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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: A straight answer from Boris? You might as well ask Jeeves


Having improbably suggested that he might turn to writing romantic fiction after stepping down as Mayor of London, rather than something more humdrum like becoming leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson was asked to cite a model. Cleverly, he mentioned Rosie M Banks, who was herself a fictional character (of PG Wodehouse’s). This is a prototypical Boris answer, underlining the riskiness of taking him at face value. Did “No, I will not be an MP in 2015,” really mean no? Or could he yet still be dragged unwillingly to a safe seat?

Either way, and perhaps because the Davies report leaves his Thames Estuary airport an expensive outsider, the parliamentary press lunch  was almost low key by the Mayor’s exotic standards. True, there was no doubting his cause du jour. Davies had exaggerated the costs of Boris Island. The Government had to stop “pussyfooting and fannying around”. The “environmental catastrophe” of expanding Heathrow would require a “crazy pontoon” over the M25. So who persuaded Davies to keep Boris Island (just) open as an option? “Me,” the Mayor explained modestly.

Had he been in the House of Commons earlier he would have been struck by West Midlands MPs, Labour and Tory, arguing for a bigger Birmingham airport in what the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin acknowledged was a “united front”. An airport expansion which everyone in its region seems to want instead of a series of London options which large numbers of people don’t! Too simple – or too popular?

If anything, Boris was most animated on his verbal feud with fellow talk-show star Nick Clegg, despite first explaining that he was “too busy” to consider it. “I’m sure he has many, many important ceremonial duties,” he declared – the main one being to stop the Government carrying out “sensible policies”. “He is a sort of lapdog of David Cameron who’s been converted by taxidermy into a kind of protective shield, like the Emperor Valerian who was skinned and hung on the wall... The sooner we are shot of the great yellow albatross, in my view, the better.”

Even as Boris spoke unflatteringly of his Westminster-educated opponent – not to mention his fellow old Etonian rival – Labour peer Lord Lea was asking over in the Lords “how far” those “educated at public school disproportionately occupy senior positions in both public and private sectors”. The Tory hereditary peer Lord Elton was having none of this, saying “the private education system is better than the public one” and the answer was more funding to bring “excluded classes” into it.

That way, we would all have known that Valerian was the only Roman Emperor to be taken a prisoner of war without having to Google it.