Monday 26 August 2019

From 'young fogey' to prime minister: Boris Johnson blags his way into Downing Street


Boris Johnson has been elected by Conservative party members as the new party leader, and will become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
Boris Johnson has been elected by Conservative party members as the new party leader, and will become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Photo credit: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

Through the broken zip of Boris Johnson's battered hold-all bag peered a pinstriped suit. It was rolled up in a ball and resembled a large but strangely coloured bath towel.

The future UK prime minister was just ahead of me in the check-in queue at Brussels Airport in January 1990. I can be clear on the date because we were with a large group of EU correspondents off to Dublin for lavish events kicking off Charlie Haughey's Irish EU presidency.

An English journalist colleague beside me had pointed to the battered hold-all at the feet of our blond-headed colleague, who was then Common Market correspondent of the 'Daily Telegraph'.

"Now that typifies Boris," his nattily dressed colleague opined with a strange mix of indulgence and disapproval.

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

Yes, Boris was even more of a Tory fogey then than he is now. In many ways, the ensuing decades have 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 his persona was in fact an act.

The French and Germans found he satisfyingly fitted their stereotypical view of what "un anglais à Bruxelles" should look and sound like.

Briefings and press conferences were still conducted in French in Jacques Delors' European Commission.

Boris, the son of a Eurocrat, spoke rather good French as he had his early schooling in Brussels. But it was heavily accented, making him sound like a bass baritone version of Peter Sellers, impersonating an Englishman, impersonating a Frenchman. Add the phoney French accent to the debate about whether Boris's persona 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 for making up quotes, this Brussels posting was his first real job in journalism.

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 anti-EU stance.

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

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

In a biography by his former colleague, Sonia Purnell, he is frankly recalled by colleagues as "stretching" facts until the storyline was rather threadbare.

Boris was a protégé of the 'Daily Telegraph' editor Max Hastings. Attending a drinks party in the paper's rather ramshackle Brussels offices, I was compelled by a series of long letters from Hastings which were pinned to the walls.

These were a detailed but usually positive 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".

It was an extraordinary example of intense mentoring. The Hastings-Johnson connection went on for years as Boris continued as a 'Telegraph' columnist after being elected a UK MP.

But Hastings has long ago ceased being a fan of Boris Johnson, 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.

The name - Boris - is central to his identity and quest for power. It began accidentally and was later chosen deliberately to help Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson stand out from the crowd.

The accidental part began in Mexico City in 1964 when his young cash-strapped student parents, Stanley and Charlotte, were on a trip from New York. Charlotte was pregnant and dreading a 20-hour bus trip back to the USA.

A kindly Russian émigré, Boris Letwin, whose daughter Stanley knew slightly, gifted them airline tickets. After her son's birth in New York on June 19, 1964, Charlotte kept her grateful promise to include her benefactor's name on her new son's US birth certificate.

In family circles, and among old friends, the blond tousle-haired politician is still known as "Al".

A bookish youngster, whose shyness was accentuated by illness which left him seriously deaf in childhood, Alex - or Al - began adopting his second name at school in Eton.

By the time he was studying Latin and Greek at Oxford, the name Boris was well established, as was the trademark mop of blond hair. The flamboyant future prime minister certainly stood out from the crowd and has determinedly done so ever since.

The surname sounds quintessentially English. But here again a large element of accident occurs.

Johnson's great grandfather, Ali Kemal, was in fact Turkish and from a village in Anatolia known for its blond-haired inhabitants. Ali was a supporter of the embattled Sultan in 1919, and fell foul of the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Attaturk, whose supporters hanged him.

Ali Kemal's first wife was English and her son, Boris's grandfather, took her maiden name. Osman Johnson worked hard at becoming quintessentially English, took to calling himself Johnny and his son, Stanley, was raised in this atmosphere.

The de Pfeffel part comes courtesy of his maternal grandmother who was half-French, and a descendant of Baron Hubert de Pfeffel, who had a château near Versailles. By one detractor's calculation, Boris is one-eighth English but given the staunch support of a huge chunk of middle England's citizens that is a matter of colourful historic detail by now.

Brussels has loomed large in much of Johnson's life.

His childhood was spent in five cities, one rural English village, three different countries and two continents.

His father had a series of jobs with varying success but once wryly noted that he had been "dogged by good luck" all his life.

Part of this was his appointment to the European Commission among the first crop of senior UK Eurocrats in early 1973. That brought the family to the EU capital and saw Boris attend the European school there.

"Between the ages of eight and 11 I was educated at a marvellous place in Brussels called the European School.

"It is one of the few schools in the world that is avowedly political, rather than religious, in its core dogma," he would later write. That message of praise soon morphed into one of castigation.

Stanley Johnson raised his three boys and one girl to be competitive and self-reliant and is hugely proud of their success in politics and journalism, sometimes marvelling at how they feature so strongly in the English news agenda.

The father is still a big figure in all their lives. The now grown children recall trying to find "the dirty bits" in their father's published novels.

Boris's sister, Rachel, recalls their adolescent mirth at finding terms like "rubbery nipples".

Boris won a scholarship to what is rated the UK's most elite school, Eton, which gave him the elevated status of "scholar" in a very hierarchic class system. He played rugby well and also the drear Eton wall game.

Purnell argues that it was here "Boris" emerged from the "Al" chrysalis, and here he also "perfected his eccentric English persona".

Some Eton teachers remember him well, in contrast to another future prime minister, David Cameron, who passed without making much impact. One teacher noted Boris did well at things which required intelligence - less well when hard work was required.

Boris Johnson's image as "gifted but lazy" has followed him a long way.

Irish Independent

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