High drama: The Lady vanishes

Boris Johnson's sister, a former 'Sunday Times' journalist and writer of steamy novels, was just too much for the magazine's proprietor, seventysomething Julia Budworth. Now Johnson has gone. Matthew Bell finds out what's going on at 'The Lady'

It was a feud worthy of Shakespeare, though the characters were straight out of P G Wodehouse. In one camp was Julia Budworth, a redoubtable Aunt Agatha figure in twinset and pearls, skulking the corridors of Deerbolt Hall in Suffolk; in the other, Rachel Johnson, the metropolitan blonde and swaggering sister of the London Mayor, Boris Johnson. At its heart was The Lady, a genteel 126-year-old magazine about cobnuts and crochet, where Jeeves's creator once had his stories published (it inspired his fictional magazine Milady's Boudoir.)

Caught between the two was Ben Budworth, a 46-year-old former helicopter pilot and son of Julia, brought in to save the family business. No amount of flight training could have prepared him for the war that erupted between the two women last year. A year after he had appointed Ms Johnson as the magazine's editor, with a brief to modernise it and boost its wilting circulation, Mrs Budworth turned against her, blasting her as "vain, snobbish and obsessed with penises", and began to openly plot her demise. The broadside came days before the launch of Ms Johnson's book, a diary of her first year at the helm, sparking a media frenzy. In the dusty labyrinth of the magazine's Victorian offices, the party divided as the two women held separate courts. Battle lines were drawn.

Now, 15 months later, it looks as if the dowager has won. After just over two years, Ms Johnson is no longer the editor, and Mrs Budworth couldn't be more pleased. The doughty seventysomething lady cackles with glee when I ring to ask how she feels.

"Rachel has been sent to the House of Lords," she trills. "I've been told not to say anything more!" Of course she does, but adds "that's off the record" to every remark. When she launched her salvo last year, one hack likened her to a Gorgon in a lair. Under attack from a proprietor, many editors would have quit, but Ms Johnson was raised on a diet of sibling rivalry and self-promotion. To her, The Lady was "a piddling little magazine that nobody ever reads", as she told a TV crew, and a vehicle for getting noticed. She was hardly going to let the barbed comments of a tweedy dowager bother her.

On Tuesday, in the foetid crush of the Bad Sex Awards, a party condemning smut in literature held at the, er, In and Out Club, she told a journalist she had "promoted herself" to editor-in-chief. She says she will write a book about the magazine, and remain working in the building two days a week. But Mrs Budworth has got what she wanted – Ms Johnson is no longer editor. She has been replaced by her features editor, former Daily Mail journalist Matt Warren.

Ordinarily, the internal politics of a small-circulation ladies' magazine would not merit close examination. But the dramas of 39-40 Bedford Street, WC2, have all the ingredients of a soap. Jonathan Guinness, Mrs Budworth's cousin, has even suggested making a comic opera of it.

Since first appearing in 1885, The Lady has been best known for its classified ads, and has helped place nannies in Britain's grandest houses. For much of that time, it was a highly profitable enterprise. But under the ownership of Tom Bowles, Mrs Budworth's brother, circulation more than halved from 70,000 to 30,000 in 20 years. The design remained virtually unchanged from the 1930s, and some employees were nearly as old as the average age of the readers – 78.

"We were losing £25,000 per week when I took over, through inefficiency and incompetence," says Mr Budworth, the youngest of Mrs Budworth's four sons, who became publisher in 2008. "Everything had grown lazy; contracts hadn't been reviewed, and the accounts department was seen as a cash machine." The magazine's dwindling fortunes were the source of much discord within the family. Part of the problem was that it was owned solely by Mr Bowles, who inherited the business and the Bedford Street premises, a prime piece of real estate worth tens of millions of pounds, on the death of his father. However, he refused to tackle the mounting losses.

Indeed, we have learned that in 2007 he proposed to close The Lady, and keep the building empty. But when it was pointed out that the service charges for the building were £40,000 a year, he relinquished the business to his sister and her four sons, who became joint owners.

Ms Johnson's appointment to modernise and increase circulation was instantly successful in one regard – generating publicity. As a former columnist on The Sunday Times, she is an accomplished networker, quickly signing up journalists including Alexander Chancellor, Justin Webb and Penny Smith. She also persuaded A-list celebrities like Julie Andrews to give exclusive interviews. Suddenly, The Lady was being talked about.

But the problem with Rachel soon became clear. Among her first articles was a guide to "how to bed the nanny", and an extract from a Jilly Cooper novel. Mrs Budworth began to have doubts. Clearly, none of the Budworths had read Ms Johnson's steamy novels, Shire Hell and Notting Hell. One by one, Mrs Budworth's sons began to side with their mother. After a year, only Ben stood by Rachel, though it was his support that counted.

Anyone who saw The Lady and the Revamp, Channel 4's fly-on-the-chintz documentary, could see that Ben was Rachel's number one fan. With her gurgling laugh and mane of blonde hair, she struck a contrast to the other staff, some of whom she sacked on screen. That was last year. Business has since got tough: though sales are up, print costs have increased, and severe cashflow problems have meant some contributors have not been paid since June. Last month Alexander Chancellor cracked and resigned.

"It was making life impossible for Rachel," says one. "She brought in her friends to write for The Lady, but you can't persuade them to stay if you don't pay them. When Ben asked Rachel what her plans were for next year, she lost it, and they had a flaming row." Among the new staff was Warren. He injected some of the Mail's work ethic and sharpened the tone, and soon received a job offer from another paper. This attempted poach coincided with Rachel and Ben's row. They both claim they independently came to the same conclusion: Warren should be made editor. "I created a monster in Matt," says Ms Johnson.

The problem may not be the editor but the brand. Ben concedes the image may have been a problem. "People perceive it as snobby and old-fashioned. Nothing could be further from the truth." They are launching an app and have plans for a radio station, working title – "The Ladyio". But when he explains his plans to exploit The Lady's niche in the classifieds market, he suddenly sounds rather snobby: "With us, people know they're not going to get a stag party from Luton coming to trash the house – which is an immense problem online."

Whatever Ms Johnson's perceived faults, she did inject life into a dying magazine. "But it was a case of going one step forward and two back," says Mr Budworth. "She would be the first to say she got carried away." How does Matt Warren feel about filling her shoes? "The Lady is the star of the show – not its editor. Rachel is a huge public figure, but the magazine remains the thing people are most interested in." How will he keep her contacts? "I've got a contacts book of my own." Does he worry about paying them? "Not at all. I wouldn't be taking the job if I didn't believe the family and their finances were right behind it."

Back in Suffolk, Mrs Budworth is delighted with her new editor, whom she calls "Matthew". Ms Johnson's departure from the job is, she admits, "a tiny victory", before remembering she is banned from commenting. "I will say she's a terrific journalist. We'll draw a veil over her editing and people skills." The future of The Lady is still far from certain. But at least there'll be peace this Christmas.

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