No national gold for Boris Johnson please

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.

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  • Mister_Joe

    Which is how our Brian learned to use those three little words – Off the record?

  • Brian Walker

    No Joe.. I knew them 30 years before.

  • Ruarai

    Brian, if someone had repaid a tip-off from me as he did you I’d be equally unlikely to forget.

    But whatever about that, my main takeaway from your piece is that (1) Boris Johnson was the victim of blatant class discrimination and (2) much of the venom thrown at the BBC by Peter Hitchens, The Speccie and others is vindicated by this type of anecdote.

    It’s a rare instance of clouds and clouds of smoke making things easier to see clearly.

    Sure, it sounds like Boris shafted you both unnecessarily, clumsily and in a manner that suggests he doesn’t have half the cunning your own piece indicates.

    But the main point here is less that Boris acted like a hallion – though he did – and more that a former senior member of the BBC has exposed unacceptably prejudiced decision-making processes at its core.

    I’m a fan of the BBC News and BBC Online News, objectively and relative to the alternatives. As a fan and consumer, what you’re re-exposing demands ‘weeding-out’.

  • Brian Walker


  • Brian Walker

    Well Ruarai, Boyle’s decision was no secret although you’ll see from the link to the “sacking “story his plummy accent was not the professed reason. The decision remains a puzzle to me because Boyle is – was – a sophisticated man and a successful enough controller of Radio 4. But he made a cardinal error in allowing a personal preference to dictate a commissioning decision (quite apart from getting up my nose) and failing to realise what everybody else did, that Boris was a rising star. Anyway we had the Week in Westminster restored to Saturday mornings. That was the big win. Boris I believe survived.

  • Reader

    What a mess.You weren’t *quite* a whistle blower, but you were still somewhat inconvenienced. Would you have been available as a witness if Boris had gone to a tribunal?

  • Mister_Joe

    Any Londoners around? Rory?

    I know he has been considered to be a bit of a goofball and it seems from Brian’s experience that he may be less than trustworthy, but how has he actually done as Mayor?

  • Drumlins Rock

    A ten year old grudge ressurected because Brois got in a few pics? A journalist who didn’t live up to their own ethical standards? During a period where some of them were breaking the law and many the most basic common rules of honesty and decency.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Have a grape Brian…….me thinks you seriously need a sweet one 😉

  • Mister_Joe

    Will this do, Heinz?

  • Rory Carr

    Those in any doubt about the extent of Boris’s cunning and deviousness could do well to entertain and inform themselves with a copy of Sonia Purnell’s artfully sub-titled, Just Boris – A Tale of Blond Ambition (described by Nick Robinson as, ” …meticulous and quietly devestating”), from which I give you this little appetiser:

    ‘At one point Boris -now a senior Telegraph executive – was sent over to Belfast to cover a landmark in the Northern Ireland peace process. David Trimble, the Unionist leader emerged from the talks to give waiting journalists a briefing on progress. “Boris goes, ‘ Er, David, you want to stay, you know, in the United Kingdom and, er, that other chappie over there wants to go with Ireland” ‘ recalls Nick Robinson, one of the other journalists present. “And Trimble just says, ‘Fuck off, Boris.’ ”

    “That was just Boris’s old trick, you see, but one at which women are much better than men. Men generally want to show how clever they are; clever women in my experience are rather good at fluttering their eyelashes a bit and going, ‘ Oh well, I don’t really understand this,’ and then getting amazing stories. I think Boris was playing the dumb blond trick in the hope of getting something but Trimble spotted it and refused to play along. ‘

    If Brian Walker is being taken to task by some here for attempting to use a personal slighting experience at the hands of Johnson (full name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson) in order to explain his whole character it ought to be borne in mind that Boris is such a chameleon, such a slipperry character that it is well nigh impossible to get a grip on him, to pinpoint his beliefs, his political stance, even, strange a s it may seem, his class loyalties, except insofar as to know absolutely that Boris is for Boris. Mister_Joe asks if I might as a Londoner comment on how he has actually done as Mayor, and the answer is that I do not know and I doubt very much that anybody else does either.

    Brian is correct in bringing our attention to focus on the Mayor’s personality, for it is all about personality, all smoke and mirrors, an office ready made for the two most egotistical politicians of our (or maybe any other) age, Messrs Livingstone and Johnson. But at least Ken had a political agenda distinct from his own overwheening ambition. Johnson’s ambition is his sole political programme.

  • Brian Walker is, of course, quite correct: the non-job of Mayor of London is no more than a glorified traffic commissioner. Which, as we fully appreciate, BoJo does with sublime mediocrity.

    ASIDE: what happened to those fabulously expensive, over-engineered, over-hyped Boris buses? Yesterday I forced myself to sit for a couple of hours in the York in Islington looking for them on the 38 ‘bus route. In all that time, just the one. Now let me assume I must have missed three while obliged to make periodic visits for a refill. Still, after six months of “regular service”, why do these rare specimens need a separate timetable? And, even that subject to vehicle availability and it is unclear how rigorously it is followed in practice? What happened to all those further orders? Has the excess (three quarters of a ton) taken the NB4L too close to London weight-limits?

    As for Mr Walker‘s main event, the real point of interest is not the coming of BoJo but the generally wished departure of DavCam. All the rest is grease on the slip-way. As I noted elsewhere on Slugger:

    Woe is me!
    Authority forgets a dying king,
    Laid widow’d of the power in his eye
    That bow’d the will.

    Yesterday Andrew Grice was running the form-book over the six runners and riders for the next leadership contest: BoJo (4-1); Gove and Osborne (8-1); Phil Hammond (10-1); Hague (amazingly only 12-1); and David Davis (18-1). Does that mark how desperate things have become?

    The one certainty on which all can rely is BoJo’s ability to self-destruct. Over the years we have had:
    ¶ the serial adulterer, sacked from his Michael Howard’s Front Bench, not because of his affairs, but because he blatantly lied about them;
    ¶ the paltroon, who regards as “mawkish sentimentality” disgust that an Iraqi death-squad beheaded a 62-year-old man (Ken Bigley);
    ¶ the drawing-room racist referring to “piccaninnies” with “water-melon smiles”;
    ¶ the ignoramus who impregnates one girl-friend after lies and promises her marriage, talks her into an abortion, and is exposed for it by the girl-friend’s society-lady mother in the London scandal-sheets and even the Daily Telegraph;
    ¶ the obscenity-ridden late-night rant to Keith Vaz, which prompted a pledge for BoJo to be forcibly kept off the sauce for the period of the London election;
    and — still festering:
    ¶ the paternity of little Miss Stephanie Macintyre.

    If the Tory Party think they can sell all that outside the metropolitan bubble, we really do live in Νεφελοκοκκυγία (which another classicist might translate as “Cloud Cuckoo Land”).

  • thethoughtfulone

    So David Trimble not only got the humor of the famous Noddy and Big Ears joke but managed to apply it in a real life scenario.


  • OneNI

    Seems you forgot the first rule of journalism: never trust a journalist

  • thethoughtfulone @ 12:22 pm:

    You mean there’s only one Noddy/Big Ears joke? Or is that merely the “cleanest” one? Infamously, Madonna didn’t get Enid Blyton either.

    BoJo clearly did, if in an unfortunately ambiguous intro (Telegraph, 23 Jan 2012):

    At the risk of sounding like a character from Enid Blyton, there is absolutely nothing to beat camping… I have camped everywhere from the drizzle of Salisbury Plain to the Serengeti to the beaches of California.

    Equally, at risk of sounding like the late smiling Gerry Healy (of the Socialist Labour League) and his curious way with logical argument, that is mere toccata for BoJo’s resounding fugue: The problem with Western economies isn’t too much capitalism – it’s too little.