Earlier this year, a rumour swept the City, London's financial centre, that someone was looking for a £2 million loan for Boris Johnson, to be secured against future earnings.
No name was attached to the person seeking the advance on the prime minister’s behalf. Like much concerning Johnson and his private life, it was impossible to verify, would almost certainly be denied, but nevertheless had the ring of truth.
This was well before he resigned. Perhaps he knew there was not long to go; perhaps he required some ready cash anyway to maintain his lifestyle. Reports had been circulating that Johnson and his wife cavilled at the financial restrictions imposed upon them, that everything at their now-infamous parties had to be settled up by the family and marked paid by the housekeepers.
Who knows. But the reality is that very shortly, Johnson will require that sort of sum and possibly more if he wants to buy somewhere to live, presumably in central London, and wishes to educate his two young children with Carrie privately, the same route followed by their mother and father. There is the question, too, of his other children and the divorce settlement with his former wife Marina. How much he was obliged to pay her, and whether any of it is ongoing, has never been made public.
In the pantheon of recent UK premiers, Johnson may be tempted to look at Tony Blair as a measure of what is achievable. But Blair led the country for much longer; he fought and won three consecutive elections; and he was regarded on the global stage as a true international statesman, a heavyweight whose views were highly sought after.
He was also determinedly centrist, appealing across political, social and geographic divides. He was possessed, too, of a firm ideology ― something that has never defined Johnson. There is Blairism but there is no Johnsonism. Serious organisations were prepared to pay serious money to hear Blair speak. Even now, long after he left office, Blair is still in high demand.
Johnson is not going to be invited to give the keynote address at conferences assembled and paid for by big business, which is where the major cash resides. Davos and the Sun Valley chief executives’ summit are not going to rush to book him, not as a major scene-setter.
Corporates remember all too well the profanity he issued in their direction. Nor will they forget the disregard he showed for business with his shambolic “Peppa Pig” speech to the CBI. There is nothing that Johnson can say that they will wish to hear.
He can take more reasonable comfort in the earnings enjoyed by his predecessor Theresa May. Not by any stretch a natural communicator, she has nevertheless been able to pick up substantial fees on the lecture circuit. Johnson may struggle, though, to match even her. May is a woman, and she does her homework. Send her a brief and May will follow it; send Johnson a brief and it is likely to remain unopened.
When Johnson was in City Hall, I witnessed him deliver the same, bravura speech three or four times in 12 months. It was the one about how he could claim to be the fourth biggest mayor in France, such were the numbers of French people who had relocated to London. He also trotted out boasts about the capital being the destination of choice for oligarchs, Arabs and Chinese.
That’s all it was, boosterism splurged out at a rate of knots. There was no depth to his words, and he made little attempt to temper what he was saying for his audience.
One was for a children’s reading charity. Some of us were wondering what on Earth any of this had to do with helping disadvantaged children learn to read and obtain access to books when, at the end, he suddenly referred to how vital it was that children learnt to read, that reading was tremendously important. Then he wrapped up. He offered no insight whatsoever as to how their literacy could be improved.
Nevertheless, people applauded. It was a knockabout turn and yes, in a way, refreshing compared with many of the dull speeches they were forced to endure. Good old Boris, always amusing.
That’s where his best prospects of making money lie, as a comedian and a writer. At a recent meeting in Downing Street with the head of one of the world’s largest industrial companies, Johnson was on his usual, knockabout, breezy form. That would be fine, except that his guest, a foreigner, was a cerebral businessman, a thinker as well as a doer.
The subject of the aviation sector came up. The multinational chieftain said the market had changed, that demand for wide-bodied aircraft had slipped. Johnson fixed him with a stare and said that was a pity, since “I like a wide-body”.
His visitor was nonplussed, in all his years meeting world leaders he’d never encountered anyone like Johnson, except for Donald Trump, maybe. For three years, the truth is, the UK has had a comedian in No 10. Perhaps that is why Johnson relates to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy so well, because Zelenskyy was a professional comic. But it’s hard to imagine Johnson maintaining the prolonged level of intensity and selfless courage that the embattled Ukrainian leader has displayed.
Those of us who have witnessed Johnson at close quarters have always known that. As a journalist in the House of Commons and at Brussels he was known for winging it, not reading reports, ignoring the detail, coming up with lines that were improbable (sure enough on occasion they did not stand up to scrutiny, and at least once he made up quotes and attributed them to a named individual). But he was a dream of a writer, even if his prose was littered with hyperbole and obscure classical references and prone to flights of fantasy.
His memoirs could command a hefty advance, although unlike those of former occupants of No 10, they will be read for their novelty and amusement value rather than for their accuracy. He’s supposed to be writing a biography of Shakespeare.
Again, the work, entitled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, is unlikely to be studied by scholars of the bard, but may supply a humorous romp of a read ― Johnson’s equivalent of Blackadder.
That’s his best bet. It’s what he’s brilliant at, why he is so fondly viewed. He can make folks laugh in a way that Sir Keir Starmer or, come to that, May, Blair and yes, Rishi Sunak, will never do. Put him back in the compere’s chair of Have I Got News For You and the audience numbers will soar. Likewise, book him for Strictly Come Dancing or I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here ― anything where he can act the buffoon, exploiting his talent to amuse.
He will rake in the money, alright ― but only if he plays the entertainer who became prime minister, and what a hoot that was.