The Irish Mail on Sunday
The Boris I know isn’t the public caricature
IF IT wasn’t the sixth richest country in the world, our nearest neighbour and biggest customer, few would care much about Britain leaving the EU. Or be bothered about Boris Johnson. But a loose-cannon prime minister proposing cataclysmic self-harm for the UK also threatens Ireland with economic catastrophe.
The EU and Irish establishment, plus Sinn Féin, used to portray Brexit as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta starring gormless toffs and dodgy barrow boys.
But the Brexit bogey men and women who emerged as ministers after the most ruthless cull of a cabinet in modern British history seem hell-bent on death or glory.
The cabinet are shackled to him in a political suicide pact and Boris’s place in history is predicated on him returning to Downing Street with a working majority after an early election.
British politics and public life are in chaotic freefall and Boris’s braggadocio promises to bring harmony to a divided nation.
By Christmas we will know a lot more about the new prime minister: Will he plámás the DUP and do a backstop deal on Irish ports? He will, if it cancels the 95-day countdown to Brexit and secures victory in a snap election that banishes Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party.
Will he follow President Trumpnow after the US abandoned Britain on the high seas near Iran – or will be seek Europe’s support to protect British shipping in the Gulf?
I suspect he will be a disappointment for President Trump. Boris is an instinctive social liberal and one-nation Conservative, proud that his great-grandfather arrived in Britain as a Muslim emigrant from Turkey. Everyone is an expert
on Boris now and their overfamiliarity with his celebrity encourages even lower expectations of him as head of government.
He occupies a hinterland between politics and popular culture and like showbiz icons Oprah and Beyoncé, Boris is immediately recognisable by his first name.
And just as viewers think they personally know fictional characters in a television series, they saw Boris’s swashbuckling persona as a rakish guest in Downton Abbey.
Sexual trysts and political intrigues originally cast him as a loveable rogue – but the hero in Carry On Boris has now morphed into a pantomime villain.
Those jokes fell flat after he became Britain’s 77th prime minister last Wednesday while opportunists and sycophants jousted for his attention.
Boris’s most precious personal and political asset was, and is, likeability.
On the other hand, he fears nothing or nobody and believes he can achieve anything.
BUT Boris is also a fabulist who passes off fibs as hyperbole and his frequently pointless lies sow distrust of his promises among friends and foes alike. I doubt that Boris will decommission his most effective weapon – the bumbling and unthreatening Mr Bean-like guise that encourages opponents to
underestimate him. That was always an invaluable tool in his box of disguises.
I know Boris Johnson. We first met as reporters covering President Clinton’s historic visit to Belfast in 1995, although we haven’t got together since he was mayor of London.
He was the London correspondent for a Sunday radio programme I edited and presented – and he asked me to write on Ireland for the Spectator magazine when he was editor.
I was in his house in Islington, his office at the Spectator and spent an afternoon with him in Oxford. He also invited me to London when he was campaigning for a second term as mayor and asked me to be his guest at the Olympic Games (I declined).
He was a very popular mayor and was re-elected: London is a predominately Labour-voting city, so Boris’s appeal went far beyond party loyalties.
He is intensely loyal to the small team who have worked with him for years – and not all of them are Tories.
Boris rarely bothered mastering the detail of any brief, delegating the tedious grind to others.
HE IS lucky in love: his serial affairs – and few who know him believe he is now a born-again monogamist – have not damaged his reputation with the public. And none of the women he has been involved with has ever complained or shamed him or his family in public
And his good fortune is not confined to romance: The inept and unpopular leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, is a career Brexiteer – another bonus for Boris.
He has been very generous and kind to me and I like him. I don’t claim to know him well – but feel better qualified to judge his character than many of his critics.
Those who dismiss him as a public school, upper-class twit are ignorant and lazy.
The Johnsons were not wealthy and Boris’s education at Eton and Oxford depended on him passing scholarship exams; that meant no fees. He is still close to his large family.
Can he, like Winston Churchill, confound his critics and become the heroic saviour of his nation? I don’t know but Boris doesn’t do self-doubt.
Yet Brexit, his prescribed cure, threatens to kill the ailing Britain he has pledged to save.