Life imitates art in latest chapter of an accident-prone politician's tale

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Indy Politics

A bicycling Tory MP with a talent for self-parody contemplates the end of his career when his extra-marital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper.

A bicycling Tory MP with a talent for self-parody contemplates the end of his career when his extra-marital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper.

Mulling over the post-resignation prospects of the hapless politician, a commentator writes: "Perhaps in 10 years' time he might be sufficiently rehabilitated to be offered the part of Widow Twanky at the Salvation Army hall in Horsham."

The words appear in a comic novel, Seventy Two Virgins, published just 10 weeks ago, about Roger Barlow, a middle-aged Tory MP anxious about media scrutiny of his private life.

They came back with a vengeance yesterday to haunt their author, another politician facing an onslaught on his reputation, one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Secreted behind the door of his Oxfordshire constituency home, the editor of The Spectator and former frontbench spokesman on the arts may have been meditating on parallels between life and his own fiction.

Whether 2014 will see Mr Johnson treading the boards in provincial pantomime rather than wandering the corridors of power is unclear.

But his unceremonious sacking at 6.30pm on Saturday, one of the most rapid political downfalls in memory, is just the latest mishap in the accident-strewn career of the mop-haired Old Etonian once lauded as a potential future leader of his party.

The son of a Brussels diplomat and a left-wing artist, Mr Johnson has earned a number of nicknames from his twin pursuits as a journalist and a politician, including the Bertie Wooster of Fleet Street.

After leaving Balliol College, Oxford, he joined The Times but was sacked after he fabricated a quote from a relative.

His befuddled charm was underlined when he addressed the Oxford Union, of which he is a former president, to speak for the motion he was supposed to oppose and, while contesting the 1997 general election in Clwyd, addressed an Anglophone audience in Welsh.

Upon Mr Johnson's appointment as editor of The Spectator in 1999, one commentator said it was "like putting a mentally defective monkey in charge of a Ming vase".

Ill-judged comments have also caused genuine hurt. After The Spectator editorial accusing Liverpudlians of a maudlin mindset over the killing of Ken Bigley, he was forced to travel to the city to apologise. Paul Bigley, the brother of the dead hostage, described the MP as a "self-centred, pompous twit".

But beneath the often dishevelled and bumbling exterior, lurks considerable wit, intelligence and, if not political cunning, then at least ambition.

The MP, whose first marriage to Allegra Mostyn-Owen ended in 1993, once said he had only entered politics to serve in the Cabinet.

Despite the allegations of infidelity to his current, second wife, Marina, daughter of the veteran BBC journalist Charles Wheeler, he is likely to remain one of the most popular members of the Tory party. He was recently voted the third most recognised Conservative MP after Michael Howard and William Hague.

One friend said yesterday: "Only a fool would count Boris out after this. Being disorganised is not an impediment to political success. Lack of brains, humour and concern for your fellow humanity is. And Boris wants for none of those."

Indeed, the classically educated Mr Johnson has wasted little time in carving a reputation as a man of the media age in parallel with his political career. His multiple commitments, including a slot as motoring correspondent for GQ magazine, were said to have raised concern in the Tory high command that he was overstretched.

One example is Seventy Two Virgins, a 326-page comedy about a terrorist attack on Westminster in which Barlow, after multiple brushes with disaster, emerges a hero.

Mr Johnson will be hoping that, on this level at least, life eventually imitates art.


Extracts from Johnson's book, Seventy Two Virgins

Barlow's thoughts of political extinction had taken a philosophical turn. Did it matter? Of course not. The fate of the human race was hardly affected ... In the grand scheme of things his extermination was about as important as the accidental squashing of a snail. The trouble was that until that happy day when he was reincarnated as a louse or a baked bean, he didn't know how he was going to explain the idiotic behaviour of his brief human avatar.

There was something prurient about the way he [Barlow] wanted to read about his own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed ... By this time next week, he thought, there would be nothing left for him to do but go on daytime TV shows. Perhaps in 10 years he might be sufficiently rehabilitated to [play] Widow Twanky at the Salvation Army hall in Horsham.

[Barlow] continued to thread his way through the cars. That's what he loved about bicycles ... the ability to put your wheel wherever you chose. He passed an Evening Standard hoarding ... Uh-oh. The Standard.He had forgotten about the Standard. How would he stop his wife seeing that one?