This time next week, if the opinion polls and experts are to be trusted – and they seldom are – Boris Johnson will be prime minister. It is perhaps not quite what he was aiming for as a boy – then he wanted to become King of the World – but it is the prize he has settled for. He has had his eyes on Downing Street at least since he took the safe Tory seat of Henley in June 2001. He was editor of the Spectator at the time and I was his deputy.
The first hint of his true, long-term ambition came shortly after he was elected, when, at an editorial conference, someone made a rather wild suggestion (perhaps that George W Bush might one day launch a never-ending war in the Middle East). Whatever the precise nature of the suggestion, it did not find much favour in the editor’s office. Then someone sighed and said: “Oh, sure, and Boris could become Prime Minister.” Everyone laughed, including Boris, but there was a hint of pain in his eyes. He obviously did not find the possibility of his occupying the highest office in the land something to snigger about. Nor, now, do we …
On the other hand, that’s not to say that the thought of Boris as PM isn’t funny. Most things are a joke to Boris, not least politics. In 2001 the Tories ran a series of election posters with the slogan: “You paid the taxes, so where are the [nurses/GPs/police/teachers, etc]?” To his colleagues at the Spectator Boris suggested a special slogan for Henley: “You paid the taxes, so where are the tennis courts?”
What fun it all was. What a lark. Life is for living, Boris liked to say. He is not one for negativity or bodily mortification. When in February 2004, he emerged blinking from the press screening of The Passion of the Christ, he started to sing (softly) Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a number from Monty Python’s “satirical” Life of Brian. But look. If you play the game of life, you play to win.
There is the danger, though, that you may overextend yourself, and miss stuff. At lunchtime on September 11, 2001, someone at the Spectator saw a report on a news feed about the attack on the Twin Towers. We crammed into Boris’s (empty) office to watch 9/11 live on TV. When Boris arrived, he looked surprised. “I say,” he said. “What’s going on?” He’d obviously been having a busy day. We told him. “Golly,” he said. Or was it “Blimey”? What could you say – or do? I went out to buy a cigar. I had given up cigarettes, but needed something to calm me down.
I like Boris. I am in his debt. I spent six years as his deputy at the Spectator, and those six years were among the happiest of my life. He is a generous and kind man. Roughly 15 years ago, at about the time he was taking his leave of the Spectator, he gave me an elegantly battered Burns & Oates pilgrim’s guide to Rome on the inside cover of which he had written: “To Stu. Sanctificetur nomen tuum!”
But a lot changes in 15 years. Here in Britain we are angrier than we have ever been. The fierce but as yet unbloody civil war between Remainers and Brexiteers is breaking up families and turning one’s friends and colleagues into strangers, sometimes enemies. Boris and I are on different sides in the war. Boris’s intention of cosying up to Trump – who hates Brussels even more than Nigel Farage does – will only make Remainers angrier. Not long ago Boris described Trump as a man of “stupefying ignorance”; now he wants to use him as sort of economic saviour in the case of our leaving Europe without a deal on Halloween.
Until 20 years ago I was a lifelong Tory voter. Like many of the old people who voted Remain – in my world it was the oldies who voted to remain and the young-ies who voted to leave – I backed the Lib Dem in the European elections to register my loathing for Brexit. I’d have much preferred to see Tory Remainers in power, with Ken Clark as prime minister. Failing that, Rory Stewart might have done a good job, possibly with the backing of Tom Tugendhat and Philip Hammond.
I could not vote for Boris, but if Tim Farron were to be reappointed as leader of the Lib Dems, I might vote for him. Having taken a media beating over LGBT issues, Farron resigned the leadership in 2017, saying that he felt it impossible to be faithful to his Christian beliefs and at the same time to be a political leader. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, would have applauded. During Catholic the excitement over the 1960 Kennedy election campaign, she said: “No serious Catholic would wish to become president of the United States.” Same goes for prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, I’ll join my fellow Remain-iacs in working for a second referendum, which I am convinced would be won by Remain. But would our brothers and sisters in Europe want us back? And would Trump allow it?
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.