Monday, 25 March 2013

Nasty? Not exactly. But after that TV ambush, Boris's rise doesn't look quite so irresistible

By Quentin Letts, Daily Mail

Less generous souls might almost suspect the BBC of trying to stir trouble at the top of the Conservative Party. Tonight, it will devote an hour of much-trailed, primetime television to an admiring profile of Boris Johnson.

As the programme notes — promoting the idea with the subtlety of a head waiter pushing the exotic sole veronique — there are some people who want ‘Beano Boris’ to become Tory leader.

Meanwhile, London Mayor Johnson was yesterday granted a prominent interview slot on BBC1. Its presenter, Eddie Mair, raised three rackety episodes from the Mayor’s life and discerned a pattern of deceit, even of menace.

‘You’re a pretty nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’ he asked a pop-eyed Mr Johnson.
What a lot of interest, suddenly, in our Boris. Is something going on?

Tonight’s BBC2 documentary — Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise — is not quite a shameless plug, but it certainly offers a generous view of the man who is plainly positioning himself to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader (even though there is not yet a vacancy!).

We see a cute family cine film from the Sixties of Boris, aged five, gallantly paddling down a fast-moving stream.

We hear of his cradle-reared competitiveness, his bravado on the games field, his use of humour to tickle support from a crowd. There are snapshots of Boris the blond Adonis at Oxford. He is an accomplished painter.

There have been setbacks in his life. He was once fired from The Times, was sacked from the Tory frontbench by Michael Howard, and many, many moons ago had a dodgy friend called Darius Guppy.

It is these three matters that sent Eddie Mair into such orbit yesterday.

Is Boris a nasty piece of work, as Mr Mair suggested? I have known the old horse for 25 years and have no hesitation in saying that ‘nasty’ is an adjective too far.

Half his trouble is that he is not nasty enough. Like many Old Etonians, he is terrified of becoming unpopular. The greatest politicians are prepared to be disliked.

But can Boris be maddening? Can he let people down? Is he a selfish brute?

At times, yes, all of these. Pratfalls have become his trademark. Tonight’s film repeats footage of Mayor Johnson falling into a muddy river and grinding to a halt on his Olympics zip-wire. Good old Boris!

There is that cold London morning when, in jogging bandana, he found he had been locked out of his home by his wife after one of his romantic sallies. For that to happen to any husband would be an embarrassment. It had to happen to Boris in front of several TV cameras.

The documentary opens with Boris playing tennis, whacking the ball with merry abandon. He uses a Seventies-style wooden racquet which has warped, having been left out in the cold and wet. Just like its owner.

Mayor Boris goofs it up for the camera, posing like a cross between Bjorn Borg and John Prescott. Though no Dan Maskell, I’d say the piratically-dressed Boris is a better tennis player than he might have us first believe. He hits the ball sweetly, despatching dolly drops with a hint of topspin.

That may also be true of his political timing. Is the scheduling of this film and yesterday’s BBC1 interview not intriguing?

The Coalition Government is suffering mid-term blues and David Cameron is struggling to contain rebellion in his party. Boris clearly has his eye on something rather greater than the next rung of his local tennis club ladder.

Supporters (and quite a few sceptics) say he is a winner. Disorganised, untidy, quick to dip his paw into the biscuit barrel, Boris reaches the parts of the electorate other Conservatives only deter.

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop calls him ‘our Berlusconi’. Uh oh! Yet there is certainly something of Italy’s ex-PM and bunga-bunga supremo in the way Boris survives sex scandals that would torpedo lesser vessels.

Boris is brazen, cheerful, zesty, full of political sap. Voters sometimes opt for that sort of thing — and never more so than when they feel the other politicians have become colourless and ‘all the same’.
They see Boris not only as clever, but also as a bumbler. That paradox is key to his appeal.

He tells documentary-maker Michael Cockerell: ‘As a general tactic in life, it is often useful to give the slight impression that you are deliberately pretending not to know what is going on — because the reality may be that you don’t know what is going on, but people won’t be able to tell the difference!’

Boris Johnson is not so much a politician as a double bluff made flesh. Are the public deterred by this vaguely elusive quality? His former boss Lord (Conrad) Black calls him ‘a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear’.

Of his hunger for the highest office, there should be no doubt. A quotation about his desire for the Tory crown, made in tonight’s film, has already been dispersed widely in the political Press (this programme has been given a far heftier PR push than most BBC2 Monday night shows).

Boris goes through the dutiful expressions of disbelief that the leadership could ever come his way.

Having parked those formulaic disclaimers, he produces a jovial rugby-union metaphor, saying that ‘if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t, of course, it would be a great thing to have a crack at’.

Is PM Boris really a possibility? As recently as six months ago, I could not envisage him crossing the doorstep of No 10 as PM.

David Cameron just seemed so natural as Tory leader, so genial and resilient. But there is no denying that the Ukip threat, the gay-marriage hoo-hah and the parade of U-turns have dented Mr Cameron’s chances of retaining his party leadership.

Boris’s sister Rachel says that the Mayor ‘knows life is a competition and he always wants to be top’. As a boy, he always said he wanted to be ‘world king’ some day. The drive is there.

He is not without his weaknesses. Prime Ministers make life-and-death decisions. BBC2’s documentary concedes that placing Boris anywhere near the nuclear red button could be tempting disaster — might he not think it was the button for summoning a maid?

However, his time as London Mayor has shown that, for all the gooning, Boris Johnson is capable. He has kept the city running pretty well. Perhaps the ‘nuclear question’ can be overdone.

Do the sexual infidelities matter? His wife, Marina, does not appear in tonight’s film. Former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings says that he once told his former employee Boris to ‘lock up your willy’. But female voters like Boris rather more than they seem to like the more conventionally handsome, modern-man Cameron.

Bonker Boris versus Honker Miliband. It’s not hard to see who would win the ladies’ vote in that one.

His blood family is behind him all the way. His divorced parents collaborated with tonight’s film. Is ‘collaborated’, with its undertones of political plotting, the right word? I think it probably is.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, considers the minor snag that his lad is not at present in the House of Commons. Stanley baldly states that if a Commons seat needs to be found, let it be found now, before the 2015 general election, so that Boris is handily placed.
Boris’s mother, Charlotte, proves to be an engaging lady with a gap-toothed smile.

The film talks frankly about a breakdown Mrs Johnson had when Boris was a child.
She says that while she was away for months being treated, Boris took on a role in caring for his younger siblings, protecting them while the family was subjected to a stream of often ‘dotty’ nannies.

So much for the theory, so often heard from his former colleagues, that he is ‘not a team player’. The image of the boy Boris tending for his little siblings at an unsettling time may invite one to view him afresh.

Some Tories will have watched yesterday’s awkward interview with Eddie Mair and thought: ‘There goes our big hope — blown to pieces on live telly.’ But others will watch tonight’s documentary and think: ‘Boris is our man.’

Whoever ends up leading the Conservatives, be it Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May or Johnson, is surely going to be preferable to Ed Miliband.

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