Media Matters Stephen Glover
Journalists can’t go on hating a man who’s master of all he surveys
No Tory Prime Minister has ever come to power hated or despised by so many Conservative journalists as Boris Johnson. Not even Winston Churchill.
In Boris’s case, all his detractors have known him well. They have worked with him or for him or, in one or two cases, employed him. And they think – or have thought – very little of his character.
How does a once critical journalist (they are invariably columnists) cope with the reality of Boris’s being master of all he surveys, and almost certainly Prime Minister for at least five years? There is undoubtedly a problem in continuing to slag off a man who promises to be in charge for so long. Readers might think it tiresome or ungenerous. And it would lead to the writer being frozen out in government circles, though some columnists might not mind that.
A good tactic is to row back smartly. One Tory journalist who has already placed an oar in the water is Bruce Anderson. He knew Boris through the Spectator, where the Prime Minister was editor, and did not respect him. As recently as July 2018, he was dismissing him in a piece in the Mail on Sunday. But last August he published an article in the online version of the Spectator under the headline ‘Was I wrong about Boris Johnson?’ The piece suggested that he had been, and the recently installed PM was doing much better than expected.
My purpose is not at all to criticise Bruce for this minor volte-face, still less to accuse him of sycophancy. He could justly be praised for his open-mindedness. Bruce also regards the Tory Party much as Lenin viewed the Soviet Communist Party – always to be supported. Its leader must therefore always be right.
An even more ferocious Conservative debunker of Boris has been Matthew Parris, who wrote a column for the Spectator during his editorship. Mr Parris has not spared him over the years, describing him in a 2016 Times column as ‘underprepared, jolly, sly, dishonest’. Last year, he often reprised the same line of attack. And yet in January he found much to admire in the Prime Minister, praising him for being ‘businesslike and to the point’ and for eschewing ‘showboating’ and ‘buffoonery’.
Again, my point is not remotely to decry Mr Parris, who is a brilliant columnist. He realises there is no point in continuing to lambast Boris for faults and shortcomings that the electorate is prepared to indulge. If Boris should stumble, which in the nature of political life he is likely to do, I daresay Mr Parris will reopen hostilities.
Other Tory columnists have not yet recanted, though it is possible they may do so. Max Hastings, who as editor of the
Daily Telegraph employed Boris in 1988, has been ruder about him than almost any man alive. Last June, he took up his familiar cudgels in the Daily Mirror. Boris was guilty of ‘cowardice’ and was ‘of weak character’ and a ‘cavorting charlatan’. If the Tory rank-and-file were stupid enough to elevate him to ‘the steps of Downing Street’, they ‘should expect to pay a full forfeit when voters get the message’. Sir Max now writes for the Times, and I shall be interested to see how he develops his feelings about the new Prime Minister.
My former colleague Simon Heffer, who was deputy editor of the Daily
Telegraph in the early 1990s when Boris was a leader-writer on the paper, shares Sir Max’s low opinion of him, though the two men are not generally ad idem. ‘Heff’ described his former charge in a 2013 Daily Mail column as a ‘selfish, two-faced, proven liar [with a] private life too baroque for one who aspires to the highest office’. Mr Hefffer is a man of principle, and I should be surprised to see him embrace someone whom he so despises.
One Tory columnist who wrote a column for the Spectator when Boris edited it, and often defended him in later years, has recently recanted in the opposite direction. My friend Peter Oborne has published an online file of the Prime Minister’s alleged lies. In a
New Statesman piece last November, he accused the man he once admired of presiding over a lie machine ‘far more serious than anything that has taken place before [in British politics]’. Peter tweeted around the same time that ‘Boris Johnson lies shamelessly, continuously, systematically, habitually’. Here is one Tory journalist who can surely be relied on to go on bashing Boris.
In a spirit of even-handedness, I should mention another columnist who also knew Mr Johnson through writing for the Spectator, and in recent years has tended to be more pro him than against. But back in 2010, when Boris was embroiled in another row about women, this person wrote, ‘After this latest episode in the Boris Johnson saga, he is impossibly far from ever being Prime Minister.’
Who was this not very far-sighted journalist? Yours truly…