent (to more than 61,000), and a title that had lost money every year since its inception in 1828 now brings in an annual operating profit of £1m.
Even a redesign, albeit a very gentle one, has not alienated what must be some of the most small-c conservative magazine buyers in the country.
"We've had very good figures," says Johnson. The magazine is successful because, while it will always "be roughly speaking in favour of getting rid of Saddam, sticking up for Israel, free-market economics, expanding choice," it admits that "reasonable people, good people, are perfectly capable of holding conflicting opinions about very difficult subjects". On top of that, its editor has "allowed good writers to get things off their chest in what comes across in a screamingly left-wing way to some people".
Johnson says: "The Spectator is not necessarily a Thatcherite Conservative or a neo-Conservative magazine, even though in our editorial coverage we tend to follow roughly the conclusions of those lines of arguments."
There is another factor at work, too. Kimberley Fortier, the publisher of The Spectator, talks with relish about "Brand Boris". It is an instantly recognisable imprint - the shaggy hair, the endearing stutter, the language borrowed from Billy Bunter - that draws in readers and voters alike (Johnson is, of course, MP for Henley). It is directly used to sell the magazine. Leaflets imploring readers to subscribe carry an enormous full-length colour picture of the 38-year-old. Can you imagine the New Statesman doing that with Peter Wilby?
"It wasn't my decision to do it that way," says Boris, "but I won't pretend I was desperately upset about it."
But how much of Brand Boris is a cold calculation and how much is genuine? He has managed to alight on a winning personal formula. (Sometimes with other people's help. Max Hastings, then his editor at The Daily Telegraph, once sent him a memo telling him: "You must learn to be serious or, at the very least, pompous, so that your writing can command the respect that we both think it deserves.")
People can't help but be won over. Was it a deliberate, carefully planned tactic?
The question brings Johnson's speech - slow and disjointed at the best of times - almost to meltdown. "Well, it is very good of you to say so, erm..." he says, pausing for nine seconds. "It's erm... [four-second pause]. What is there to say about all that...? [Nine seconds.] I suppose the truth is... [five seconds] erm, it might be that, as a child... [five seconds] you know, you [seven seconds] erm... [seven seconds] you sort of get things wrong, so perhaps you do... [four seconds] it is a sort of aiming-off device, isn't it? I put my hands up to that. Yeah."
And could this temporary aiming-off device have changed the real Johnson? "I think that is the terrifying reality. Beneath the elaborately constructed veneer of the bumbling buffoon, there may well be a bumbling buffoon. That is the nightmare we all have to live with."
That is, of course, an explanation that only a true buffoon would accept. No one doubts Johnson's incredible intellect. They do, however, sometimes question his judgement - especially when it comes to his dealings with his columnist Taki, whose writing appears to be becoming ever more extreme.
Alas for Johnson, one of those questioners is his proprietor, Conrad Black, who has accused Taki in his own magazine of "lies worthy of Goebbels". Just last month, Black wrote to The Spectator to complain about an "absurdly offensive" Taki piece in which the columnist had strayed into "Third Reich faddism". The columnist's far-right rants have even led to calls for him to be charged with incitement to racial hatred. In January, he wrote, "Only a moron would not surmise that what politically correct newspapers refer to as 'disaffected young people' are black thugs, sons of black thugs and grandsons of black thugs."
When a row erupted, Johnson explained that he was on holiday when the piece came in, though he has since taken responsibility for printing it. "I don't want to revive my whole pathetic explanation of why those words got into the magazine," he says now. "I regret the words he used."
These days, Taki's column does not get into the magazine without the editor's explicit approval. "He is bowdlerised," admits the editor. Often? Johnson nods, with a look that says, "What can you do?"
So the copy comes in, Johnson takes out the most extreme bits, and the rest goes into the magazine? "It's called editing. It is what you are meant to do."
Maybe, if he needs censoring every week, it is time for Taki to go, I suggest.
"Why should I sack a columnist just because the whole of civilised London thinks he should be sacked?"
Because fighting racism is a noble cause? "I don't think he is a racist."
Well, Taki has referred to himself as "a soi-disant anti-Semite".
"Has he? Soi-disant? I think there is a question about whether he knows what soi-disant means."
A balance has to be struck, Johnson says, between "fighting racism and racists, which I agree with you is a noble thing", and giving way to "bullies" who want "homogenised" journalism. That was brought home to Johnson when he wrote a piece for The New York Times and was asked to remove the phrase "Gee thanks, guys" on account of "Gee" apparently being short for "Jesus" and thus offensive to practising Christians.
"At the moment, I think the balance comes down firmly in favour of protecting our oldest columnist," says Johnson. "I cannot foresee the circumstances in which Taki's job will be in the slightest danger."
Taki may not feel that is much of an endorsement. Then again, if he were to ring his editor, no doubt he would be told that stories of his imminent demise are nonsense. Grade-A mashed potato, in fact.Reuse content