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Sunday 8 October 2006

Tories can't snub Boris, their colourful cavalier

'TODAY, the media beast was starving," reported the BBC's John Pienaar from the Conservative Party Conference last Tuesday. "So it ate Boris Johnson."

From its start on Sunday, the Conference was as dull as it was harmonious, so the desperate hacks began slavering when the rumour spread that apropos the chef Jamie Oliver - a national saint since his crusade for healthy school food - Boris had said, "I say let people eat what they like."

"We all started shouting for him," recalled Matthew Parris, the gentle Times commentator, "throwing Mars bars over the partition he was hiding behind and finally climbing ladders to see him. Luckily, the atmosphere was one of jollity. But one did get a whiff of what a lynching might be like, and how otherwise normal people could catch the mood".

Boris Johnson - click to visit his website

On the news that evening, the party leader was asked to comment on the astonishing pictures of a heaving mass of reporters and photographers with a shock-haired Boris at their centre. "How do you solve a problem like Boris?" asked David Cameron good-humouredly. He defused things further in his speech the following day when he congratulated Boris on having made it to Tuesday afternoon "without putting his foot in it".

It was all reminiscent of Tony Blair the previous week defusing the row about his wife dissing Gordon Brown by laughing about her not running off with the bloke next door. The Telegraph cartoonist Matt drew a public notice: 'Boris Johnson Twinned with Cherie Blair'.

Johnson himself wrote of "the media King Kong-that had roared its incomprehensible roar and bathed me in the terrifying afflatus [heavy breathing] of its nostrils" and declared himself bewildered: he had been accused of making four separate gaffes, which he convincingly demonstrated were not gaffes at all, but perfectly sensible comments on important issues.

He knows well there's nothing bewildering about the media's obsession with him. In an era of grey and cautious politicians, press and public alike are fascinated by this risk-taking, anarchic, selfish, brilliant, erudite, duplicitous, self-parodying life-enhancer: imploring readers of a laddish magazine to vote Conservative, he promised that, "Your car will go faster, your girlfriend will have a bigger bra size."

Boris ratted on a promise not to go into politics while editing The Spectator. His excuse? "I want to have my cake and eat it." Don't we all? But most of us know we can't. Boris really believes he can get away with anything and that - despite all his well-publicised sins - he can still become Prime Minister.

Like his wife, the public forgive what one object of his affections has called "his incontinent personality": he has affairs, but he does so with panache. Who doesn't laugh on reading Boris's advice to James Blunt, perpetrator of that weedy dirge, You're beautiful: "Come on, man: stop being so indescribably wet. If she's so beautiful, stop standing there in your T-shirt and floppy fringe, and hush your hopeless falsetto crooning. Go out and get her, is my advice."

"Let us cherish this free spirit-the People's Boris," said his friend Michael Gove, the columnist and MP, in a lament about how parliament crushes individuality. "If we Britons love our shambolic bumblers, then we must expect them, sometimes, to bumble into something of a shambles. Alongside the disciplined ranks of parliamentary infantry, we need a few Cossacks, whose dazzling swordplay may not always hit the target, and may even cause the odd self-inflicted wound, but whose dash, verve and sheer elan help to lend the cause colour."

I've read with great enjoyment, and at a sitting, Andrew Gimson's Boris. It was entirely typical that when biography was mooted, Boris was enthusiastic. Then, as the press picked up on such embarrassments as his affair with Petronella Wyatt, he lost his nerve and offered to pay Gimson to give up the project: Gimson feared his refusal would damage their friendship. At the Conservative conference, the ex-Cabinet Minister, and now licensed eccentric, Ann Widdecombe sat signing novels in their dozens for a lengthy queue. Beside her was a disconsolate Gimson with no takers. Hearing of his friend's plight, Boris turned up. A vast queue formed immediately, and Boris signed each purchase: "Don't believe a word of it, Love, Boris".

Boris was sacked by Michael Howard as Conservative Arts spokesman when he became embarrassing tabloid fodder. Boris wrongly believed Cameron would give him a senior job, but has to make the best of being spokesman on higher education and a highly successful recruiter of the young.

His rivals think him too accident-prone and indisciplined to have any chance of high office, but I'm with his biographer: "if they try to exclude Boris because he is too colourful, too talented and too good at reaching the people, they will not be forgiven."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards