'Spectator' editor Boris Johnson to be Tory arts champion
Friday 07 May 2004
To most voters Boris Johnson's biggest contribution to contemporary culture is his Bafta-nominated performance as the bumbling host of the satirical television show Have I Got News for You.
But yesterday the tousled, blond-haired editor of The Spectator magazine and Conservative MP was elevated to his party's front bench to champion the cause of high art.
Mr Johnson, 39, who has used his Daily Telegraph column to extol the virtues of everything from Greek culture to the 1970s cartoons Scooby Doo, Hong Kong Phooey and Wacky Races, will take to the dispatch box to confront ministers for the first time as shadow Arts minister. He said he was "thrilled" by his new job and proposed a six-point plan, including a "poetry olympiad" to reverse the decline of verse, creating new radio frequencies to allow greater airtime for the Rolling Stones in Oxfordshire and outlawing American computer spell-checkers.
He also suggested a summit to explain the work of BritArt artists such as Damien Hurst to the public, and said that the Government should settle Britain's long-running dispute with the Greek government by presenting Athens with a perfect replica of the Elgin Marbles.
The bookmaker William Hill slashed the odds of the Henley MP becoming the next Tory leader from 100/1 to 66/1.
Mr Johnson said: "Genuinely I want to move away from Labour's new utilitarian approach to culture and education generally. I was absolutely scandalised by Education Secretary Charles Clarke's attack on the study of ancient languages, which seemed to me to be barbaric. He was neglecting the fact that this civilisation is at the root of our culture."
He added: "It's a great honour. I know a certain amount about the arts, but I'm learning about it. There's lots of stuff to learn. I approach this job in a spirit of reverence and humility to those who consecrate their lives to the arts. I'm full of respect for artists of all kinds. The job of politicians is to stay out of the arts as far as they possibly can and the function of politicians is to be lampooned and derided by the arts."
Mr Johnson, who has become a darling of the Conservative Party with his self-deprecating style, was promoted from his previous job as a party vice-chairman in a mini-reshuffle caused by the resignation from the front bench of Nick Hawkins, MP for Surrey Heath, who was deselected earlier last month.
Jonathan Djanogly, MP for Huntingdon, takes over Mr Hawkins' brief as legal and constitutional affairs spokesman. Tim Loughton, MP for Worthing East and Shoreham, becomes shadow minister for the family.
Mr Johnson, who was educated at Eton and Oxford, lists his interests as painting, poetry, tennis, skiing and rugby. He said his new portfolio would not cover the media and would not conflict with his job as an editor. One Labour Party source said: "He'll be able to answer questions about what book he last read." Mr Johnson said he had just finished Carl Hiaasen's new book Skinny Dip.
Ironically, Mr Johnson's appointment overshadowed his party leader's call for a "grown-up debate" about public services in the run-up to the next general election. Michael Howard said: "There are enough real differences between us. For the first time the people of this country will have a real choice."
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