Everybody seems to be writing about Boris Johnson the mayor of London these days. Well, not quite everybody but the political anoraks with not a lot else to write about during the Olympics truce, naturally enough I suppose, with Boris the herald of the Games going zoink a lot and getting himself stuck in midair on a pulley. None of the hacks is committing himself actually to backing Boris for Tory leader and PM but they’re muttering “you never know “ and stroking their chins in approved bets -hedging columnist’s fashion during the silly season.
I’ve two points to make about the Tory Clown Prince, as Andy Grice of the Independent calls him. One is that he’s an (almost) unique example of the new phenomenon of a directly elected executive in the British system with strictly limited powers. This means personality profile is at a premium to get elected. I agree with Charles Moore who makes the point with some sadness that personality is becoming a bigger and bigger political asset every day. But more qualities than a talent to grab attention with an amusing speaking style and rat like cunning are needed to lead a party and direct the infinitely more complex business of running a government.
The second is that I wouldn’t trust Boris as far as I could throw him. Over a decade ago when I was editor of political programmes at the BBC we hired him when he was editor of the Spectator onto the panel of presenters for The Week in Westminster political review. Boris was a great success. But perversely a new network boss whom I can’t resist stereotyping as a dour Scot insisted that Boris be fired. He also demoted the programme (though only for a while) to a poorer slot.
Boris rang me up to ask plaintively what he had done wrong. Full of sympathy and furious at being overruled by a daft decision I replied, “ nothing Boris” going on fatally to add, “ and they’ll have my guts for garters if you let on but they didn’t like your posh accent”. Silly, silly me thinking I was talking in confidence to a colleague. Instead Boris printed the lot almost verbatim in the Speccie, quoting me“ the head honcho.”on the posh accent. Either he had total recall, great shorthand or he had recorded our conversation. Either way, he could easily have paraphrased and protected me in the usual fashion of the trade. Instead the episode give him top profile as a victim of the BBC bureaucracy. ( Sadly I can’t find his original Spectator article)
Mr Johnson reported that he was sacked from his role of occasional presenter of the Radio 4 political programme The Week In Westminster because the station’s controller James Boyle felt his voice “would frighten the horses”.
The Week In Westminster is to move from its Thursday night slot back to its former home on Saturday morning after a BBC governors’ review found the programme was not reaching a wide enough audience during the week.
Mr Johnson wrote in the Spectator that he was told by “the chief honcho of political programmes at Westminster” – believed to be the programme’s editor Brian Walker – that while fine for Thursday nights, his voice had been deemed unsuitable for the move to Saturday mornings.
“He thought my voice was fine, little short of superb in fact,” wrote Mr Johnson, “but Mr Boyle thought it was – take your pick – too posh, stuck-up, toffee-nosed, just too damn pukka for its own good”.
Johnson took his revenge at my expense. Charles Moore in the Telegraph then ran one of his anti-BBC campaigns in the Telegraph for weeks on end.
To adapt GK Chesterton, it’s not that Boris believes in nothing, only that he believes in anything that suits his ends and furthers his ambition. I remember him shouting across the desk: “I’m not a bloody Tory anyway.”
My old colleague Steve Richards comes nearest to my view and offers a telling scenario, if David Cameron loses the next election and leaves the stage.
In order to get to the Commons, Boris would seem like an over-ambitious, disloyal leader-in-waiting, and that would make him far less attractive than he is at the moment. Imagine the hysteria the sequence would generate: Boris seeks selection for a seat! Boris secures selection! Boris deserts Londoners for personal ambition.
There are more important things in heaven and earth than dumping on me, but even so. Boris would be a menace in any capacity that requires serious trust.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London