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Boris Johnson: The man who would be king

David Cameron’s rivalry with Boris Johnson is perhaps the most fascinating relationship in British politics. How has it evolved over the decades since the pair were at Eton? And which of them will triumph in the end?

Boris Johnson is trying to kill David Cameron. That may sound like an exaggeration, but the word “kill” was used by Johnson himself, in a column about “the basic drama of politics” written soon after the Labour landslide of 1997: “Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth – as Tony Blair would put it, new life for Britain.”

Beneath the banalities of democratic politics, darker passions decide the result. For many in the Tory tribe, the assassination of Margaret Thatcher cried out for vengeance. As a Tory backbencher, the late Nicholas Budgen, told me in November 1990, Tories in the constituencies were determined that the assassin, Michael Heseltine, would not succeed in replacing her as leader: “Their main feeling is stop that longhaired bastard. They don’t much care what animal they use to stop him.”

Are the Tories getting ready to indulge in another bout of chief-killing? The answer of all sober and responsible observers is “no”. For the party to behave like that would be too obviously self-destructive. Cameron will only be in mortal danger if he fails to win the next general election.

Yet that is not quite the end of the matter. For in the theatre of politics, not all the observers are sober and responsible. Many of us crave drama – or, failing that, melodrama. We do not wish our politics to be calm, predictable and controlled to the point of tameness. Walter Bagehot suggested in the 1860s that we had good newspapers because the government could fall at any moment, and therefore “effective articles in great journals become of essential moment”. Our tradition favours uncertainty.

Cameron has violated that tradition. In May 2010 he and Nick Clegg decided there would not be another general election until May 2015. They induced the Commons to pass the Fixedterm Parliaments Act, which makes it virtually impossible for the prime minister of the day to call an election at a time of his or her choosing.

The establishment considered this a prudent measure. It meant the deficit could be brought under control without the danger of everything being thrown into uncertainty by the sudden calling of another election. Cameron was happy to forgo the power to call an election because he is not by nature a gambler. He valued the prospect of five years in No 10 above the chance to go to the country again in a few months’ time and perhaps win an overall majority. With craftsmanlike thoroughness, he set out to build an administration that would be calm, predict - able and controlled.

Which is one reason why people are fed up with Cameron. The impression grows that he seeks to control his followers without conveying any adequate idea of what the control is for. I have been taken aback by the vehemence with which many Tories now dislike him. As one of his backbenchers, first elected in 2010 but involved in Tory politics for much longer, put it to me: “I’ve known the man for years. He’s just no good with his backbenchers, just doesn’t want to give them the time of day. I think he has very poor manners with his own backbenchers. He holds us in contempt.”

Another Tory backbencher from the 2010 intake, a man of intellectual vitality, summed up the problem with Cameron: “The Prime Minister isn’t interested in other people’s views.”

A third backbencher, first elected in 1992, said: “I regard Boris affectionately and wistfully, because he is someone who makes the party feel good about itself, feel loved. David Cameron seems to go out of his way to make the party not feel loved. I don’t know how Cameron thinks the army of Tories [in the constituencies] is going to fight for him at the next general election. Secretly I’m one of the people who hanker after Boris. He would make the thing such fun. It would be a white-knuckle ride. He would need really, really good people round him.”

The more Cameron tries to control his backbenchers, the more they dream of starting a new life with Johnson. The Prime Minister behaves like a husband who shows his wife no affection, allows her no freedom, is coldly uninterested in what she thinks, and has even told her, without so much as a by-your-leave, that she must share her house for five years with some people she dislikes intensely called the Liberal Democrats.

Johnson’s anarchic style begins, in these circumstances, to seem like a recommendation. His impulsiveness and his willingness to have a go at things which may or may not work start to look attractive.

That the two men went to the same school, Eton, is sometimes taken to show they must be similar. Like many Englishmen, Etonians are seldom inclined to risk making fools of themselves by trying out new activities in public. Cameron is a typical Etonian: he hardly ever looks unprepared. Johnson is, in this and other respects, untypical: he has attracted an adoring public by appearing never to be prepared.

Johnson arrived at Eton as a scholar in the autumn of 1977, aged 13. He was part of the school’s intellectual elite, accommodated in a separate house and marked out by being made to wear gowns. By the time he left, at the end of 1982, he had become a commanding figure with a reputation as a star performer. His speciality was forgetting his lines. One of his friends, Andrew Gilmour, remembers Johnson reciting the first page of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, which begins: “Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar . . .”

Gilmour recounts Johnson’s performance: “The way he said ‘Sniggs’ made people laugh, and then he turned to the prompter and said, ‘What’s his name again?’ That brought the house down. Even the provost [Lord Charteris of Amisfield, chairman of the fellows, or governors, of Eton] I remember roaring with laughter. I think from that time Johnson realised that if you forget your lines and carry it off with aplomb, then you’re made.”

Most people have no idea how to carry this sort of thing off, and the performance becomes embarrassing for all concerned. Some of Johnson’s performances became embarrassing. Eric Anderson, then headmaster of Eton, was unamused when Johnson played Richard III: “He hadn’t had time to learn the lines, so had pasted them up behind various pillars. The whole performance consisted of him running from one side of the stage to the other and failing to read it properly.”

Martin Hammond, who was Johnson’s housemaster and taught him classics, was also at times unamused, writing of him in a school report in April 1982: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . . Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Although Johnson became such a dominant presence that he had to be made captain of the school for his last half (as the school term is known at Eton), the question of whether he is “a real life-enhancer” (as Hammond also described him) or unforgivably unprofessional pursues him to this day. But, whatever one thinks about that, it is worth noting not just that Johnson was determined to get to the top by doing things his own way, but that he was already in the grip of an urge to connect with audiences and make them grateful to him for entertaining them. Laughter had become his chosen weapon of seduction. His success this summer at the London Olympics, from which he emerged as the most popular politician in the country, is not some happy accident, but the result of over 30 years of practice.

Cameron, born on 9 October 1966, so just over two years younger than Johnson, arrived at Eton evincing no great urge to perform in public. His biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning quote another Etonian who recalls gazing with Cam eron at the statues of past Etonian prime ministers, of whom there had then been 18: “We were convinced there would never be an Etonian prime minister again. I certainly didn’t think Dave would have a go at it. His only acting roles at school were as a serving-man and as a girl. He was never outrageously extrovert – just quietly popular.”

John Clark, one of his teachers, agrees with this. “He didn’t draw attention to himself. He wasn’t effusive or loud.” Clark says that Cam - eron was “very much a late developer acade - mically” who started to do well when he chose A-levels that suited him: history, history of art and economics.

The two men’s backgrounds are also completely different. Cameron lived in the same house from the age of three, an old rectory in Berkshire, and went often to the church that adjoins it. He is descended on his father’s side from a long line of successful stockbrokers, while his mother’s family, the Mounts, moved from London to Berkshire and built themselves a mansion in 1760.

Johnson’s parents moved 32 times before getting divorced when he was 14. The whole set-up was very much more bohemian. In the direct male line, Johnson is descended from a Turkish politician and journalist who was stoned to death in 1922. While Cameron is an Anglican, and believes devoutly in marriage, Johnson is spiritually more at home in the ancient world of gods and heroes from before the dawn of Christian guilt.

At Oxford, the pattern of school repeated itself. Johnson was a well-known figure, regarded by some as a future prime minister – by giving the wittiest speeches, he managed in 1986, at the second attempt, to get himself elected president of the Oxford Union. It would be misleading to describe the two men as rivals at this time. They both belonged to the Bullingdon Club, which involved dressing up on a few occasions like a footman, but for most of the time they moved in quite different circles. A friend of Johnson says he would have viewed the idea of going on holiday with Cameron’s set as “atrocious”, and one can be sure the feeling was, and is, mutual. For Johnson, it would have been absurd to regard the younger, less intellectual and seemingly not very dynamic figure of Cameron as a rival.

Cameron played no part in student debating or politics, but with quiet efficiency took a First in philosophy, politics and economics – the favoured degree of our political class, taken by Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, Nigel Lawson, Peter Mandelson, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, Ed Davey, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, David Willetts, William Hague, Philip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Eagle, Nick Boles, Steve Hilton and Radek Sikorski, among others.

Someone should examine whether PPE equips one to run anything. Johnson preferred the studies since the Renaissance of an educated man: he read Mods and Greats, which consists of Greek and Latin literature, history and philosophy. He loves these languages but devoted so little time to them at Oxford that he failed to get the First to which his intellectual gifts entitled him, a blow to one who sets absurdly high store by academic scoresheets.

Jeremy Paxman attempted, at the time of the Conservative conference in October last year, to press Johnson on this sensitive spot by asking him on Newsnight if he feels “intellectually inferior” to the Prime Minister. Johnson parried the blow by pretending to misunderstand the question: “No. To whom?”

Paxman pressed home the attack by pointing out that Cameron got a First and asked if this rankled. But Johnson retorted: “It would, if it wasn’t that his First was in PPE.”

Guto Harri, Johnson’s then press man, burst out laughing at the way Johnson had knocked not just Cameron but a large part of the cabinet and shadow cabinet out of the ring. Cameron’s inability on the Letterman show last month to translate the words “Magna Carta”, will not have come as any surprise to Johnson.

In 1988 Cameron went straight from Oxford into the Conservative Research Department, where he gained a close knowledge of how politics works. This was a job for an insider, and he was very good at it. He won golden opinions for the quality of the briefings he provided to ministers, for his calm judgement of dangerous political situations and for his ability to spot Labour’s weaknesses. As Maurice Fraser, a colleague quoted by Elliott and Hanning, said: “He always knew what you could say and what you couldn’t.” Before long he was helping to brief John Major before Prime Minister’s Questions, a role he continued into the 1992 general election, the last at which the Tories gained an overall majority.

Johnson pursued a different path, and one that made him much more famous. In 1987 he left Oxford and joined the Times as a trainee – a post from which he was sacked the following year for making up a quotation about Edward II. At this crisis in his fortunes, Johnson with characteristic energy sought employment in various places, including the Conservative Research Department. Robin Harris, its director, interviewed him, formed a high opinion of him, and offered him a job. But Max Hastings, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, saw Johnson’s potential, made him a better offer and soon sent him to Brussels as the paper’s correspondent. Here Johnson made his name by debunking the European Union at a time when other reporters were treating it with respect. This was a job for an outsider, and Johnson was very good at it.

So, as Cameron was rising with characteristic discretion within the Tory establishment, Johnson was performing to an ever larger gallery with stories about Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, trying to take over Europe. On returning from Brussels, Johnson reached an even wider audience by appearing on programmes such as Have I Got News for You, and in 1999 he became editor of the Spectator. In 2001, when both he and Cameron entered the Commons, it still appeared to most observers as though Johnson was the rising star who might restore the Tory party’s fortunes.

But while Cameron soon began to make a reputation at Westminster as one of the most astute and diligent members of the new intake, Johnson soon came to be regarded by his fellow MPs as lazy, unprofessional and irritatingly well known. He was not in fact lazy: he was manically active, attempting to ride two horses at the same time. Towards the end of 2004, he suffered a couple of crashing falls that would have ended the career of a less resilient politician. The first was when the Spectator published an editorial attacking the people of Liverpool and making grotesque errors about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Michael Howard, the then Tory leader, sent Johnson to Liverpool to apologise. Farcical scenes ensued as Tory minders made ludicrous efforts to stop the national press finding Johnson. Soon after this debacle, a second story broke, about Johnson’s mistress, the journalist Petronella Wyatt, having aborted his child. Johnson, who reckoned the press had no right to ask him about his private life, dismissed the story as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”, which it was not. The tabloids demonstrated that he had lied and Howard dismissed him from the humble post of shadow arts spokesman.

The following year, the Tories lost their third general election in a row, Howard resigned and Cameron launched his bid for the leadership. Johnson, his own reputation too damaged to stand, at once had the wit to back Cameron. But after unexpectedly defeating David Davis, Cameron declined to offer Johnson any significant role. The new leader had quite enough trouble rebutting the charge that he was an outof- touch Etonian, without promoting another Etonian who was known to be uncontrollable.

The parliamentary path to power was blocked, and so Johnson decided to have a crack at a popularity contest that no other wellknown Tory dared to enter. In 2008 he ran for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone and won. For the next four years, he let no chance go by to attack Cameron, and this May Londoners rewarded him with a second victory over Livingstone. Johnson had demonstrated that, unlike Cameron, he is an amazing campaigner who knows how to persuade Labour supporters to vote Conservative. The mayor celebrated his victory by repeatedly upstaging the Prime Minister at the Olympics. Cameron had never practised in his youth the art of rousing a crowd to such a pitch of enthusiasm that it chants his name, and it is too late for him to learn it now.

The Prime Minister finds himself in the position of a teacher who is continually mocked by the brightest and most popular boy in the class. He has to pretend to find Johnson’s antics funny. In reality, he takes a dim view of them. One insider recently described Cameron’s view of Johnson as “frosty” and among Johnson’s people Cameron is regarded with increasingly open contempt as a man without a plan who is not up to being Prime Minister. His feebleness on the question of a third runway at Heathrow, with any decision postponed until after the next election and hints that the project will then be approved, is seen as symptomatic of a tendency  to cave in to a combination of the Treasury and powerful corporate interests.

And it is difficult to get people to hate Johnson, especially as he is so determined to be liked. He has a gift for mending fences even with those whom one might have expected to become his lifelong enemies. He and Cameron are still able for much of the time to treat their rivalry as a game, but one that both of them are in deadly earnest about winning. With George Osborne, the relationship is less playful. Johnson poses a direct threat to his control of the Tory machine, and to his hope of exercising, when the time comes, a decisive influence on the choice of Cameron’s successor. From the Osborne camp we can expect to hear dark insinuations that Johnson is too scandalous a figure to become prime minister.

Tory MPs do not yet know whether they can trust Johnson, but many of them are completely disillusioned by Osborne. They accuse him of seeing every decision as entirely political, taking no interest in economics, of yielding to the temptation to believe in preposterously optimistic forecasts and, naturally, of the dreadful sin of ignoring Tory backbenchers. I was surprised to hear one backbencher commend Johnson as “the only Conservative at the top able to put Thatcherite ideas in a way that is persuasive and convincing”. Johnson is not a Thatcherite. He is a risk-taker who will go for anything he thinks has a fair chance of working.

Johnson is now in a position to persecute the Prime Minister almost daily. On past form, he will use the Tory conference in Birmingham once more to upstage Cameron. The Mayor of London can be bolder about tax cuts, the des - irability of getting rid of the euro, the need for a new airport, the best ways of getting Labour voters to back the Tories, and also on any passing issue of the hour, such as the atrocious manners of Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip who called the police plebs. Cameron, as the cautious voice of the establishment, cannot match Johnson the Merry England maverick on any of these subjects.

If the economy recovers, Cameron will recover with it. Johnson’s supporters on the back benches, who say they prefer to rely on “ad hoc conversations” rather than anything so formal as a “skeleton team”, are anxious that he does not overplay his hand and precipitate an early leadership contest. They fear “anyone could come through” such a race: Philip Hammond’s name is often mentioned. The assumption is that Michael Gove would stand, and either Justine Greening or Theresa May. Johnson’s admirers want him back in the Commons before any contest, and they reckon the natural time for him to get back in is at the general election in 2015, when he could disingenuously claim he is standing in a London seat in order to represent the interests of the capital in the Commons. If Cameron fails to win that election, his own backbenchers will no longer extend the benefit of the doubt to him. They will demand a new leader. By that stage a member of the 2010 intake might be ready to have a go, though it is too early to say which member of that gifted crowd is most likely to come through.

Over the next three years, we can expect Johnson to bend every sinew to demonstrate that he is the party’s greatest electoral asset and the one man who could lead it to an overall majority. He will try to become the person to whom the party feels compelled to turn. It is notable that he is already spoken of as a man for the top job or for no job at all. If he does one day supplant Cameron, he will regard it as belated recognition of his natural supremacy.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special