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Sunday 14 November 2004

After all this sex talk, Boris couldn't stay in the saddle

AND what a joy he is to watch. In a world of dull, bland, careful politicians, Boris keeps us smiling. In the last few months, the organ he edits has provided the chatterati with constant salacious gossip, he's had to travel to Liverpool to grovel to its inhabitants and now even his party leader is deliberately embarrassing him publicly. 

I first met Boris Johnson five years ago, when he interviewed me for the Daily Telegraph. He arrived in all his shambling, charming glory more or less on time, zapped through the proceedings within 30 minutes, scribbling notes furiously, ran his fingers wildly through his air while mumbling apologies for having to rush off, shot off on his bicycle and delivered a perfectly decent piece which I'll bet was written in less than an hour at the last minute, probably during an editorial meeting. (He once excused late copy by claiming that "dark forces dragged me away from the keyboard, swirling forces of irresistible intensity and power".) 

The apparently bumbling, tongue-tied, baffled fogey is, of course, none of those things. in the long English public-school tradition of exceptionally clever people who disarm their enemies by pretending to be idiots, Boris strives to conceal his brains, his erudition, his ambition, his industry. At the time we first met, he was doing several jobs: Spectator editor, Telegraph columnist, broadcaster and motoring correspondent of the laddish GO magazine. Not to speak of being a husband and father of four. 

Nowadays, he is also a Conservative MP and was, until his sacking last night, Shadow Minister for the Arts. He's published a funny diary of his last general election campaign and a comic novel called Seventy Two Virgins, a comedy of errors about an attack on Westminster by suicide bombers. He has also become beloved in Britain because of his hilarious appearances on television, most notably as a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You

All that, and if newspaper allegations are true, he's also found time to have an affair. 

The epitome of Englishness, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York and named after a White Russian emigre who had done his parents a good turn. His heritage is no less exotic. 

His great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was minister of the interior for the last sultan of Turkey; worryingly for Boris, he was subsequently lynched. Ali Kemal's son Osman Ali was orphaned in England when his English/Swiss mother died. He wisely changed his name to Wilfred Johnson. (No one should accuse the Conservative party of being insular. Its present leader, Michael Howard, hails from Ruritania, Ian Duncan-Smith, his predecessor, is partly Japanese and Michael Portillo, for so long the Young Pretender, is Spanish.) 

Politicians are held in even lower esteem than journalists in modern Britain, but the public love Boris. He is hailed by his devoted fans as he cycles around London talking into his mobile phone; the circulation of the Spectator is booming; and he is 2004 Columnist of the Year. The boriswatch website (motto: 'May Boris be with you') offers a Boris T-shirt and fans eagerly pass on such information as that William Hill is offering odds of 500/1 on him succeeding Pierce Brosnan as James Bond (Colin Farrell is 7/1) and that he is the only politician to make the Superbrands Cool List. At present they're contemplating a march on Westminster demanding Boris for Prime Minister. 

The fans fear for Boris. The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph are no longer under the control of his mentor, Lord Black, and the new owners, the Barclay twins, are thought to be raising four eyebrows over an avalanche of embarrassing publicity. 

There were the revelations that the married Kimberley Fortier, the publisher of the Spectator, had been having an affair with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and that Rod Liddle, a high-profile columnist, had swapped his wife - the mother of their two young sons - a few weeks after their wedding for Alicia Monckton, a posh Spectator (or Sextator as it's now being called) babe half his age. 

Then Boris ran an editorial accusing Liverpudlians of "wallowing" in "mawkish sentimentality" after the death of hostage Ken Bigley and being "hooked on grief" and was despatched by Michael Howard to the city to apologise. He maintained his integrity by standing by the core of the article, but it raised a big question as to whether he could combine politics with journalism: could he, as one of his fans delicately put it, "continue to ride two horses with one arse". 

And then his enemies - for amiable, decent and funny though Boris is, he is of course resented by legions of the envious in politics and in the media - dug up old dirt about him and his ex-deputy, the racy and pulchritudinous Petronella Wyatt. 

The tabloids got busy on what Boris described as "an inverted pyramid of piffle", and Petronella's eccentric Hungarian mother did not help when she told the press that there was nothing romantic between them "any more". 

Last week, Rachel Royce, aka Mrs Liddle, On Thursday, with Michael Howard as the presenter, Boris presided over The Spectator's annual Parliamentarian of the Year awards at Claridge's, which was besieged by hacks and snappers. Howard was in unprecedentedly skittish mood, describing the Spectator as "political Viagra", telling Boris that he was doing his job superbly and urging him: "Keep it up!" 

"Can you get away with that?" asked Boris plaintively as Howard piled on the agony. 

It is a question which was answered unceremoniously last night. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards