Just over a month ago, I sent a good luck email to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson was facing a no confidence vote that evening and if too many of his fellow Conservative members of Parliament turned against him, it could have been the end. I hadn’t been in touch with Boris – as I have always called him – for some time, but we had always got on well and I figured if there was a moment to show some support from my home in Malaysia, this was it. The next morning, I received a reply. Boris amusingly suggested that all was calm and peaceful, and that there was nothing much to report at all – this only hours after 148 (or 41 per cent) of his colleagues had voted to chuck him out of office.
Was that arrogance? I don’t think so. I believe it was the irrepressible self-belief and optimism of a man who had always yearned to get to the top, but very much wanted everyone else to have a wonderful and amusing time as he did so. And that was exactly how I would characterise the first decade of this century when I had so many dealings with Boris, and was required to write about or interview him and his entertaining clan, so often that at times I thought I had become the “Johnson correspondent” of The Independent newspaper. I also co-wrote the New Statesman magazine’s cover story, “Who is Boris Johnson?”, when he first ran for mayor of London. “I’m very cross with you Sholto,” one colleague on the left-wing publication told me. “You’ve made him sound far too interesting.”
Boris would always call me back if I phoned him about a story – journalists love that, of course. As editor of The Spectator magazine, he also published an article I wrote about Malaysia that proved so controversial that The Daily Telegraph – a sister publication – attacked me and The Spectator in a leader the next day. This was unheard of. Did Boris back off? Not a bit. The previous year he had led the magazine with an article declaring Tony Blair, then Labour prime minister, as parliamentarian of the year – and followed it with a piece by me attacking Mr Blair for selling out his party’s left-wing principles.
Boris liked mischief. He was loyal – he stood up for his writers. He was also broad-minded. It should have been no surprise that he was a liberal and inclusive mayor of London, and that as Prime Minister his Cabinet broke the record for the number of high-ranking ministers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Boris’s second wife, Marina Wheeler, is half-Indian, and his own great-grandfather was Turkish.
He is no caricature, prejudiced right-winger, and if he sometimes seemed to pander to that audience, I think that he thought no one could believe he was really being serious. I have no wish to defend his government – I have never been a Conservative supporter – but I do believe his better instincts were constrained by the party he led, which moved considerably to the right post-Brexit.
It has been my experience that he is capable of being friendly, kind and thoughtful – as he was in all the conversations and meetings I have ever had with him. Some other examples: when he toured the Gulf as mayor in 2013, he sent the UK ambassador to Qatar out to find me at the Queen’s birthday party so we could have a chat. (Earlier he had emailed to ask if I had any “apposite gags” for his speech.) When we left the Gulf so I could take up a role at Malaysia’s national think tank, he sent me a congratulatory message and urged me to get in touch with a prominent Malaysian economist who was a fellow alumnus of Balliol College, Oxford (all three of us had been there, though not at the same time).
These were small gestures, yes, but there was really nothing in it for him. Might it be, as the Daily Mail newspaper columnist Stephen Glover wrote the other day, that whatever else Boris may be, he is also “a decent and a generous man”?
It is possible that had I been living in the UK over the past few years I might feel slightly differently, but I simply do not recognise the leader who has been so viciously excoriated by so many.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Boris has been used to acting as the senior boy at a boarding school who whispers: “Come on chaps! No one’s looking. We can get away with it.” Everyone then has great larks. But as Prime Minister, he was the equivalent of the headmaster. He was supposed to be enforcing the rules, not breaking or bending them; and that conflict may have been what ultimately undid his premiership.
But I’ll leave the political analysis to others. This is a personal view of a man who I’ve always liked.
When Boris’s head of policy, Munira Mirza, resigned earlier this year, she wrote to him: “You are a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand.” Ms Mirza should know – she worked for him for 14 years. Either way, this is a bitter end for a politician who was once unique in his ability to reach across class and fill Britons with laughter and good cheer. So I’m deeply sad for Boris.
He is no Trump, but a man who wanted everyone to be able to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, whatever their personal preferences may be. If it didn’t quite turn out that way, I hope that one day the UK rediscovers what they once liked about him so much.