Friday 30 September 2016

The rise and rise of Boris - the studied but likeable young English fogey

Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30

Boris Johnson: fitted the French and German stereotype of 'un Anglais á Bruxelles'. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson: fitted the French and German stereotype of 'un Anglais á Bruxelles'. Photo: Reuters

My first up-close encounter with the phenomenon that is Boris Johnson was at Brussels Airport in January 1990.

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If anybody told me then, or over any of the succeeding four years in which he reported from Brussels, that he was a future British Prime Minister, I would have summoned those men in the white coats.

That first day, a group of journalists was queueing for a plane to Dublin for events to kick-off Charlie Haughey's storied and lavish six-month EU presidency.

A British journalist colleague nudged me and pointed to the battered hold-all at the feet of our blond-headed colleague, whom I knew to be Boris Johnson of the 'Daily Telegraph'.

Through the broken zip of the hold-all peered a pin-striped suit, balled up like a large and very rumpled bath towel. "Now that typifies Boris," his nattily-dressed colleague opined with a strange mix of attitude which stood half-way between indulgence and disapproval.

Yes, Boris was even more of a Tory fogey then than he is now. In many ways, the ensuing quarter of a century has allowed him to advance easily from "young to old fogeydom".

Discussions among the Brussels press corps, across all nationalities, about "Boris" were frequent, animated and often turned around how much of Boris's persona was in fact an act.

The French and Germans found he fitted their stereotypical view of what "un Anglais á Bruxelles" should look and sound like. Briefings and press conferences were still conducted in French in Jacques Delors's European Commission.

Boris, the son of a Eurocrat who later served as a Conservative British MEP, spoke rather good French as he had his early schooling in Brussels before moving on to Eton. But it was heavily accented, making him sound like a bass baritone version of Peter Sellers impersonating an Englishman impersonating a Frenchman.

Add that to the debate about whether it was natural or an act, which still goes on.

But his ambition to succeed in journalism was no act. After an inglorious exit from his first position with 'The Times' of London, this Brussels posting was his first real journalism job.

Some colleagues at times wondered vaguely about the unfairness of the world, having arrived in Brussels after rather less exalted journalism stints. But most of us took it as just the way of the world.

Most journalists compete for stories. The keen rivalry between Boris and his British colleagues was compounded by his enthusiastic taste for strange Eurosceptic tales in line with his paper's stance on the EU.

"I was 'Borised' again," was a common complaint among his colleagues.

While EU officials argued the reports were taken out of context there was never much more about it, until the next time.

Boris was a protégé of the 'Daily Telegraph' editor, Max Hastings. The walls around his desk in the rather ramshackle Brussels 'Telegraph' offices, on Square Marie Louise, were festooned with a series of long letters from Hastings.

These letters were a detailed appraisal of Boris's writings. They challenged him on words and phrases, and advised him to avoid being colloquial, even at risk of being perceived as "pompous" at times.

It was an extraordinary example of mentoring, entirely foreign to this writer's experience of journalism. The Hastings-Johnson connection went on for some 20 years as Boris continued as a 'Telegraph' columnist after being elected a British MP.

But these days, Hastings is less than a fan of Boris, who he insists is not prime minister material.

"Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac," Hastings wrote in October 2012 just as Johnson's prime ministerial candidature was finally on the agenda.

Hastings vowed to leave Britain if his old protégé became the Downing Street anchor tenant. Many observers now believe it's almost time Hastings started to consult those airline timetables.

Irish Independent

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