A Word

Interview: Boris Johnson
The day after the day before by Jacqueline Alexander

He doesn't exactly dance like a butterfly and he doesn't exactly sting like a bee, yet both these creatures are heavily in evidence in this man's persona.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, MP for Henley and editor of the Spectator, is in fine form as Wayne, his Political Agent, and I pull up outside the school where Boris is to speak to a class of sixth-form students.

Both arms are raised in flamboyant style to catch our attention just in case we have missed the nest of white-blonde hair wandering across the car park.

It is the day after the day before. London is grappling with its status as the victim of a horrific series of synchronised terrorist attacks. The death toll is rising as we enter the school and the murmurs of suicide bombings are beginning to surface from the Underground that bore witness to the carnage.

As we wait in reception, Boris grabs a pen and an envelope in the hope of writing a 'few notes for the kids'. It is no surprise that time for preparation has been thin on the ground. Boris was in London during the attacks and took to the streets in the afternoon to take in the new atmosphere and assess the damage to his beloved London. The morning had been taken up with delivering one of his children to school by car as the normal mode of transport had been disrupted.

Before the pen can reach the paper, our host is greeting us and leading the way to the students awaiting the arrival of their local MP.

In the classroom, Boris somewhat superfluously introduces himself, and, without a scrap of preparation, launches into an eloquent and sensitive summary of events in London. Emotive language is used to express the feelings of many. Fear, distress, terror and dismay are quickly followed by pride, dignity, determination and courage with the 'Blitz Spirit' referenced as he builds a pathway towards his political response.

Pre-empting questions from the audience, Boris asks if we are paying the price for the Iraq War but quickly points out that, whilst we were warned that our involvement in Iraq would undoubtedly heighten the risk of increased terrorism, 9/11 preceded the Iraq conflict. This was not an attack with an 'understandable or clearly defined grievance'. This was an attack on Western values. An attack on Western civilisation.

Bringing the topic within his remit as a Member of Parliament, the debate on compulsory ID cards is slipped in as a natural consequence. Boris, vociferously against, expresses his hope that the horrific events are not used for the benefit of the political agendas of those in favour.

"This is not a matter of identity. This is a matter of intention. ID cards would have played no role in preventing this attack.

"Freedom and liberal values must be protected. We must resist all erosions of liberty. The terrorists want to see our freedoms reduced - in some ways, this would make us more like them."

No questions are forthcoming from an audience sated by this response, in fact, everyone seems impressed by the clarity of thought and the succinct delivery covering all the angles. They remain unaware of the lack of preparation.

New subjects are introduced to prompt the questions and answers session. The butterfly appears.

Flitting easily between facetious humour and, when challenged, politically correct responses, Boris answers each question with the reaction he feels it deserves.

Asked if there is a potential conflict between his role as Editor of the Spectator and MP for Henley, Boris replies with a disdainful "No". Seeing the crestfallen expression of the young questioner, the response is softened. "No, not at all." he offers with a gentle smile.

More questions on voting records in Parliament, housing in the Green Belt, the Public Sector and defence spending are all answered without further challenges from the audience.

Then the state of NHS raises its controversial head. Initially, Boris simply, but firmly, states the party-line. One student is not satisfied with this response and further challenges the merits of a two-tiered NHS whereby those with the financial upper-hand can contribute to the cost of their operation and essentially jump-the-queue.

"What about those that cannot pay?" the young student demands with emotion clearly resonating from each syllable.

Boris is pleased with this challenge. He raises his game and reveals more details of the 'dreadful waste of money' being spent on bureaucrats and administration. Repeating the apparently obvious benefits of the proposed system - reduced waiting-lists, much-needed financial injection into NHS and better outcomes - he draws on the example of our European counterparts and points out that the bottom line has to be 'better outcomes'. His challenger still seems unhappy but unsure of how to argue further - but she has made her mark.

Boris wades through the questions from a now impassioned political audience. The students want to be entertained but they are more interested in challenging his beliefs as his reputation goes before him. Today, he is more than a match for their expectations.

En route to the next appointment in Boris' constituency diary, I am occupying the passenger seat of a people carrier - it is also a carrier of Noddy tapes, crisp packets, empty bottles of soft drinks, itineraries, constituency leaflets, toys, books and CD's from Beethoven to Rock Guitar Rhythms. I am in colourful company in more ways than one!

After a false start at the beginning of his career, the one time trainee management consultant (he left after a week, "I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious.") went on to build a successful career as a journalist.

Initially working for The Times, ("No I wasn't sacked, my contract was not renewed." This is an important, if subtle, difference to Mr Johnson), then as political columnist for the Telegraph, I am intrigued as to the motivation to become an MP.

"Journalism can be very negative. You are always looking to trip people up, looking for a scoop trying to 'find them out'." He says revealing an insight that I would rather not accommodate as I sit there with my journalist's hat on.

"Don't get me wrong," he continues, "Journalism can provide a great life, travelling and meeting a variety of interesting people but it is negative. I wanted to find out what it would be like to actually try to help."

"Being an MP has, by far, been the most satisfying job I have had."

So what is your proudest achievement?

"Erm, ahhh! Mobile phones!"

He notes my perplexed expression.

" I managed to completely whitewash an attempt to ban the use of mobile phones whilst riding a bicycle."

As a driver and a pedestrian, the importance of this accomplishment bypasses me, but I note the obvious pride in this achievement and stifle my ill-advised giggle.

So, out of all the roles you have had, being an MP has given you the most satisfaction?

"Well, erm, erm, erm, f, ff, fff..."

"Fatherhood?" I invite, fearful of the options available to words beginning with 'F'.

"Yes, well, that's what I was going to say."

I am aware that the tabloid headlines of last year have left Boris fiercely guarded about his private life but I am taken aback with the reluctance to even mention a role of such importance. As the body language changes and the expression darkens, I reassure Boris that I am not about to conduct an inquisition on matters personal.

"Well, it's embarrassing for them, my, erm, children."

Not for the first time, the flat-palm rustles through the white-blonde nest perhaps in an attempt to get the gray-matter kick-started into action.

"I don't want to embarrass them so it's, erm, best not to talk about them."

As a mother, I understand and I comply.

A phone call. I am unaware of who is on the end of the line but I note a distinct change in the air. I have lost Boris. After a long silence when the call is finished, I get the picture. Just to be sure, I gently enquire if needs time to think and would like a break from the interview.

Boris looks at me as if I have mysteriously appeared on the seat next to him.

"Yes, I just need to think for a moment."

The moment turns into minutes, then more minutes. We turn into a quiet country lane.

"What time are we due at the next appointment?"

Having left his Political Agent at the previous venue, I wonder if Boris is confused as to my identity but quickly offer the information I have picked up along the way.


"Right" he responds looking at his watch, grabbing his phone and excusing himself from the car.

I watch as he paces the country lane, flat-palm in place on the nest, phone in-hand as he concentrates on each word he imparts to the recipient. As 12.25 nears, I am aware that the next appointment is a 15 minute journey away. I scribble, "YOU ARE GOING TO BE LATE" on my pad and walk, holding the pad aloft, to the still pacing Boris. I am met with a thumbs up and a smile as he turns on his heels with the words uninterrupted. "political agenda.. horrific... ID cards." Putting 2 and 2 together, I realise an article is being constructed on the hoof. I return to the car. After inserting the word "VERY" into the previous prompt, Boris resumes his role as driver. Off the phone but still preoccupied. I remain silent and wonder if the interview has met a premature end.

Essentially it has.

A couple of stops for further checks and additions to the impromptu article and we arrive at the next destination.

Quickly briefed by Wayne as to the event, the apology required (for tardiness) and the individuals to be greeted, Boris runs off and blusters out a sincere apology, leaving the preoccupation behind him as he gives his hosts his undivided attention.

I am unprepared for the next instalment in the day's agenda. A pre-school swimming pool is about to be officially re-opened. The chilly pre-school swimmers are delighted as the guest of honour makes his late entrance. The Danish pastries are a delight. The local journalist is efficient and friendly. The hosts are gracious. What I am unprepared for is the reaction of the female contingent in the audience.

Now I am not denying evidence of a certain charm, an ease of manner and the appeal of a persona somewhat laced with eccentricity, but this? I look around to see if a rock star or movie star has joined us, but no, it is Boris causing the suburban commotion. The ladies flutter around him like moths to a flame sated only by the momentary attention bestowed on them. His personal space is invaded as if the term had never existed. Young and old, tall and small, all vie for their piece of this particular political pie. You feel stories of their experience will take on a life of their own when related to the dinner party guests later that evening, the interlude gaining momentum as the tale is told and retold.

The Spectator

Between events, I can feel Boris rewriting and proofing the previously dictated article. The events of yesterday were devastating and horrific. Constructing an article to be published immediately on the home page of the Spectator web site requires careful consideration and in every spare moment, Boris checks and rechecks his words from every angle.

For me, Wayne saves the day as he reminds Boris of our interview and arranges a quick stop so I may continue with my quest to get at least some answers to the many questions I have prepared. All to aware that my question needs to be deemed important to illicit a response of more than one syllable, I decide upon the Live8 events of recent days. The response is interspersed with 'ums' and 'erms' as Boris struggles to find mind space to iterate an appropriate response.

"It is good that the problems in some African nations are being highlighted but I don't think debt relief is the right issue. The tyrannies are the problem. We don't want to finance new Mercs, we want to improve the present and the future for the people living in these countries." I offer Michael Buerke's summary of Mr Geldof, " Bob Geldof is a clever and decent man. He may not have the right answers but he is certainly asking the right questions."

This is met with an enthusiastic response.

"Yes, that sums it up. I don't have the answers but I am glad the questions are being asked but it is the tyrants that are the problem. The CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) needs to be addressed and there are other methods of helping them."

Oxfam appears as we turn the corner and Butterfly Boris is intent on flitting in to scour the second-hand books on offer. Wayne steps in and suggests a quick coffee to continue the interview.

Although it seems an eternity ago, it is only a couple of days since London was the scene of jubilation as Lord Coe lead his team to success in the 2012 Olympic bid. Was Boris celebrating? He looks at me quizzically.

"I am pleased. I know it's good for London but I don't feel excited or overly enthused. Am I strange?" he asks.

As someone who was brought up with the Olympics enjoying pride of place as the biggest of all sporting events, I have fond, and emotional, memories of Mary Peters, Alan Wells, Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and many more reaching the peak of their achievements at the Games. I offer that it is perhaps only strange to me but perfectly acceptable if you do not enjoy sport.

"I enjoy sport," comes the indignant repsonse. "I play tennis and used to be a keen rugby player."

I decide not to mention that tennis and rugby are not quite the main focus of Olympic sports which is perhaps the reason for the lukewarm reaction to our success.

As I drive home, the day's events replaying through my mind, I recalled our stop in the country lane where I had spotted a butterfly flitting around the grassy banks and a bee collecting nectar from each available source. I smile. Boris is undoubtedly an intelligent man yet the erudite thinking is of the butterfly mould. You catch glimpses but just try to net it, and it's gone, replaced by a jolly jape or a series of um's and erm's that punctuate each sentence. Tip-toe around this man's personal life and you get a glimpse of the bee together with its sting.

Before today, I had challenged myself to a task akin to eating a doughnut without licking my lips, at least that is what I had thought at the time. The challenge was to write this article without the use of the well-worn alliterative phrases when referring to Boris. It turns out that this was not so difficult.

by Jacqueline Alexander
Copyright 2013

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