I write this on the day after Boris Johnson testified in front of parliament’s Privileges Committee about what has come to be known as partygate. My friend Ben had invited me over to watch the proceedings but I didn’t fancy it; besides, I had a deadline. But I kept an eye on the headlines as the afternoon passed, perhaps hoping to see one along the lines of, “Ex-Premier Johnson Dies of Shame in Front of Privileges Committee” or, “Johnson Apologises, Commits Seppuku”. Fat chance. About a couple of hours in Ben rang me, spluttering with rage.
“The fat —’s going to get away with it,” he said. He used a word so rude I’m not even going to tell you what letter of the alphabet it begins with. I retired to my bed, all energy and inspiration sucked out of me. I slept fitfully, with uneasy dreams. When it was over, Ben rang me again.
“You were so right not to watch it. That’s four hours of my life I’m never going to get back. I reckon if we’d watched it together we’d have thrown ourselves off the balcony.” Ben lives on the 16th floor. I went back to sleep, drained and nauseous.
[See also: Over Scotch eggs I am, to my shame, schooled in “The Pardoner’s Tale”]
This might come as a surprise to you, but I do not like Boris Johnson very much. Four years ago a literary agent approached me and suggested, over a decent lunch, that I write a book about Johnson, eviscerating him. The agent himself had been to Eton and told me a mind-boggling but plausible story about Johnson’s friend Darius Guppy (you know, the one who Johnson offered to assist in his plans to have a journalist beaten up), but I can’t tell it here because the New Statesman’s lawyers would have a seizure.
In the end I declined to write the book, on the grounds that: a) Johnson’s story was clearly not over yet; and, b) the idea of immersing myself in the greased piglet’s doings for at least a year gave me, as Americans say, the major ick. I did do a little research: I went for a coffee with his first wife, with whom I once went on a semi-blind date many years ago, believe it or not. We’d kept in touch. I wondered, four years ago, how to tactfully bring up the subject of her ex-husband. I need not have worried, for, as ever, he was the main subject of conversation in those days. “It’s all about the getting, not the having,” was one of the interesting things she told me about him.
But to return to the present day: as I tossed and turned last night, I was beset by a horrible insight. As I contemplated the greased p’s bluster, bloviating and profoundly shameless evasions, half-truths and non-truths, I recognised, in his ability to kick all his problems, all the blindingly manifest failures of deed and character, into the long grass, something terribly familiar: I do this too. I am beset by financial problems, mainly, and have now been teetering on the edge of catastrophe for 15 years. I know what it is to have the bailiff at the door; I even know what it is to have the people who wish to install the prepayment meter pounding on it. That was less than a year ago, and how or why they gave up I don’t know for certain, but that problem, too, has been kicked into the long grass, for the moment.
A few days before I had a drink in the Battle of Trafalgar with my old friend N—, whom I had first met in 1980 when visiting a friend who had gone to Balliol. I have kept in touch with this crowd ever since, for they are both amusing and decent. N— is a professor in New York; others are councillors, or the kind of lawyers who fight for people with workplace injuries. One of them is actually a CBE for tireless good works in the civil service. The thing they all have in common is that despite having, like the Pale Schemer, been to Balliol, they have all advanced their careers with the thought of helping or teaching others, and with no thought of self-advancement. One of the people who joined this lot, a couple of years later, was Mick Herron, whom you may know as the author of the deservedly successful Slough House series of books about failed spies. A recurring character in these books is a ruthless, evil, conniving MP called Peter Judd, who has artfully disarrayed blond hair, a superficially charming manner, and gets political leverage out of riding a bicycle to work. Remind you of anyone? He might as well have been called Joris Bohnson for all the effort that Herron has gone to in disguising him. And I have no doubt that Herron created him as a way of dealing with the affront to his alma mater’s history that Johnson represents. N— and I toasted Herron in absentia, and now I’m going back to bed.
[See also: Boris Johnson the clown’s first encore]
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special