Boris Johnson’s forthcoming account of his time as prime minister, announced last week, has already been described as a “memoir like no other”. Taking the form of a diary, “Lying in State”, as it is provisionally titled, may be released before the end of the year.
A series of happy accidents put a draft in the hands of our critic John Maier. What follows are his world exclusive selections from the text.
By Jove, this job comes at you a mile a minute sometimes! My first day in the proverbial prime-ministerial harness and I have already confronted a fearsome to-do-list. First, off to BP to seal the deal. Next, Dom has a few errands to run – nothing that would interest me, he says, only work stuff. (I wait in the car.) Next, on the Downing Street steps the cameras chatter noisily away as I assume the statesman-like poses I have been planning in the mirror for the last couple of days. Legs: spread-eagled. Arms: akimbo. Expression: dignified gurn. I would have gone for an even more respectfully Churchillian homage, but Carrie made me leave my chin putty and bowler hat in the glove compartment. Projecting the right image is everything at this stage. A little statesmanship. The British public do not ask for a lot, and I want to let them know that they have got it.
Turning to enter through the famous black door, I note to my horror that there is no bell, not even a doorknocker. The eyes of the world’s media still upon me, this, I recognise immediately, is the first major set-back of my premiership. Quick as a flash, though, the old Johnsonian ingenuity kicks in and I’m about to take my shoulder to what I estimate is the weakest part of the doorframe, when all of a sudden it swings gamely forth. Crisis averted. On the inside, old Head-Case, or “Simon” as he insists he prefers to be called, shows me around the new pad. Motioning me towards a group of uneasy-looking civil service drones, he says, “I assume you’re already familiar with Whitehall’s Permanent Secs?” Before anyone can beat me to it, I make a carefully judged off-colour remark to set everyone at their ease. I think they must have misheard me though, as one of them seems to scowl and Head-Case seems to look distractedly at his watch.
Boring bits crossed off the list, I charge down the hall, quickly outpacing the rest of the team, so that I can exercise my prerogative as primus inter pares and end up bagsying by far the best room. It’s a touch on the small side, with poor lighting, but has stacks of nifty cardboard boxes going to waste in one corner and several spare giant Union Jacks just gathering dust in a cupboard. I fancy, with a bit of patient craftsmanship, I could assemble it all into a pretty formidable fort, so long as no one else has similar designs. It would be a major infrastructure project. Exercising due caution, I resolve not to mention the boxes, or my plan for them, even to my closest advisers, lest others get wind of what’s afoot. Strategy is everything. Dom confirms by text that he thinks the plan a good one.
The second major set-back of my premiership arrives when I discover there’s a whole other floor upstairs (!) with some even swisher rooms, now all taken. I immediately petition for a swapsie on grounds of mindboggling unfairness. But Dom drops by all of a sudden – having been so tied up with meetings again today that he hasn’t even had time to answer his phone, poor fellow – and urges me to trust the infallible auguries that issue from the Johnsonian gut. Dom says I was surely right to foresee that my personal office should be away from all the hurly-burly of strategic planning and bottom-numbing decision-making carried on ad nauseam et infinitum in the den of pencil-sharpening policy-wonks and powerpoint-powered poindexters upstairs. Anyway, he says, the long spells of quiet down here will help me to focus my prime-ministerial thoughts, upon which the whole Downing Street shebang so fundamentally depends. Despite his grossly unfair characterisation in the media, Dom is a straight-shooter and stand-up guy. Back inside my fort, I reflect that nothing is more important than that a Prime Minister surround himself with advisers willing to speak truth to power.
Summoned from my office where I am making some long-overdue repairs to the fort’s left turret, I rush upstairs only to find Carrie, or “The Minister for the Interior” as she has taken to calling herself recently.
“Carrie? I was told there was an urgent question from the floor of the house?”
“There is,” she shoots back, pointing down at her assistant who is struggling to unfurl several scrolls of wallpaper at her feet. “Gold brocade on claret underlay or scalloped silver imprint on vermillion lozenges?” Carrie demands sweetly.
Gadzooks. Barely months into the role, and it’s already falling to me to get the big decisions right.
A simply promethean schedule today:
Statesmanlike morning run – check.
Comprehensively trounce Labour at the dispatch box – check.
Off-the-record introductions with prospective party donors – cheque.
Then an anaesthetically dull meeting on “pandemic preparedness” organised by some nervous boffins from the Department of Health or some such unlikely sort of place. Seems to be going on forever. “Is there going to be much more of this?” I ask intelligently. It’s of the utmost importance to show leadership in situations of this sort, I find. Very often you will be asking what everyone else is thinking. While Matt Hancock isn’t looking I spell “boobs” on his calculator, then leave the boffins to fiddle with their calculations – too many chefs and all that.
Anyway, I’ve always thought that taking on too much detail can distract one from seeing the bigger picture. Back at No 10, I make some modifications (mostly cosmetic) to the fort.
1 April 2020
Bit of a cough. Probably nothing.
29 April 2020
Back at Downing Street, Carrie introduces me to a baby I have never met before. As with all children, I make to greet it like one of my own (always best to be on the safe side with this kind of thing; that’s gold-standard Johnsonian best-practice). But no, Carrie explains, this one really is mine. Another big call got right.
I am focused night and day on our vast procurement programme – second only its prospects of success to the promising work being done over at Test and Trace. It’s all expensive stuff, mind. Can it be right to offer vast financial rewards to one’s chums in the midst of crisis? That’s the million dollar question. Matt agrees and says that at that price he thinks he knows a uni mate of his who’s handily just set up a consultancy firm that should help us get to the bottom of that head-scratcher.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson coming back?]
Summer 2020 – April 2021
It’s around this time that I begin to suffer from quite temperamental bouts of memory loss. Folks, there’s no getting around it: the prime-ministerial memory-pump is an oleaginous organ, much given to uncooperative slides and slips if you try to press on it too hard or in the wrong places. I confess that even after having tried to piece back the events of this summer carefully and at length with my lawyers, I remain none the wiser.
A season of public discontent. Leaving Downing Street by car, encamped protesters demand to know how I look at myself in the mirror each morning. “Easy!” I retort winningly. “I don’t own a mirror!”
Rather than joining me in our usual car-ride banter, I notice my aides looking a little disconsolately out of the window. One of them even seems to be distracting himself by getting on with some work, scrolling through the job listings on the parliamentary website. I sense an unmissable opportunity to get another big call right. Addressing the car, I proclaim that whatever the public ill-will we face, I know our government shall prevail. As soon as I hear myself say it, the old Johnsonian gut agrees loudly. The driver rolls down the window.
6 June 2022
Read in the paper of a confidence vote later today in the Commons. The only candidate currently standing: one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. This should be easy.
10 June 2022
This Pincher goof-out really cheeses me off. It seems to me the man has behaved with rank unprofessionalism. Yesterday evening I was summoned from my fort to lead the comms fire-fighting meeting upstairs. “What the hell do we do?” one staffer screamed at me. I instantly detected this as another opportunity to get one of the big calls right. “First,” I said, “we deny everything. Then, without attempting to discover any of the relevant facts, we double-down. Then we evade the question. Then we pivot, then partially concede the point, then pivot again, then finally we send out another minister (preferably the same one who issued the initial denial) to admit total collective culpability.” Needless to say, the staffers could tell this wasn’t my first rodeo. Almost all of their faces were now turned towards me with expressions of awed concentration; one young woman, I couldn’t help noticing, was even crying with relief at my having resolved the situation so decisively.
[See also: Will we be able to trust Boris Johnson’s memoir?]
15 June 2022
A late-night call from President Zelensky. It is so desperately sad to watch a once fine democracy reduced to chaos, basic public services run into the ground, the public uncertain of their future from one day to the next. “I wish there was more we could do to help you,” President Zelensky says, trying to reassure me. I begin to say that actually I am planning another impromptu trip eastward in the next week or so, but there must be something wrong with the phone line I’ve had installed in the fort, because all of a sudden it goes dead.
Tricky select committee hearing with Bernard Jenkin. The old prime-ministerial noggin up to its usual tricks again!
Last bit of prep is to write my farewell speech, which I do in the fort. I’m struggling to come up with a insultingly bathetic enough sign-off when Carrie suggests “thems the breaks”. Just the ticket, I shout out to her, writing it down.
Truth be told, I’m beginning to feel a whole lot better about this whole “resigning” malarkey. After all, I’ve always thought my best quality is that I’m outgoing.
I’d like to thank my editors at HarperCollins for their generous advice. To the best of my knowledge, I followed all the advice that was given to me at the time. Any mistakes that remain are, needless to say, nothing to do with me.
As imagined by John Maier