'I'm prejudiced in his favour'
Some advice for Boris from a proud father
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Spectator, 21th July 2007
Click here for The Spectator version
Boris was born in New York on 19 June 1964. I missed the birth since I had slipped outside for a moment to buy a pizza. When I first saw him he was bundled up in the hospital nursery with only the soles of his feet showing. These were completely black. This puzzled me. Had his mother, I wondered, somehow managed to give birth to the wrong baby?
I later discovered that in New York, for reasons of security, newborn babies’ feet are dipped in black ink and an imprint taken for the record. Apparently there is no point in fingerprinting an infant as the skin in their tiny hands is too soft.
It didn’t occur to me at that moment, just over 43 years ago, that I might be looking at the insteps of a future mayor of London. Like most new parents, my predominant emotion was gratitude that Boris had managed to emerge into the light of day with limbs and mental faculties apparently intact.
I have been in Greece for the last few days, so I have had to follow the mayoral saga at long distance. I knew that Boris was thinking about standing for mayor and, for what my tuppence was worth, urged him to do so. When I checked into the internet café in Milina, Pelion, Greece, on Monday morning, I learnt from the BBC website that he had taken the plunge.
Over the years I have learnt not to be surprised by Boris. As a parent, I remember attending a performance of Richard II in the Cloisters at Eton where Boris was playing the title role. It was fairly obvious that he hadn’t learnt the part, but he winged it splendidly, inventing on the hoof a sequence of nearly perfect Shakespearian pentameters.
There have been many streaks of sheer precocity in Boris’s career. A few years ago, when most of us would have hung up our boots, I watched him score a brutally efficient try from a line-out (the Daily Telegraph rugby team was playing some north London side). He once wrote a superb parody of Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat which is worth digging up from the archives. He takes after his mother in being a talented artist. Of course, I was thrilled when he won Henley to become a Conservative MP, less thrilled when Michael Howard sent him to Liverpool. Whatever else you may say about Boris, he is not a plodder.
Which is the reason the news about his running for mayor is so, well, newsworthy. One may go to Greece for a holiday but, in these days of mobile phones, it’s difficult to be out of touch. Around Monday lunchtime, when I already knew the news, a charming lady from the Press Association called to ask, among other things, what I thought about Boris the ‘buffoon’.
My instinct always is to be tremendously polite to the press. What on earth would we do without them? There would be no viable alternative to the Today programme. So I was only too happy to refer Aislinn to Andrew Gilligan’s perceptive recent comment in the Evening Standard about how it was ‘better to have a serious man being a buffoon (Boris Johnson), than a buffoon pretending to be a serious man (Ken Livingstone)’.
Truth to tell, I have always been totally puzzled by the charge of ‘buffoonery’ that is sometimes laid against Boris. It just doesn’t stack up against a 20-year output of almost constant high quality. I’m sure I’m prejudiced in his favour but even a father can retain a degree of objectivity, particularly when you have as many offspring as I have (six). I suspect I have read most of Boris’s articles over the years as they have appeared in the Telegraph, Spectator or wherever. Yes, they are highly readable. Yes, they are often funny. But that doesn’t make them lightweight. Boris, as often as not, hits the nail on the head. Week after week his column wins the ‘most commented on’ award.
As the Conservative candidate for mayor (assuming he triumphs in the hustings which the bookies seem to believe is a racing certainty), Boris will inspire and amuse in equal measure. When I was fighting Teignbridge in the 2005 election, Boris twice came to Devon to campaign for me. On one occasion we played a charity squash match in Newton Abbott which attracted most of the national press as well as the Newsnight helicopter.
I am not so naive as to believe that it was Johnson pčre rather than fils who drew the crowds. If the London mayoral election takes place at the same time or shortly before a general election, I suspect that Boris will have an invigorating effect on the Tory candidates. Of course, there will be plenty of panache and brio and maybe the occasional ‘gaffe’, as the press is wont to call them. But I am sure that most people will recognise the underlying seriousness as well.
Massive though the Boris story may be, here in Pelion they have other things on their mind. They have, for example, been busy putting out the worst forest fires experienced for 30 years. Will Boris succeed in putting out Ken Livingstone’s fire?
Of Boris’s ability to draw a crowd, there can be little doubt. But will he convince as well as entertain? If Boris is the medium, what is the message?
Around five p.m. on Monday afternoon, as I was escorting some of my (11) grandchildren down to the beach for a swim in the Pagasitic Gulf, my mother-in-law rang my mobile to say she had just read the Evening Standard where Boris had written a piece setting out his first ideas.
‘He thinks Londoners deserve a debate,’ Lois said. ‘He says he’s not a toff but a one-man multicultural phenomenon with Jewish, Turkish, French and English ancestors. He’s going to set up groups to advise on policy.’
I’m just the daddy here and of course I understand the need for talking to people and so forth. But I would appeal to Boris, in what will probably be my only communication of this sort, not to become too involved in the process of consultation. Ken Livingstone is past his sell-by date. Your job is to kick him out. Your strength will be to do what you, not other people (however well-intentioned), think and if political correctness suffers a battering in the process, so be it.
You may have to wing it from time to time. But if you can play Richard II in the Cloisters without knowing the part, you’ll probably get away with it.
Whatever the outcome of the mayoral election (I put my money on Boris, but I would, wouldn’t I?), we’re in for a fun ride. Could a proud father ask for more?
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