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11 December 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:26pm

On a student pub crawl in 2006 Boris Johnson proved more popular as an idea than a reality

By Jonathan Liew

Slowly, as if waking from a long sleep, Boris Johnson raised his head and tried to compose himself. Beads of Tennent’s Lager dripped from the troubled fringes of his blond hair and formed a sticky pool at his feet. His sodden black suit shimmered in the pallid light of the student union bar. He scanned the sea of faces, but his assailant had long since retreated into the safety of the crowd. For a brief moment the future prime minister looked prickled – even outraged. But then he remembered who he was and why he was there. And so he bent his features into a wry, crooked smile, and proceeded with his evening.

Standing at a safe distance a few feet away, I noticed a few members of the Edinburgh University Conservative & Unionist Association surveying the scene with a macabre relish. It was at their persuasion that Johnson had decided to stand for election as university rector. Their vision was to fly him up to Scotland, take him on a typical student pub crawl, and try to drum up a little ambient interest.

As a student newspaper editor with bad highlights, tiring of covering the inane weekly treadmill of bickering union politics, I heartily endorsed the vision. The year was 2006, a time before Johnson the mayor, Johnson the Brexiteer, Johnson the unashamed far-right nativist (unless you read the Spectator, which – you may not be surprised to learn – very few 20-year-olds did). Although he had just been appointed to David Cameron’s shadow cabinet, he was still more celebrity than politician at that stage. And so for a night and a day we walked the streets of Edinburgh looking for trouble.

It wasn’t hard to find. The pint tipped over his head by a renegade member of the Scottish Socialist Party was, as it turned out, just the start. Mobilised by the students’ association, which had decided to campaign against Johnson on the basis of his support of top-up fees, dozens of protesters were waiting at every turn. Dozens more had simply decided to tag along for the ride. As we made our way through the New Town’s bars and clubs, the circus swelled until you could barely make out its epicentre: the straw-haired mollusc staggering across crowded dance-floors and necking the ceaseless tide of Aftershock and tequila shots being pressed into his hands by starstruck students.

Everywhere we went, people wanted a piece of Boris. One girl asked him to sign her breasts, a demand to which he enthusiastically acceded. Numerous inebriated posh English blokes clambered over each other to tell him what a legend he was. The few protesters who managed to penetrate the throng were swiftly manhandled out of the way by strapping student Conservatives with cigars hanging out of their mouths.

Bad highlights: Jonathan Liew with Boris Johnson in Edinburgh, 2006

By all accounts – and from my own mottled memory – it was an uproarious night. Everyone had got what they wanted. The following week’s issue of the newspaper was one of our most popular on record. Johnson, fêted and mobbed, seemed assured of a crushing victory. Meanwhile, his opponents had found a target.

Almost 14 years on, with our cuddly celebrity cephalopod having just come through his latest electoral test, I wonder if there are any parallels to be drawn. For as it turned out, that raucous night turned out to be the apogee of the Johnson campaign. At an electoral hustings the following day, shorn of his adoring entourage, nursing a stinking hangover and faced with a volley of questions from students eager to know about their rent levels, Johnson suddenly looked shifty and befuddled.

Pressing flesh and playing the crowds: this was Johnson’s comfort zone. But once the ground shifted to policy, he was bereft. After he left town, the students’ association continued their ferocious assault against him, pressing their case in the lecture halls and student cafes, convincing people that this was not a ceremonial role but a job requiring serious credentials. When the results came in, the local Green MSP Mark Ballard won convincingly. The former Scotsman editor Magnus Linklater was second and Johnson third, beating only the journalist John Pilger (who hadn’t bothered to campaign or even visit Edinburgh at all). Remarkably, the turnout – up sevenfold – was the largest in the university’s history.

Johnson’s presence had simultaneously ignited the campaign and rallied his opponents. Perhaps there’s a cautionary tale there: the Boris circus and the Johnson vote are two different things. It’s a tale that has been borne out in many of his other elections, where celebrity and the snowballing media coverage often exaggerated Johnson’s popularity. In the London mayoral election in 2012, his winning margin of 3 percentage points was far tighter than the polling, which had him up to 12 points ahead of Ken Livingstone. In his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the Tory majority was cut in both the 2017 and 2015 elections. Even when he was running for the party leadership earlier this summer, the final YouGov poll putting him on 74 per cent ended up overstating his actual tally by eight points.

Plenty has changed since 2006. Your correspondent’s terrible highlights have long since grown out. Johnson’s lust for power has developed from a fanciful affectation to something far deeper and darker. And nobody, not even Andrew Neil, has managed to get close enough to pour a pint over his head. But the hope for Johnson’s opponents is the same as it was all those years ago: that faced with the prospect of actually having him in charge, the public may find the reality of Boris Johnson far less seductive than the mythology.

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