Dave, Maggie and then who?

Party workers at Tory HQ are praying that Boris can lift the gloom.

"Utter relief," were the words from Conservative campaign headquarters on the news that Boris Johnson had given in and finally decided to seek the nomination to challenge Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London. It removed the bizarre story of the Ealing Southall by-election candidate, Tony Lit, off the front pages and whooped up a press office slightly jaded by unfavourable polls and generous Asians. "It was a textbook Tory story," says one official. "Everything is going perfectly - a few defections to our side, a candidate with a winning smile, positive press - and then it turns out that only weeks ago, Lit gave £4,800 to Labour. What's the f**king point?" The Boris news could not have come sooner.

The Tories recently conducted some internal polling, funded by Lord Ashcroft. After three months of focus groups, the most recognisable faces in the party were David Cameron, who came top, to the relief of all at CCHQ; he was followed by Margaret Thatcher; and then . . . Boris. A researcher notes: "Boris is miles ahead of even the shadow cabinet, never mind the other candidates. If he wins [the nomination], at least he'll give Ken a decent fight."

Headquarters has been renamed by some staffers the "Boris Call Centre". Yet formally its role is limited. Press officers are unable to take calls for any of the hopefuls during the candidate selection process. (Even Johnson's old chum Rod Liddle was frantically phoning on Monday trying to get hold of him.) The multitude of Johnson inquiries is passed on to Jo Tanner and Katie Perrior, two ex-Conservative Central Office war-room employees assigned to handle his press. Although described as the "Trinny and Susannah of political PR", they are south-east London streetwise. You do not want to mess.

Perrior is one of only a handful of Tory employees who has managed to work for David Davis, the shadow home secretary, without turning to drink or self-hatred, or openly weeping. When Davis claimed the scalp of the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes in 2004, Perrior told staff at the BBC's Today programme: "I've worked so hard, I haven't been home for days. I've had to check into hotels and buy fresh knickers daily." Dedication.

The Johnson campaign team is based at offices in Centre Point, where it is "wading through stats and planning lots of web-based, viral campaigns dealing with areas such as crime, housing and transport". At the time of writing, workers were collecting more than a hundred supporters an hour on The original plan was to focus the campaign on a youth-orientated web offensive, but Perrior admits: "We have been surprised by the number of calls from people saying their granny wants to join Boris's campaign but does not have internet access." To deal with this, they are taking names and addresses of silver-haired Boris warriors fit for the cause.

His announcement on 16 July was, as expected, shambolic, but according to his people it did the trick. Says a team member: "He really enjoyed the scrum and was quite thrilled he was doing it outside City Hall right under Ken's nose." That a rather grumpy Livingstone then saw fit to start throwing insults before the day was over also was seen as "a very good thing".

One school of thought in Central Office is to hope that proceedings get really entertaining; some of the more sensible boys and girls are considering "an action-stations procedure" for when Johnson makes his first blunder. One minder says, "The only problem with this is, you don't know what that clanger will be. It's not as simple as knowing he might say 'arse' on prime-time television, berate an entire city or drop his trousers. He could do anything."

A member of Johnson's team says: "Yes, Boris has a reputation for playing the clown, but he is serious about this. This decision was not taken lightly. He knows the risks and doesn't want to make mistakes." The official added, ominously: "Over the next month we will be contacting the great and the good around London, Trevor Phillips-type people, to get involved. Boris is not pretending he knows everything; he wants to glean as much information as possible from those on the front line of London life."

Even those who have every right to be vexed with Boris cannot find words to berate him. A few months ago, Penny Mordaunt, the candidate for Portsmouth North, fell foul of Johnson's free-range tongue when he wrote, "Portsmouth is full of obesity, drugs, underachievement and Labour MPs." His remarks gave her a week from hell, but even she puts a rosy gloss on events. "It's true, his comments ruffled a few feathers. Since then, the council has invested more in literacy. His plain talking put a spotlight on an issue that needed to be aired." Cripes.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State