Don't Back Boris

Why does a man who abhors meddling politicians also wish to be mayor?

Originally published in The Sunday Times Magazine

The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane. A cold night in January. I’m getting ready to go inside to join a party to which I’ve not been invited, and wondering whether I’ll be thrown out.

I’m on a mission to find out why a man who believes in reducing the meddling of politicians has chosen to be… a politician. But for two months, going through the proper channels, I’ve failed to get near the Conservative candidate for London mayor. Tonight, Boris Johnson’s former colleagues at The Spectator magazine are throwing a party to celebrate his campaign – and I’ve managed to get hold of an invitation.

Strict press regulations forbid me to impersonate somebody else. If anybody asks my name, I may be invited to leave – perhaps even marched to the hotel’s revolving doors and pushed through them like stewed apple through a sieve.

Eventually finding the rooms allotted to The Spectator, I find only six people there, including the magazine’s editor. I’ve never met Matthew d’Ancona, and sense that he’s wondering who I am. So I make my way to the bar and loiter till the room fills, which it does with about 50 expensively dressed individuals including the fashion designer Oswald Boateng, the Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, and the fashion writer Plum Sykes.

I’m approached by an amiable man who says he’s a diarist on a London paper. We’re soon joined by Dan Ritterband, formerly an advertising executive, now Johnson’s campaign manager.

Ritterband boasts that his candidate has made no major gaffes so far. This is remarkable, he adds, considering that this particular candidate might be expected to make eight a day.

The diarist asks about Johnson’s policies, which remain unclear. Ritterband says he has little grasp of policy, and leaves that to the wonks – a division of labour that might explain why politics strikes outsiders as slickly manipulative and false. But Ritterband does reveal Johnson’s strategy: to be “not Ken”, and pick up votes from everybody who loathes the incumbent.

Soon after, Johnson enters the room, wearing a smart but rumpled suit and the shortest haircut I’ve ever seen on him. After greeting his hosts, he wanders over to hail the diarist, whom he’s known since they were at Oxford. Then he sticks his hand out to me, saying, “And who’s this chap?”

I tell him my name, and for a moment he looks thrown.

“Ah. You’re this journalist. Been calling people and asking people lots of questions. Well, your spoor has been detected!”

It’s true that I’ve been calling people. After all, his own staff were so unhelpful. After several calls, a PR woman had finally phoned me back to say the campaign hasn’t started in earnest. “And to be honest what we are seeing is probably not interesting to you.”

But what about all these events he’s attended already, listed in excruciating detail on his official site, Couldn’t I tag along, next time he addresses a group of taxi drivers, or strolls through Portobello Market?

“There are a lot of meetings,” she said, “and policy development groups, big organizations in London like transport and health and so on. He has met the Metropolitan Police commissioner several times.” These meetings were sensitive.

Johnson managed to visit all 32 boroughs, in just 16 days, in September. Surely those can’t have been sensitive? “That was about finding a lot of the issues. Academics and policy gurus tell you things but when you go out into the street you find out the truth.”

I mentioned a meeting that Johnson had written about, involving a late-night visit to north London with “street pastors” who work with disaffected youths. “It would not be appropriate to take you,” she said. “The people involved wouldn’t want to be photographed.”

But I don’t have a camera. I just want to follow him about.

“We are finalizing the grid for the campaign period,” she said finally, “and working through the requests.”

It’s not uncommon to find the holders of power withdrawing from scrutiny; and for some time now it’s been all-but-impossible to interview Ken Livingstone. It’s less common to find a would-be office-holder, in mid-campaign, adopting the same elusive approach. But the two leading contenders to run the capital appear to have taken on the character of some rare beast – snow leopard, or corncrake, depending on your political point of view. You catch a glimpse of the eyes and – whoosh! – they’re gone.

Short of sitting outside Johnson’s house, I had no way to find him. If I did that, and followed him around on my own bicycle, what would I find? Not a lot, though it’s not impossible that I might grab a word with him at an intersection, just as he once, rather amusingly, “interviewed” Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell while waiting for the lights to change. (Powell said Johnson made up the quotes.)

Desperate for scraps, I phoned a woman called Jill Parker, who represents the Property Finance Forum, one of the groups Johnson had met over the last weeks, according to his website. I asked how the event had come about, and how it had gone.

“The invitation came about through a contact of one of our members,” she said a little suspiciously. “He came to our office at breakfast. He gave a talk. He spoke about where he sees expansion. There was a good Q & A afterwards. He pitched it just right, with a bit of humour thrown in.”

I found out afterwards that it was Parker who warned Johnson’s people that I had called.

Why are they so paranoid? Because Boris is desperately hard to control. His biographer gives a fantastic account of how badly the Tories mishandled his trip to Liverpool to apologise – to the entire city – for an editorial in The Spectator. A press officer who watched this PR fiasco, on TV in London, told Andrew Gimson: “Our hands were wringing in total despair as it went from one catastrophe to another.”

Brian Paddick, the former Metropolitan Police commander who is standing as mayoral candidate for the Lib Dems, has questioned Johnson’s decision to give up alcohol until polling day, suggesting that he did so at the insistence of Conservative minders, to avoid making any blunders during the campaign.

“What Londoners have got to realise is, four years is a long time for the mayor to be kept out of the media so he doesn’t make any gaffes,” Paddick said, “and for him to give up drink.”

I mentioned this to the diarist, who asks Johnson if it was true he’d given up drink. Johnson confirms it, but says he was allowed some slack over Christmas.

In a rather craven attempt to find common ground, I tell Boris that he and I had both attended the same school as young children – an international school in Brussels for the offspring of eurocrats. (For a year, his younger brother was in my class.) I ask what his father was doing in Brussels. He doesn’t answer the question but says something like: “Mwargh – Stanley!” (His father’s name.)

We move into the splendid dining room. There are five large tables, Johnson’s in the middle. I find myself next to Sykes, and a divorced socialite of whom I know little except that she possesses a large collection of erotic art.

Though well disposed towards Johnson, most guests are not hardcore supporters. Fellowes tells me he was asked along because he is one of only about two people who appear on telly who are prepared to stand up and be counted as Conservatives, the other being (he says) Frederick Forsyth.

D’Ancona makes a short speech introducing Johnson as his predecessor, and a friend. Then Johnson rises to speak. He immediately draws everybody’s attention to the fact that there is a “man from the Sunday Times” among them. His expression is unamused; in fact he looks paranoid. What is rattling him?

The erotic-art collector turns to the man seated on her other side – the diarist – and asks why Johnson didn’t mention that he – another journalist – was present too. He replies that Boris knows and trusts him, but doesn’t trust me.

Continuing his speech, Johnson says: “I have to sort out a lot of problems…” He stops, looks towards me and asks, “Are you writing this down?” in a tone you might use to admonish a drunkard caught pissing through your letter-box.

In his speech, Johnson talks about people’s difficulty getting on the housing ladder, and Livingstone’s tendency to pepperpot the skyline with odious buildings. He says it was high time that the thumbs of the RMT were prised from the neck of the commuter, with a no-strike agreement. And he expresses a love of London buses. “But we have many of them filling up an elephants graveyard in Oxford Circus.” This gets a big laugh. He promises to get rid of the bendy bus and replace it with a new kind of Routemaster, and to secure a free bus pass for “Ken Leavingsoon”.

The most important thing, he says, is to sort out people’s insecurity on the street. “I was talking to this man from the Sunday Times about a school we both went to in Brussels. Well a lot of kids are not so lucky. You can’t deal with the great problem of knife crime and the murder of teenagers – 27 killed last year – and blame it all on Margaret Thatcher.”

Looking uncharacteristically earnest, he describes meeting the street pastors, and says he will work with groups like them all over the capital.

“As soon as I get in I will introduce proper accountability. I will get rid of the ludicrous Londoner free sheet, the Pyongyang-style newspaper that brings us news of the mayor’s achievements in buying more bendy buses.”

Over dinner, I ask Sykes if we really need a mayor. Having spent much time in New York, she says that Michael Bloomberg has been terrific, but adds certain dark comments about his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani.

The woman with the erotic art collection, tells me she doesn’t mind if Johnson is a philanderer. (When he was editor of The Spectator, the father-of-four was revealed to have carried on with a colleague, Petronella Wyatt. There have been stories of other affairs too.) In fact, she positively approves, and asks what I think.

I say it was nobody’s business but his, and his wife Marina’s – or possibly not even hers. When I was phoning people, desperately, for insights into Johnson, a woman who adores him offered this rather unusual plaudit: “As well as being a philanderer he’s a great family man.”

Among others on my table, Fellowes expresses libertarian ideas that fall only slightly short of anarchist. Like Johnson, he plainly doesn’t like to be bossed about by the nanny state. But at the end of the speeches, when Fellowes asks Johnson a question about London buses, he supplements it with a jarringly authoritarian demand that Johnson clamp down on bicyclists to ensure they obey the law.

Johnson assures us that he will indeed clamp down – a stance only slightly at odds with own his documented tendency to jump lights on his bicycle.

London didn’t have a directly elected leader at all till 2000. Ken Livingstone was first elected as an independent, then reelected in 2004 as official Labour candidate. His salary, £137,579 per year, is equivalent to that of a cabinet minister, and his powers are no less considerable. He’s responsible for budgeting and planning a wide range of functions: transport, the police, fire and emergency services, cultural strategy and economic development, health, climate change and appointments to the boards of the functional bodies.

If you live outside London, you may think this does not matter to you, but rightly or wrongly London generates a disproportionate amount of GDP, so the health of the capital affects you wherever you live. What’s more, where London leads, others follow – as we’ve seen with the gradual acceptance of congestion charge in other cities, to many people’s dismay.

If you read Johnson’s writings, you gather that he desires a world in which people are left alone by politicians. This is largely confirmed by his light-touch parliamentary record: he spoke in fewer debates than most MPs last year, attended barely half the votes, and (according to PublicWhip, which monitors these things) his “very strong” and “strong” positions tended to be against government imposing yet more enormities on us – but that’s not entirely unexpected considering that he’s in the opposition. (Two things he favoured strongly were invading Iraq, though he’s changed his mind, and renewing Trident.)

“He wants people to be free to enjoy themselves,” Gimson says in his lively biography. “He does not rush to condemn anyone whose pleasures are not his own, and sympathises with the little man who finds himself caught in an impossible position. While many politicians have the urge to perfect society, Boris believes in the imperfectability of mankind, and especially of himself. He does not seek to attain impossibly high standards, nor does he impose them on others.”

It’s this that I find so mysterious about him. Why does he want to be mayor? Why did he become an MP? Why does he want to be one of the bossy people?

Johnson’s friend James Delingpole, a journalist who has known Johnson since university, insists there is no ethical inconsistency between believing that we are over-governed, as Johnson does, and wanting to be a politician: “There’s no other way to get that changed.”

Like Livingstone, Johnson is a maverick, regarded with suspicion by most parliamentary politicians and much loved by the public. In Johnson’s case, this is because he has always seemed not to be a serious politician – not some dreary Westminster clone. But has his shambolic persona ceased to be an asset? In October, when Arnold Schwarzenegger overheard Johnson addressing the Conservative conference, the governor of California told his aides: “This guy is just fumbling around.”

Another Oxford friend, Lloyd Evans, whom Johnson hired to write theatre reviews for The Spectator, and who repaid that by penning, with Toby Young, a satirical play about the sexual shenanigans at the magazine under Johnson’s editorship, believes that Johnson is at bottom an intensely serious man.

“The bumbling quiz show host isn’t the real Boris at all,” says Evans. “I suspect he’s tired of that clownish persona and wants to show us the real Boris – orator, persuader, leader, heavyweight thinker. Those qualities are there in his personality, they just don’t come across on telly.”

When Johnson won the Conservative candidacy, in September, he hinted at this: “I reserve the right in the course of this campaign to make jokes, but be in no doubt that I am deadly serious. There will be people across London discovering that I mean business.”

“He has real political ambitions,” says Evans, “and genuine talents which just need the right conditions to germinate. Sometimes in politics the cause makes the man. It happened to Gandhi, who started as an Edwardian gadabout, top hat, French conversation, dancing lessons. Then he found a campaign worthy of his abilities. I don’t suppose we’ll see Boris spinning cotton in his underpants but once the election gets going we will see a more considered and a far more impressive persona. There’s a lot more to him than people realise.”

Johnson was born in 1964 in New York, educated in London and Brussels, then won scholarships to Eton and Oxford. After graduating he lasted only a week as a management consultant. (“I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix, and stay conscious.”)

He became a trainee reporter on The Times, but within a year he was sacked for inventing an embarrassing quotation from his godfather, Colin Lucas, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University. He worked for a brief period for the Wolverhampton Express and Star. The then-editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, hired him to report from Brussels; where his first marriage fell apart, and he became reacquainted with an old school friend, Marina Wheeler, who was to become his second wife 12 days after his divorce came through. Together they have four children.

It was also at the Telegraph that Johnson was involved in the conspiracy with former Eton and Oxford friend Darius Guppy, a convicted fraudster, to get a News of the World reporter beaten up. Johnson agreed to supply the reporter’s address, in a taped conversation. Ken Livingstone has understandably used this episode to query how Johnson can present himself as a candidate in favour of law and order.

Hastings gave Johnson a telling off, but didn’t sack him. Indeed, he was promoted – eventually becoming assistant editor. His writing won many awards, and as a result, his income rose steadily. According to last year’s register of MP’s interests, Johnson was paid up to £250,000 for his Daily Telegraph column, plus many thousands for various books, and up to £15,000 each for 15 public speaking events. His TV appearances, with Dame Edna and on Have I Got News For You, among others, additionally paid up to £25,000 a time.

On top of all this, he has a busy life outside work: he enjoys painting, playing tennis and being with his children. Not so very long ago he made them a tree-house.

Then there’s politics, which has preoccupied him since Oxford, where he was president of the union. He fought Clwyd South in the 1997 General Election. After he was appointed editor of The Spectator, in 1999, he promised the then proprietor, Conrad Black, that he would abandon politics. But in 2001 he stood for Michael Heseltine’s old seat, in Henley, and won it.

Doing both jobs proved increasingly difficult. As editor Johnson took responsibility for articles that deeply annoyed his parliamentary colleagues, not least the editorial that offended all of Liverpool. Michael Howard resisted calls to dismiss Johnson – then Tory vice-chairman and shadow spokesman for the arts – over that editorial, but a month later sacked him for his affair with Wyatt – or, to use the prim technicality, for dishonestly denying the affair.

Johnson’s experiments with truth are linked by his foes to a wider inconsistency. In 2006, at the Conservative conference, he seemed scornful about Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign. “I say, let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?” But David Cameron, the party leader, had lauded the campaign as “social responsibility in action”. Johnson subsequently described Oliver as a “national saint” and a “messiah”.

Livingstone argues that such shifts undermine Johnson’s managerial credentials. “Johnson used to denounce the congestion charge and now says he supports it. He supported the Iraq war then opposed it. London does not need a mayor in charge who constantly changes their positions because they have been proved to be disastrously wrong.”

A month or so after I first approached Johnson’s people, they phoned with good news: an event I was permitted to attend. By strange chance, Johnson’s appearance at a meeting of the Conservative City Circle (Tory financiers, lawyers and accountants) at a nightclub in south Kensington, took place the night after the Spectator party.

Arriving there, I enter a crowd of two or three hundred people aged 35. The combined noise of their chatter is incredibly loud. I find a spot to watch from the upper tier. The man beside me turns out to be a head-hunter, using the event for networking. “I’ve already been able to say ‘what ho’ to a number of clients,” he says.

He points out various individuals standing around the bar below: a group from the Financial Services Authority, an entrepreneur who sells IT to banks, a senior figure in the London Chamber of Commerce.

I nod, and write it all down, wondering why Johnson’s people allowed me to see this, of all the events on his schedule? Do they want to give me the impression that Tories are all young and rich? Is that meant to be glamorous? Are they not worried that “ordinary” people, reading this, might conclude that Johnson is only interested in people who already enjoy great privilege? Would it really have been more dangerous to let me witness him meeting taxi drivers, or walking among disaffected youth in the company of street pastors?

Johnson arrives just ten minutes late – which goes to show how carefully this famously unpunctual man is being managed.

He’s talking to two young women when I sidle up to him. He does a double-take – you again! – but tells them I’m an awfully nice chap. When one asks why, he replies simply: “Sunday Times.”

I ask if this is his first event tonight. He says he’s been to another one already – it’s only 8.15pm – but he doesn’t tell me where.

Why is it so hard to get hold of you? Can I have a proper interview? With a half-smile, he shrugs. And that’s all I get before he’s hurried on to shake hands with innumerable people, pose for photos, head back downstairs and talk conspiratorially with his communications man, Ritterband. He casts his eye over some written notes, then moves with his entourage towards a tiny platform immediately below me.

After a short introductory speech, Johnson bounces onto the platform.

“What a fantastic collection you all are. How they must tremble in City Hall when they see this incredible throng of thriving young Tories. If Kensington and Chelsea votes in anything like these numbers we will win.” He tells them how bad the turnout was in Kensington and Chelsea, at the last mayoral elections, and compares the impressive turnout in solidly Labour Lewisham. A woman in the audience, evidently failing to grasp his point, yells, “Yay, Lewisham!”

Johnson politely offers his congratulations to Lewisham, but says he’d like to see Kensington and Chelsea achieve the same turnout for the Tory candidate.

Then he goes onto the attack, reading out ancient quotes supposedly from Ken Livingstone. Only a nasty moron would get rid of the Routemaster, the mayor once said. Also: corruption flourishes the longer someone is in office.

Everybody laughs.

“What you are seeing now is the final reel of Apocalypse Now, with Marlon Brando waiting for his executioner. And I will be the pencil that removes the mayor from the shoe of London.

He talks about home ownership, transport and safety, cracking the same gags as the night before: the “elephant’s graveyard” for bendy buses, the Pyongyang-style free sheet, the free bus pass for Ken Leavingsoon.

These had seemed funny the previous evening, but hearing them repeated was startlingly flattening. Nor is his pitch absolutely spot-on. When he talks about his plan to work with the non-profit organisations that aid disaffected youth, the blank expressions suggest he might as well be describing voting systems in his beloved ancient Rome. I suspect that he’s aware of this, because to compensate he cranks up the volume. I write in my notebook: “Speaks at top of his voice. Slightly crazy expression.”

It’s hard to say if he really did look more messianic than other politicians – a hairier, blonder Mussolini – or whether it’s just that his customary amiable blither makes one unprepared for this alarming seriousness.

He talks about bureaucracy at City Hall. “There are 630 officials in City Hall. Some of them are on salaries of more than £100,000 a year – not an enormous amount to some of you” (lots of laughter) “but they’re being subsidised by some of the poorest people in the world, in Caracas.”

Somebody says: “Hear, hear.” But there’s something desperate, almost sick-making, about all these young zillionaires pretending to care about impoverished Venezuelans.

Finishing off, Johnson says: “it has been wonderful to see this incredible rejuvenation of the Conservative party. But we have to get the troops out. Don’t forget to go out and evangelise for a more democratic, taxpayer friendly mayor. Thank you very much!”

As Johnson moves toward the exit, a number of people grab him to shake hands. There’s another photograph. A woman asks him to sign a book. Another rushes towards him and thrusts her card into his hand. He raises it to his temple to salute her. The light drops, and together with his entourage he slowly progresses outside.

He’s entertained them, and hinted at policy, but people want to know why Johnson wishes to be mayor. Is it mere whimsy? Is he hoping to lose, and make a killing on some book about it all, hoik his public-speaking fees higher still? I’ve seen him speaking two nights running, addressing audiences that could hardly be more warmly inclined towards him, and I have no idea what the answer is.

Johnson has brio, wit, intelligence, courage, and an engagingly anarchic quality. I truly wish that those qualities were more common among politicians. But the prigs want him to be serious, and if he’s serious then he must conceal the qualities for which he’s loved. So for his own sake, please don’t Back Boris.