Boris Johnson: The man who invented himself

Boris Johnson: The man who invented himself, by Toby Young.

I first set eyes on Boris Johnson in the autumn of 1983 when we went up to Oxford at the same time. …

I still wasn’t prepared for the sight (and sound) of him at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union. This was the world-famous debating soc­iety where ambitious undergraduates honed their public-speaking skills before embarking on careers in politics or journalism, and Boris was proposing the motion. …

With his mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt ­escaping from his trousers, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy. …

He began to advance an argument in what sounded like a parody of the high style in British politics — theatrical, dramatic, self-serious — when, a few seconds in, he appeared to completely forget what he was about to say.

He looked up, startled — Where am I? — and asked the packed chamber which side he was supposed to be on. “What’s the ­motion, anyway?” Before anyone could answer, a light bulb ­appeared above his head and he was off, this time in an even more orotund, florid manner. Yet within a few seconds he’d wrong-footed himself again, this time because it had suddenly occurred to him that there was an equally compelling argument for the opposite point of view. This endless flipping and flopping, in which he seemed to constantly surprise himself, went on for the next 15 minutes. The ­impression he gave was of someone who had been plucked from his bed in the middle of the night and then plonked down at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union without the faintest idea of what he was supposed to be talking about.

I’d been to enough Union ­debates at this point to know just how mercilessly the crowd could punish those who came before them unprepared. That was particularly true of freshmen, who were expected to have mastered all the arcane procedural rules, some of them dating back to the Union’s founding in 1823. But Boris’s chaotic, scatterbrained ­approach had the opposite effect.

The motion was deadly serious — “This House Would Reintroduce Capital Punishment” — yet ­almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter. This was no ordinary undergraduate proposing a motion but a music hall veteran performing a well-rehearsed comic routine. His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings. You got the sense he could easily have delivered a highly effective speech if he’d wanted to but was too clever and sophisticated — and honest — to enter into such a silly charade. To do what the other debaters were doing, and pretend he believed what was coming out of his mouth, would have been patronising. Everyone else was taking the audience for fools, but not him. He was openly insincere and, in being so, somehow seemed more authentic than everyone else. …

My uncle had described him as a “genius” and as a boy he’d been regarded as something of a wunderkind. There was the occasion when he was holidaying with his family in Greece, aged 10, and asked a group of classics professors if he could join their game of Scrabble. They indulged the precocious, blond-haired moppet, only to be beaten by him. Thinking it was a one-off, they asked him to play another round and, again, he won. On and on it went, game after game. …

Our mutual friend Lloyd Evans, who knew Boris better than me at ­Oxford, put it well. “He’s a war leader,” he told Gimson. “He is one of the two or three most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. You just feel he’s going somewhere. People just love him. They enjoy going with him and they enjoy being led.” …

Boris is often described as a “Marmite figure”, a reference to the British version of Vegemite. You either love Marmite or you hate it, and the same goes for Boris. Just as some sections of America’s coastal elites suffer from Trump derangement syndrome, large swathes of Britain’s intelligentsia are afflicted by Boris derangement syndrome.