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 on Thames and editor of the Spectator, is in fine form as his political agent and I pull up outside the school where Boris is to speak to a group 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 home town.

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 a 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 a 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.""

The topic is then applied to the debate on compulsory ID. 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 seemingly sated by a thorough response. They remain unaware of the lack of preparation.

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

Flitting 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." And he offers a gentle smile.

More questions follow on voting records in Parliament, housing in green belt areas, the public sector, and defence spending; all are answered without challenge from the audience.

Then the subject of the NHS raises its controversial head. Initially, Boris simply but firmly states the party-line. One student is not satisfied with this and 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 and unsure of how to argue further but her voice has been heard and her point noted.

Boris wades through the questions from a now impassioned political audience. The students are willing to be entertained but they are more interested in using this opportunity to challenge his beliefs. Today, perhaps because events in London have created a crystal clear focus on the importance of democracy and political freedoms, including debate, Boris seems to be exceeding 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.

Having worked for The Times ("No I wasn't sacked, my contract was not renewed.") then as political columnist for the Telegraph, what was 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!"

My perplexed expression is noted.

"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 convert an ill-advised smirk into a smile.

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, fully aware of the many options available beginning with the 'f' sound.

"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.

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

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 as he turns on his heels with the words uninterrupted. "political agenda.. horrific... ID cards." Putting two and two 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, 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 triumph. The local journalist is efficient and friendly. The hosts are gracious. It is the reaction of the female contingent in the audience for which I am unprepared.

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 a suburban commotion. Ladies flutter around him like moths to a flame to be sated by the momentary attention bestowed on them. His personal space is invaded as if the term had never been invented. Young and old, tall and small, little and large, 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 relayed at the school gate tomorrow morning, the tale gaining momentum as it is told and retold.

The Spectator

Between events, I can sense 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 questions need to make an impact 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 either but I am glad the questions are being asked but I do know 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.

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 proffer 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."

Rugby is not, at the time of writing, an Olympic sport.

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; the challenge was to write this article without the use of the well-worn alliteration when referring to Boris. It has been a temptation, but it turns out that it was not so difficult to resist.

by Jacqueline Alexander
Copyright 2013

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