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The Boris audit: the man who would be king

From the Bullingdon Club to City Hall, Boris Johnson has left his mark. But does he have what it takes to be the next Tory leader? We ask five experts to appraise his life, career and talent

Boris at Oxford

By Mark Field

The Boris phenomenon is nothing new. Three decades ago, when we were both undergraduates at Oxford, he cut an unmistakable dash. There was that ever-present shock of blond hair, of course. And although photographs of the time show a rather slimmer model (I fear that applies to us all . . .) he always seemed sturdily well built.

Boris Johnson’s cheerful charisma has meant that he has always been able to attract camp-followers. Although questions were raised even then about his bumbling buffoonery, his path to the presidency of the Oxford Union was assisted by a coterie of able allies, as was the road to the editorship of the Spectator (“like entrusting a Ming vase to an orang-utan”, as one wag described
it) and to the mayoralty of London. Somehow, buzzing around Boris, there always seem to be many talented men and women, strong at the organisation and administration where he is so weak, just clamouring to be a member of his gang.

At Oxford they were “my stooges”, as he christened them, not unkindly. Whatever scrape he seemed set to be undone by, there always seemed to be help at hand. From Darius Guppy to Toby Young, among countless others, mutual favours have been done and returned over the years – all part of a pattern that began in earnest during those halcyon university days.

He has always been a humorous and engaging orator. Close your eyes listening to Boris today and you could easily be transported back 30 years. That said, if you read a transcript . . . well, it’s pure gibberish.

I am sure it was no great loss to him (nor, in truth, to me) that Boris Johnson and I spent most of our university days in different social circles. His social life in term time revolved around the Oxford party scene – but the bright lights of London were never far away, especially during the vacation. He frequented the Gridiron and, more notoriously, the Bullingdon, clubs that were the mainstays of all-male eating and drinking activity. “The Grid” (chaired in a later undergraduate generation by David Cameron) was a small set of rooms at first-floor level in the centre of Oxford and it ran a little like Pratt’s or the Beefsteak in London’s clubland. It was an invitation-only establishment, predominantly the haunt of former pupils of the major public schools. It also had a legendary (and probably erroneous) reputation in the Oxford Union as possessing a huge block vote, which Boris naturally was well placed to exploit.

Our paths, perhaps predictably, crossed in the world of student politics. Boris won the presidency of the Union, but only at the second time of asking. His first attempt was beset by shambolic disorganisation; he learned to be more organised and on his second run won the prize by one of the largest margins on record. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.

I guess Boris might easily have followed the same path as other similarly well-connected Oxford undergraduates of our generation, into the City of London. Many leading figures in today’s investment banking and hedge-fund world were at Oxford in the mid-1980s – although few might have imagined how lucrative a career this would become. For Boris, however, fame was always the spur. It was clear to us all then that in some way he was heading for a prominent, high-profile role in public life.

Not that it was immediately obvious that he was going to be an MP . . . or a Conser­vative one, at least. Although that era was (with hindsight) the zenith of Thatcherism, a strong attachment to the Conservative Party was rarely a great vote-winner at the Oxford Union. This was compounded by the fact that Boris was at Balliol College, which has long had a left-of-centre reputation. While all leading Union candidates grubbed around for votes within factions of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), whose supporters were invariably also Oxford Union members, the clear impression many of us had of Boris was that his politics were centre-left with a tinge of environmentalism. I cannot imagine how such a reputation was cultivated . . .

It was only in the early 1990s, when reading his robust Eurosceptic polemics from Brussels in the Daily Telegraph, that I realised where his party political allegiances truly lay. There was always something of the contrarian about him – and even now I wonder whether this may have been a rather deliberate attempt to stand out from the run-of-the-mill Brussels correspondents faithfully reporting the goings-on at the European Commission and Parliament. 

Mark Field is the MP (Conservative) for the Cities of London and Westminster

 

Boris the man

By Sonia Purnell

So, Boris Johnson has broken a solemn promise yet again – only this time not to his long-suffering wife, Marina. He has ratted instead on eight million Londoners, breaking his pledge not to stand as an MP at next May’s general election while continuing to draw a salary as their mayor.

Barring great upsets, the good burghers of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will have to make do from next May with whatever time Johnson has left over after running London, writing a weekly Telegraph column, promo­ting books and hosting radio shows.

It is arguable whether any of Johnson’s many and various paymasters will be awarded a “fair squeeze of the sauce bottle”, as the mayor himself has been known to put it. (Although there will no doubt be plenty of time found in the week for his inexhaustible campaign to become prime minister.)

Johnson has form on part-timing in full-time jobs. Back in 2001 when he first became an MP he allowed voters in Henley to believe that he would give up his then editorship of the Spectator. He told the owners of the Spectator he would not stand as an MP. He swiftly reneged on both undertakings, leaving both parties feeling cheated and short-changed. (A livid Conrad Black, then the Spectator’s owner, called Johnson “ineffably duplicitous”.)

Uxbridge Tories, take note: very few in his old constituency would want him back. Johnson was selected for the plum seat in 2000 after an anonymous smear campaign mortally damaged his two principal opponents. His general flippancy – and flip-flopping on such grave questions as the invasion of Iraq – led to several local party members leaving the Conservative Party altogether, and others spoiling their ballot papers in protest. Many more tired of his growing indifference to constituency issues such as the closure of a hospital.

The president of the Henley Conservative association, the late Maggie Pullen, said she was “devastated” at his selection, and although she found a way to work with him she never truly changed her opinion. As another long-suffering colleague once put it: “The closer you get to Boris Johnson, the less you like him.” Even his one-time local fans were angered by his decision to run for Mayor of London in 2008 without consulting them, while trying also to keep his parliamentary seat. Sound familiar?

In the heady “Sextator” days of Ruinart champagne and chesterfield sofas, Johnson was also busy breaking his marital vows. The reputation he won as a permanently priapic politician was nevertheless popular at the time with the young, the apolitical and the envious. Pictures of him slipping out of the Chelsea flat of the education journalist Anna Fazackerley – his trademark mop poorly disguised under a black beanie – made it all look like something out of a French farce. Only, as we know, the women in these escapades often end up hurt and hounded, and sometimes pregnant.

Even the extraordinary indulgence of voters, let alone Marina, has limits, as has been forcefully pointed out to Johnson by no less a figure than the Tories’ abrasive election guru Lynton Crosby. Any further revelations in that area, Johnson has been instructed, would result in his “f***ing knees” being “cut off”.

Now that he sees Downing Street as finally within his grasp, his lust for power appears to have overcome his lust for impressionable young women with swishy hair and plunging necklines. It is four years since he was last caught in the arms of another woman. It is even longer since that he notoriously tried to deny rumours of his philandering with Petronella Wyatt – whom he twice made pregnant – as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But what he said then should still trouble us now. It is acceptable, even desirable, he informed his party leader Michael Howard in 2004, to lie to the press.

More recently, in May 2013, Johnson’s “fitness for public office” was called into question by no less an authority than the Court of Appeal. Ruling that the public had a right to know about his lovechild by an art consultant, the judges decried the “reckless behaviour” he had shown in allowing at least two children to be conceived through various infidelities. Few can recall the “private and professional” character of any serving senior politician being excoriated so openly in a court of law, which ruled that his disregard for the feelings of others was so deep
that it constituted a matter of public interest.

It is this recklessness that frightens the establishment horses – and should frighten us. A John Major-era Conservative minister sums up a view common among his generation as “Johnson must just be stopped”. There are even rumours of a “bottom drawer” of material on Johnson for release by party elders, should he edge even closer to the big black door with “10” on it.

As editor of the Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings did much to further Johnson’s career. He in effect overlooked how Johnson had apparently agreed to help his friend Darius Guppy beat up an inquisitive journalist by supplying his address. He rescued Johnson after he was fired by the Times for making up quotations. He gave him the opportunity to make his name – and ultimately his fortune – by sending him in 1989 to report on the European Union in Brussels.

Johnson’s virulently Eurosceptic reports delighted Margaret Thatcher and spawned a whole style of creative journalism. But their growing detachment from the truth left his credibility shot among his peers (and, eventually, his bosses back in London). James Landale, now the BBC’s deputy political editor, wrote a spoof Hilaire Belloc poem beginning:

Boris told such dreadful lies

It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes . . .

Since then his unworthy conduct – including trying to weasel his way out of paying up on a lost bet on the outcome of the 2010 election – has convinced Hastings that his trust in his one-time protégé was misplaced. He has since written that if Johnson makes it as prime minister, he will board the first plane out of the country.

Nor is Hastings the only one who has learned to distrust Johnson. In March 2011, the mayor was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, for “damaging public trust” after releasing inaccurate public transport crime statistics. He was also criticised for numbers that “do not appear to stand up to public scrutiny” after repeatedly using questionable figures to support lavish claims of success for an initiative aimed at a youth offenders (which later failed so spectacularly that it was closed down).

In 2012, our prospective prime minister also claimed that most cycling accidents were caused by cyclists’ own law-breaking – an equally false pronouncement that was, eventually, grudgingly withdrawn. Other figures he has released on subjects as diverse as housebuilding and police numbers have proved just as spurious.

Trust in politicians – or the lack of it – has become one of the burning issues of our times. Voters, feeling lied to and let down, yearn to be able to believe in their politicians again. But Johnson, for all his claims to be an authentic alternative, is more the problem than the answer. 

Sonia Purnell is the author of “Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition” (Aurum Press, £8.99). Her new biography of Clementine Churchill will be published next year

 

Boris the Tory

By Andrew Gimson

What kind of a Tory is Boris Johnson? No one has yet provided a satisfactory answer. His enemies veer between dismissing him as a clown and denouncing him as an evil right-winger. Neither has the merit of being true, and taken together they have the drawback of cancelling each other out. Bertie Wooster can’t also be Norman Tebbit.

Part of the trouble is that the question invites an ideological answer, and once you start searching for one of those, you become increasingly lost, and find yourself wandering through a forest of murky concepts, some of which may fit some Tories, but none of which applies to Johnson. None of the think tanks that have exercised such a strong influence on Tory thinking over the past 50 years has left the faintest mark on Johnson. He is not an ideological politician: does not crave the support of some theory that explains everything and can guide him as he devises policy. Nor is he a postmodern figure. It would be more accurate to describe him as premodern.

His imagination was captured as a boy by ancient Greece and still disports itself there, before the dawn of Christian guilt. While I was researching my biography of him, one of his oldest friends assured me that he lives in a world of gods and heroes. These gods watch over him, set him trials, test his courage and resourcefulness, establish whether he, too, has the makings of a hero.

Johnson’s own account of his love affair with the Greek world is more democratic than this. It was given on 4 September in his speech about Pericles to the Legatum Institute in London, which can be seen on YouTube. I have only just watched it, and can report that it is a tour de force. What a brilliant schoolmaster Johnson would have made: conveying his love of his subject in language so lucid and joky that it holds the dimmest listener, but so learned and penetrating that it stimulates the cleverest. He ended: “Let us keep . . . alive . . . that spirit of freedom that Pericles exalted – a spirit of democracy and tolerance and cultural effervescence and mass political participation. That is what we believe in. That is what makes London great. In the Thucydidean phrase, let us keep it as a possession for ever.”

These noble sentiments have the practical advantage of translating into a simple mayoral programme. London, he has been telling us since 2007, when he first decided to run against Ken Livingstone, is the greatest city in the world, and our task is to make it greater. A Labour or Lib Dem voter might be just as tempted as a Tory to endorse that line. Nor is there much that is specifically Tory about Johnson’s more detailed positions: his love of freedom might just as well be termed Liberal, and is certainly shared by many on the left. Johnson has called (like Pericles) for a tolerant immigration policy, and in 2008 he precipitated the resignation of a Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, whose response to the killing by a police officer of an unarmed Brazilian had been grotesquely inadequate. The mayor has also called for tolerance of bankers, because they contribute to the prosperity of London. He wishes for the same reason to build an enormous new airport (Pericles completed an enormous new harbour).

The answer to the question of what kind of Tory he is perhaps turns out to be that he is not a Tory at all: that he transcends party boundaries. Towards the end of October, Johnson will bring out a book, The Churchill Factor, about another Tory who never allowed party loyalties to confine his view of the national interest. Winston Churchill spent 20 years as a Liberal before rejoining the Conservative Party, and was happiest leading a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers, as well as various individuals to whom one cannot attach party labels. He expressed his hostility to mere party organisation at the end of his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose career had ended in failure:

There is an England which stretches far beyond the well-drilled masses who are assembled by party machinery . . . an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties . . . It was to that England that Lord Randolph Churchill appealed.

And yet Johnson is quite clearly a Tory. However happy he would be leading a coalition, he is also loyal to his own tribe, and each year at the party conference he manages with a burst of cheerful, pugnacious, magnanimous, disrespectful, scene-stealing oratory to make his audience feel good about being Tory. Many of the rank and file love him.

So the question still arises: what kind of Tory? The best answer I have been able to obtain is from Lord Lexden, the official historian of the Conservative Party: “The Tories always need brilliant adventurers to provide excitement and charm in what has traditionally been a thoroughly dull party created in the image of Sir Robert Peel. Disraeli complained that none of his colleagues knew how to give a decent dinner; he enlivened the consumption of their dreadful fare with his coruscating wit and, until the sniggers became too great, with his outlandish clothes and jewelled fingers. He derived much inspiration from the originator of this vital strain in the Tory tradition: Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke – drunken rake, womaniser, inspired writer and riveting speaker – who worked tirelessly exactly 300 years ago to control events on the death of Queen Anne but lost out completely to his equally unscrupulous Whig opponents when the Hanoverians arrived.”

Lexden adds: “There are times when the Tories like to be led by their adventurers – Disraeli himself in the 19th century; Macmillan in the 20th. On the other hand, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, having mesmerised the party for six years in the 1880s, came to regard himself as indispensable, blundered and was ruthlessly marginalised by the dullards. The long line of Tory adventurers has produced almost without exception clever men equipped for leadership but without any certain prospect of actually attaining it.”

Lexden is right: this is the tradition to which Johnson belongs. He a Tory adventurer. No wonder serious-minded people on both sides of politics cannot bear him and are desperate to find ways of discrediting him. He sometimes attempts, by long periods of sober behaviour, to allay their fears and prove how steady he is. But his attraction is that he is a cavalier, a freebooter, a man ready to fling himself with a cry of “All for one, one for all” into any fight that suddenly seems worth fighting. He may, like Bolingbroke or Lord Randolph Churchill, risk everything and fail. He may, like Disraeli or Winston Churchill, come through being dismissed as ridiculous and climb at last to the top of the greasy pole. We have no idea what will happen next, and that is one reason why he is so watchable. 

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) and is a contributing editor of ConservativeHome

 

Boris the mayor

By Sadiq Khan

In the end, history judges politicians by their record rather than their words. And in the case of Boris Johnson, we won’t be needing the benefit of hindsight. Boris is a fantastic performer, whether on Have I Got News for You or hanging from a zip wire. His sense of humour and “unique” turn of phrase did much to make the 2012 Olympics the huge success the Games were. But when it comes to his record on London, too little progress has been made in tackling the challenges we face today, let alone preparing for those of the coming decades.

The list of Boris’s failures as mayor is long. He has done nothing to tackle the city’s increasingly desperate housing crisis. During his mayoralty, not a single major transport or infrastructure project has been started to help deal with our ever-burgeoning population. Our air has become significantly more polluted, with no plans to reverse this. He leaves London a city that is more unequal and divided, and in a worse position to meet the challenges of the future than when he found it.

Perhaps the single most notable record of Boris’s six years as mayor has been the huge rise in inequality in the capital. London is home to more millionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world. The number of millionaires has increased by almost 60 per cent since 2008. This is not in itself a bad thing – but, at the same time, poverty has rocketed. An unbelievable one-third of Londoners now live in poverty – and two-thirds of them are in work. On Boris’s watch, London has become a city in which the wealthy have got even wealthier, enjoying the best food, culture and arts in the world, while most Londoners have been left behind, squeezed between falling real wages and fast-rising costs.

An important cause of the rise in inequality is London’s housing crisis. It’s not merely that home ownership is now out of reach for the vast majority of Londoners but, increasingly, so is renting. Housebuilding has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. The supply is well short of what we need to keep up with population growth, let alone meet the backlog. The mayor has given developers a free pass on building affordable homes as part of new property schemes – and local authorities are getting a worse deal as a result. He has increased the definition of “affordable” rent to 80 per cent of the market rate: not really affordable at all.

It’s not just the cost of housing that has risen. The cost of a Travelcard for zones one to six has increased by £440 since Boris became mayor. Tube fares have gone up by way above inflation every year. If the increased revenues were being used to build new infrastructure, that would be justifiable, but not a single important infrastructure project has been started. This has been particularly damaging for the poorest Londoners, who have had to move further and further out, due to rising house prices.

London’s population is growing faster than ever; it is poised to increase by the same number as the combined populations of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in just over a decade. With our Tube and bus network already operating at capacity, we need new infrastructure to cope. Yet nothing has happened under Boris. Ken Livingstone delivered Crossrail, due to open in 2016, but in six years no progress has been made on Crossrail 2. Plans to build much-needed river crossings in east London have been cancelled, restricting economic development in the poorest part of London and reducing transport capacity across the city. Instead, millions of pounds and six years has been wasted on a series of vanity projects that have done nothing for Londoners: a cable car that no one uses, a new fleet of buses that take fewer passengers but are more expensive, and a garden bridge that isn’t needed.

In many ways, Boris Johnson’s time as mayor shows the limits of a laissez-faire approach to government in the modern world. If you don’t do anything, then simply nothing happens. 

Sadiq Khan MP is the shadow minister for London

 

Boris the writer

By Leo Robson

Taken at face value, Boris Johnson’s prose suggests a fool. Closer inspection reveals a cynic. His journalism, mostly written between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, was designed to make him appear honest and serious about such topics as the racism of the EU, the London housing market, the virtues of tolerance, Bill Clinton, the Balkans. But there came a point, around the turn of the millennium, when honest and serious became the things Johnson least wanted to be, or wanted to appear to be, the distinction getting hazier as time went on. Changes in his prose formed part of a broader programme of manicured buffoonery, “Boris” being an invention of the page as much as the screen.

Before long, he was a specialist in writing sentences such as this: “I know that there will be some who read this page – high, sacerdotal intellects – who feel that the hot seat of Have I Got News For You is not the place for an homme sérieux.” Johnson’s ploy, here as elsewhere, is to hide his own seriousness by mocking other people’s (their “sacerdotal intellects”), while maintaining a pretence of ironically adopting habits – in this case, the use of foreign phrases – to which he is genuinely inclined.

A fear, not exactly of the serious, but of intellectualism, underpins the feigned vagueness behind: “It is, I believe, what Jung would call an archetype . . .” It is phrased in such a way as to suggest that, while we might be able to paraphrase with unabashed confidence the thinking of Plato or Edmund Burke, you never can tell what these modern Continental thinkers are on about. This is a man afraid and ashamed of his own intelligence, desperate to make it something friendlier.

It’s a complicated conflict or con trick, as Johnson is aware, even if awareness is as far as it goes. In his dexterous though hardly inspired satirical novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), the American assistant to an MP notes how her boss will give “an intelligent answer” and then “throw it all away with some flip aside”. Her accusation is one of “moral evasiveness . . . she couldn’t help wondering about his IDEALS. His VALUES. His CORE BELIEFS.” Baffled, she wonders: “Just what kind of a Conservative was this guy, anyhow?” Later in the novel, a French diplomat trained in “the ancient art of . . . arguing for whatever side of the case he happened to be on” finds his voice suddenly “taking on the choky timbre of absolute sincerity”. (Typically, the case sincerely made is pro-American.) That Johnson himself never chokes, preferring a weightless fluency, is partly acknowledged in a note appended to his jaunty 1999 interview with the war criminal Željko Ražnatovic, reprinted in Johnson’s anthology Have I Got Views For You: “I feel embarrassed about the tone.” The Boris tone isn’t exactly a product of his political ambition but
it is a product of the same root cause as his political ambition, a need to be loved. If he is at all capable of being embarrassed by the failures of sense and taste committed in this quest, then he is surely a man in great pain.

It’s not often that Johnson experiences the need to apologise for not taking things seriously enough. Most of the time, he gets the balance just as he wants it. He cannot expunge seriousness altogether – a celebrity politician is still a politician – but nor can he let seriousness become so dominant that it squeezes out fun. An interest in the classical world, however geared towards the useful lessons it offers the present day, is something he tries to dilute. It is easily done. You simply drop into the lower register, as in the opening sentence of his schizoid book The Dream of Rome: “No one knows the exact moment when Publius Quinctilius Varus realised what a colossal idiot he had been, but when the barbarians on either side of him started uttering their war cry we must assume that the penny finally dropped.” (The war cry resembles “a roaring noise like a chorus of Rolf Harris didgeridoos”: a Times review described his style as “bright, breezy, populist and pacy”.)

The Rome book, first published in 2006, relies to an extreme degree on casual English, an approach that might be mistaken for a Reith-like educative populism but is really catering to the reader’s presumed view of the past as something in need of thawing. As an exponent of classical values, Johnson, in contrast to, say, T S Eliot, proceeds by putting a little-known fact in close proximity to phrases such as “get cracking”, “a popular fellow”, “What a shindig it was”, “imperial good-time girls”, “jolly cascade of bosoms”, “So-rree, Marcus!”, “letting the side down”, “he blubs because he is not yet a praetor”, “far too fly”. These mannerisms tail off after a hundred pages. Job done.

But colloquial language doesn’t just sweeten the pill. It also disguises it. The Dream of Rome isn’t coddling us into knowledge of the Roman empire, as it might seem, but into understanding why the modern EU, of which Johnson is a devoted enemy, could never achieve such unity. His Life of London, reissued as The Spirit of London after the Olympics, offers a Whiggish account of the sort of London enterprise and innovation that culminated in the happy city – Otto­lenghi provides the bread, Lord Coe the circuses – of which, at the time of publication, Johnson was incumbent mayor, with an election looming. In other words, Boris books are just the sort of campaign manifestos a politician might produce after he has forfeited the right to be taken at face value. They have become the most reliable means of assessing the focus, and size, of his ambitions. The next one’s on Churchill. 

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge