What does Boris Johnson stand for? Perhaps his admiration for Britain’s wartime leader reveals some clues as to where the new prime minister will take the country in the 2020s
By Jimmy Burns in THE TABLET, 2 January 2020
I first met Boris Johnson in early 1988. Johnson was a slightly chubby trainee reporter with The Times; I was a staff journalist with the Financial Times. He was not long out of university; I had some years under my belt. We both had a good head of hair. I’d recently returned to London after a five-year posting in Buenos Aires, and was covering a national strike called by the National Union of Seamen (NUS) in support of members sacked by ferry companies for refusing to accept new terms and conditions under tough labour laws brought in by Mrs Thatcher’s government.
I and a group of other journalists had gathered at the NUS headquarters in Clapham, south London, to await the outcome of a High Court ruling on behalf of the ferry companies that would order the union to stop its action when I was approached by a young man with tousled blond hair and a notebook in his hand and an engaging look of bemusement. Introducing himself, Johnson confessed to being somewhat lost as to understanding what the strike and the legal action was all about. He asked me whether I might help him make sense of it all, which I was happy to do. I was struck by his amused air of self-deprecation. We struck up a friendship that would be rekindled over the years, even if our politics diverged.
Johnson would eventually be sacked by The Times for – to put it charitably – lack of professional rigour, before moving to the Daily Telegraph as its Brussels correspondent. He repaid the favour of that early lifeline he felt I had extended to him by inviting me to a Full Monty English breakfast when we met again – by which time he was a Member of Parliament, and I was covering a Conservative Party conference for the FT. While he was Mayor of London Johnson, whose sister Rachel and brother Jo were colleagues at the FT for a few years, agreed to be guest speaker at a couple of events for charities I was involved in – the Friends of Battersea Park and the BritishSpanish Society.
I was grateful for these gestures of friendship but my judgement of Johnson over the years has been coloured by factors that cast him in a less sympathetic light. They include his tendentious anti-European Union reporting during his years as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, which provided ammunition to the Tory party’s Eurosceptics and Nigel Farage’s Ukip and Brexit Party.
But we need to go deeper to understand the man elected prime minister by a popular vote only equalled in modern times by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in their glory days. The key might lie here: “He was transmogrifying himself into the spirit of the nation, the very emblem of defiance. Consider those round-cheeked features, the hint of merriment in the upturned lip, the frank gaze of the eyes. He has channelled that portly gentlemen who for two centuries or more has embodied the truculent-but-jovial response of the British to any great continental combination …” This is Johnson describing his political idol Winston Churchill in The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, his 2014 book that is a revealing self-portrait of a hugely ambitious twenty-first- century politician as much as an insightful if sketchy biography of one of the towering legends of the twentieth century.
I find myself re-reading Johnson on Churchill to find some markers as to where our new prime minister may want to take Britain in the coming decade. While Johnson is the descendant of immigrants and has no aristocratic blood, he shares with Churchill a sense of entitlement to power, bred by a privileged upbringing and a deeply-felt admiration for Britain’s place in history. He admires Churchill’s willingness to take risks, and his instinctive feeling that he somehow personifies the overriding liberal democratic sentiment of the British, and their distaste for narrowly partisan or ideological dogma.
Conscious no doubt of his own winding trajectory in the pursuit of his ambition to be prime minister, Johnson notes that Churchill made his early mark in the Commons by switching allegiances to join Lloyd George’s Liberal Party, before returning to the Tories two decades later. It wasn’t the only time Churchill faced huge resistance from some members of the Conservative Party. “He wasn’t what people thought of as a man of principle; he was a glory-chasing goal-mouth-hanging opportunist,” Johnson observes approvingly.
And Churchill was never afraid to speak his mind. You can almost see the complicit smile on Johnson’s face as he quotes Churchill wanting to “bomb or machine gun” Sinn Fein, describing Bolsheviks as “baboons”, communism a “horrible form of mental and moral disease”, and making concessions to Mahatma Gandhi as like “feeding cat’s meat to a tiger” (Johnson notes that this remark was “especially inapposite, given that Gandhi was a devout veggie”). Johnson’s own career is not short of such loose public utterances – whether casting aspersions at EU bureaucrats or veiled Muslims, or mocking the radical socialism of his now crushed Corbynista opponents.
Churchill had a preference for cats – although he did also own a bulldog – and was devoted to his wife Clementine. Johnson has a Jack Russell called Dilyn, one of the stars of his election campaign, and after two marriages and two divorces moved into Downing Street with his partner, Carrie Symonds. We don’t know the true number of the children Johnson has fathered out of wedlock. Nor of course has Johnson done anything that remotely equates to the achievement of Churchill’s “Finest Hour”, when in 1940 he rallied his people to save Europe from Hitler. But, thankfully, there is one thing I believe we can be sure of: although he will be the prime minister who takes the UK out of the EU, Boris Johnson is not at war with Europe and its people, and never will be.
Johnson concedes that there is “large dollop of truth” in the notion that Churchill was a visionary founder of the movement for a united Europe, and believed that Britain should play a leading role in the process of unification. But in Johnson’s analysis, the key to Churchill’s understanding of the relationship between the British and Europe lies in the words: “We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed …” This was said in 1930, several years before the war.
Yet for Johnson “the point still stands. Churchill saw Britain as somehow dwelling apart from the European congeries; and in the course of one of his many bust-ups with General de Gaulle, he said that if Britain had to choose between Europe and the open sea, she would always choose the open sea.” Like Churchill, Johnson wants Britain to be “intimately associated” with Europe – but not an “ordinary member”.
How that will translate into the detail of the UK’s relationship with the EU will unfold over the coming years. The negotiations ahead will determine not just the future of Britain but also of Europe, and alter the dynamics of the world’s trading system. Johnson’s “stonking majority” gives him a greater political legitimacy than any other current European leader. Within hours of the election result, he was speaking not as a campaigner but as a statesman, reaching out to those who had not voted Tory and who had not wished the UK to leave the EU. He is mindful that most Londoners, most Scots and most of the people of Northern Ireland voted against a Brexit.
Johnson does not want to be remembered as the prime minister who squandered hard-won support from across the party political divide and who oversaw the break up of the UK. His test now is how well he is able to balance his political opportunism and willingness to take risks with a British talent for pragmatism and a natural charm, and ability to make friends and allies in spite of political differences, not just among the UK electorate but also in Europe, in a spirit of give and take.
Jimmy Burns is an award-winning journalist and author, whose books include Hand of God: A Biography of Diego Maradona and Francis: Pope of Good Promise