Beware Boris Johnson: The Power of a Cunning Clown

Boris Johnson may appear shambolic. He is anything but. The UK’s possible next prime minister is an upper-class master of schmoozing and game-playing.

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Amid the post-referendum rending of garments over Brexit, it has become settled wisdom that it was older working-class voters who spearheaded the Leave vote. But plenty of older upper-class voters were just as rabid in their eagerness to stick it to the foreign busybodies across the Channel, and the oldest and most upper-class of them all was reportedly among them.

There were ritual denials from the palace last week after the queen’s (pro-EU) biographer Robert Lacey, writing in The Daily Beast, quoted the monarch as having issued this icy challenge to her dinner guests: “Give me three good reasons why Britain should be part of Europe.”

But if you talk to any of her intimate circle who are in a position to know her point of view, there is little doubt that Her Maj was a keen Brexiteer.

Last week in London I went to the annual multi-generational thrash in Richmond of Lady Annabel Goldsmith, former wife of the Annabel nightclub’s creator Mark Birley and mistress, later wife of Sir James Goldsmith, with whom she had a raft of interesting children, including Jemima Khan and the recently trounced London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith.

At every table laden with lobster and strawberries it was Brexit and more Brexit. One still-vibrant Mitfordesque octogenarian told me: “There will be civil unrest in my village in Norfolk! Civil unrest, I tell you! The Rumanians are everywhere! They used to pick the fruit and vegetables and go home. Now they invite their families in to stay and bang on my door asking for money.”

With strong rural roots from their country estates, the furious toffs are aligned with their forelock-tugging farmhands and grooms, just as they were over the ban on fox hunting.

Brexit has added new gradations to the class divide. Cash-poor country squires now view London, the international city-state that voted overwhelmingly for Remain, as a stew of pushy Poles and women in burqas, an alien place where they can no longer afford to buy their daughter a charming mews flat behind Harrods.

One of the most unfortunate utterances for Remain was in May, when Chancellor George Osborne told voters that should Brexit happen, “there would be a hit to the value of people’s homes by at least 10 percent and up to 18 percent.”

That was shudder shudder shudder scarifying news to circles that had already got their place on the gilded property ladder, but glad tidings for those who can’t afford to buy anywhere fitting their social station.

“If we get Brexit we’ll be able to buy something for the grandchildren” was a common refrain at the Goldsmith dinner. Osborne’s was a classic London mistake: viewing the value of houses solely through the prism of skyrocketing city prices that are a payday only for those who own.

In further gradations of the new class divide, there is the now deeply divisive figure of Boris Johnson, the man who led the Brexit movement to victory. I had my own run-in with Boris in June 1986 when, still a student at Oxford, he was on the verge of being elected president of the Oxford Union.

I had gone to Oxford to report for Vanity Fair on the drug overdose death of the Guinness heiress Olivia Channon the night of her final exams celebration. Found in the college rooms of the dissolute young Count Gottfried von Bismarck with heroin in her bloodstream, Olivia was the quintessential tragic symbol of a generation of privilege gone awry.

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I recruited and paid a student named Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who knew Olivia, to help me interview her upper-class friends. She rounded up a group of them, though she herself could not join us, at Oxford’s Sorbonne restaurant.

One of them was her boyfriend (whom she later briefly married), Boris Johnson—then as now a witty, shambolic figure with a shaggy blond mop. It was, therefore, stunning for me a few days after that lunch to read in the Sunday Telegraph a viciously fallacious account of what I had supposedly said. The byline was Allegra Mostyn-Owen.

I eventually discovered that it was Boris who had written the piece (and made up the quotes) under Allegra’s name—a piece of baffling treachery that caused his girlfriend, when it was pointed out to the editor that she wasn’t actually present, to never again be offered a byline in the Sunday Telegraph.

Why would Boris do such a sneaky thing? We learned last week from Martin Fletcher in The New York Times how deeply untruthful Boris was as a reporter in Brussels for The Telegraph a few years before Fletcher covered that same beat for the Times of London.

His copy was funny, to be sure. But it was also lazy and mendacious, ridiculing issues rather than attempting to understand them.

Boris, I fear, belongs to a peculiarly dangerous British type—a type that, in my days as the editor of Tatler in the 1980s, I christened the Gentleman Hack, “hostile to facts and even more hostile to investigation—a football column that purports to know nothing about football. A restaurant column that returns again and again to the ‘agreeable little Trattoria’ where the house red is as good as anything I’ve tasted in Provence…

“His dress tries to denote the aristocratic reach-me-down tradition—hence the goose-shit green corduroy trousers, which he always teams with one of his two detached collar shirts... Unfortunately, deep down, the gentleman hack is very very ambitious, hence his hatred of meritocracy. Indeed, he is possessed by a hard and desperate longing for money, rank and recognition. How can he achieve this and conserve his image of cordial irrelevance? It can be done.”

And it was.

Thus, according to Johnson’s inner circle, before he came out for Brexit, he assured Prime Minister David Cameron that he would stand with him firmly for Remain.

Johnson’s fake disarray—his bonhomous tanker of beer and Falstaffian spilling gut, his genial, jokey façade concealing a deeply opportunistic nature—allowed him alliances with such odious figures as UKIP’s xenophobic leader, Nigel Farage, whose rat poison salesman persona would never have won Brexit without the fig leaf of Boris’s charm.

His other powerful alliance was with the Voldemort of Middle England, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail—with whom, I am told, Boris was closeted on June 9 over dinner in a private room at Marks club, in a conversation so confidential in content they put a stepladder in front of the door.

The core of the Gentleman Hack is his fundamental lack of seriousness. No wonder the day after the vote, as markets crashed, the PM resigned, and Scotland announced it might hold another referendum to break away from the U.K., Boris looked mildly rueful, even chagrined.

I’m reasonably sure he never dreamed that Brexit would actually succeed. Like the Republican blowhards who demand that the IRS and the EPA be abolished, secure in the knowledge that it ain’t gonna happen, Brexit for Boris was an indulgence in purely gestural politics.

It was meant to advance his leadership prospects with the right of his party in time for the next election. Now he’s like the dog that caught the car. Having trashed the brakes and the steering wheel, he now finds he might have to drive the thing.

See Tatler’s Gentleman Hack: “though he is genial to all, he is malicious towards most… with a light giggle the Gentleman Hack knows how to put the boot in.”

All hail the next prime minister of the United (though maybe not for long) Kingdom.