Until his car passed through the gates of Buckingham Palace en route to the kissing of hands, I didn't quite believe Boris Johnson would actually make it to the premiership. That's partly because many years ago he arrived late at a Spectator lunch, told us he'd just realized he was going to be prime minister, and we all laughed. Yet, a quarter-century later, here he is. As his sister Rachel points out, only fifty-five people have ever become UK PM, and, even if one has difficulty recalling the names of any of the recent occupants, that's still fewer than have gone into space.
Back in those Speccie days, he was one of those writers you read not because of what he had to say but because of the way he said it. Here he is on the saskatoon - not the town, but an innocent Canadian berry that had fallen afoul of some control-freak Blairite regulatory agency (from which abyss it was rescued by the EU - a reminder that not everything that's hellish about modern Britain is the fault of Brussels). At any rate, Boris turned in what is undoubtedly the best ever column written about the saskatoon:
You may not have been aware that the saskatoon is to berries as the Cohiba is to cigars. It is the king of the bush. It is used all over Canada to make jams, syrups, salad dressings and even crĂ¨me brulĂ©e. According to some bumf I have from the Canadian High Commission, it is standard practice, at all Canadian state banquets, to sprinkle every course with saskatoons. When one contemplates the volcanic energy of this century's great Canadians, from Mark Steyn to Conrad Black to Margaret Trudeau, one can only ascribe it to the saskatoon-based national diet.
That's beautifully constructed. It's just the ticket if you want to be a minor media celebrity and get invited on to BBC current affairs shows to be amusing about the day's headlines. But it's a tricky thing to parlay into a big-time political career: The cracks permitted about Canadians are more perilous when done about "tank-topped bum-boys", or burqaed Muslimas looking like "letter boxes", or "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles". But, to modify Stalin, one gaffe is a tragedy, a million is just static. In 2016 Boris won a literary competition in The Spectator for a poem about Turkish strongman ErdoÄźan fornicating with goats. It began:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankera...
A week later Theresa May made him Foreign Secretary, and a few weeks after that he was dispatched to Ankara for a summit with the goat-shagging wankera himself. The new caliph did not raise the matter of the poem. So, unlike most media or entertainment figures who progress into politics, Boris has not abandoned his old self - for the very good reason that it's a hit persona: The great-grandchild of Jews, Muslims and a distant cousin of the Queen, he invented himself in his teens as what his Oxford chum (and another old editor of mine) Toby Young calls a Wodehousian buffer - one might say a Drones Club character, were it not for the fact that he is not, as it happens, terribly clubbable.
It was a canny choice of shtick: It duped the left and half of the right into dismissing him as a buffoon. And, even more cleverly, chuntering his way around the country as a toff with a massive thesaurus gave him, somewhat counter-intuitively, the common touch. The famous image of him stuck on the zipline in a beanie-like helmet waving plastic Union Jacks is so ingeniously endearing one assumes he paid them to stall the thing - because a failed photo-op is way less tedious than one that goes off like clockwork.
This is the genius of the act: He's Bertie Wooster with Jeeves' brain. Out on the street, he's everybody's friend; among his actual alleged friends, he's utterly ruthless: Within twenty-four hours of entering 10 Downing Street, he'd pulled off the bloodiest cabinet reshuffle of "modern times", as the papers say - although actually I can't think of a bloodier one even from non-modern times. (Only four members of the May regime were retained: Michael Gove, Amber Rudd, Baroness Evans and Matt Hancock.)
Is he a nice person? Well, he's left an awful lot of human wreckage in his wake. Some of the women he's used and discarded seem to me, without naming names, to be sad and profoundly damaged from their brief intersection with his wandering zipper. His latest squeeze seems likely to be moving into Number Ten without benefit of clergy - a first for the Tories and a sign of how desperate they are after years of letting all the sober, serious, earnest types turn their party into a laughingstock.
What does he believe in? Other than himself, not terribly much. About a decade ago, I was in London for a couple of days and had lunch with him and Stuart Reid at a favorite Italian restaurant. Stuart was the deputy editor who did all the hard grind at the Speccie, while Boris was the great fizzing impresario fronting the operation - a business model he transferred successfully into his mayoral regime, and will no doubt be trying again in Downing Street. He was going on the BBC's "Question Time" that night and was worried that he didn't have anything sufficiently arresting to say, so asked if I had any tips. I gave him a few thoughts on the passing scene, and he considered them not in terms of his own public-policy positions (if any) but in terms of attitudinal cachet. Finally, I said, "Why don't you really stir them up and put in a word for social conservatism?"
"You mean abortion and all that? Oh, God..," he sighed, and ordered dessert.
If that seems to be (for self-interested reasons) his most firmly drawn red line, don't nevertheless overstate his ideological flexibility. Like Boris, Theresa May schemed and maneuvered for decades to reach the top spot ...and, by the time she pulled it off, she'd spent so much time and effort on the scheming and maneuvering that she had no idea of what to do once she got there. Boris is likewise invested in himself, but, having reached the finial of Disraeli's greasy pole, he doesn't intend to be just the latest seat-filler. Mrs May wanted to be prime minister; Johnson wants to be a great and consequential prime minister.
Does that make him a philosophical Brexiteer? Doubtful. In the 2016 referendum, he considered the Leave and Remain choices in terms of what served his interests. To favor Remain meant supporting David Cameron, the de facto leader of the cause, and consigning himself to being a mere gentleman of the chorus. Whereas, if he chose the other side, his star power would make him the face of the campaign. He expected the Remain guys to win, and himself to have done himself a world of good with the Tory base come the next leadership election. Instead, and at least partly because of him, Leave won, and the chaos of the last three years began.
Something of a similar head fake is going on right now. A threatened "no deal" departure on October 31st is supposedly being touted by Boris just to force the EU into re-negotiating Theresa May's floppo "withdrawal agreement". So M Barnier and his backstop boy Leo Varadkar are insisting that'll never happen, and it's the May deal or nuthin'. Let them huff on. My view is that the whole re-negotiation thing is a feint, and Boris actually wants to leave with no deal. He wants a clean split - and the UK reborn as a sovereign nation, no ifs or buts. Whether he wants it because that's his preferred public policy or because it cements his place in history is unimportant if you happen to believe, as I do, that that's in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
In his first speech as prime minister, he referenced England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and hailed them as "the awesome foursome" - which is not a line Mrs May or David Cameron could pull off non-risibly. But apparently he means it: I heard from a mutual chum that he prefers the title of "Minister for the Union" to that of Prime Minister. Which sounds faintly nutty - unless it's a geopolitical extension of his Spectator impresario approach. But it suggests a man who grasps not only that, one way or another, Brexit has to be put to bed by October 31st but also that, if he can pull that off, normal politics resumes and the possibilities are boundless. Boris' sense of his own epic grandeur necessarily drags Britain along in its wake: If Brexit is "delivered" (as the faintly evasive formulation has it) come berrying season he will be touring a saskatoon farm on the prairies waving plastic Maple Leafs and hailing the new Canada-UK free trade agreement, the first prime minister of a reborn United Kingdom.
~As an aside, I see the newspaper Boris and I once worked for, The Daily Telegraph, now has a "Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging" - one Asif Sadiq, MBE - who writes earnest pieces with headlines like "Why Diversity is the Missing Piece of the Corporate Puzzle". The decline and decay of the post-Conrad Torygraph is one of the tragedies of the age. At the time UK Conservatives were cooing over the hollow David Cameron, a man so "conservative" he believed W H Smith should be banned from displaying Terry's Chocolate Oranges at the cash register because it was a health risk. Meanwhile, the Telegraph was so out of it that Charles Moore, our great editor, was talking up the Ulster Unionist David Trimble as the next Tory leader. Alas, the trendies had their way and, as I put it, the Conservatives opted not for the Orangeman but the Chocolate Orangeman. Boris is a social liberal posing as a Tory but the pose - "Mohammedans", "tank-topped bum-boys", etc - at least provides a brief rhetorical respite from the suffocating embrace of "diversity, inclusion and belonging". I'm with Sam Goldwyn: Include me out.
~We had a busy weekend at SteynOnline, starting and finishing with our marquee presentation, a brand new Tale for Our Time, a beloved comic classic by Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat. You can find Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here. Kathy Shaidle's Saturday movie date offered a Tyrone Power classic, Nightmare Alley, and our Sunday musical extravaganza was a celebration of Frank Loesser with me and my guests and live performances of "Heart and Soul", "On a Slow Boat to China", "Standing on the Corner", and many more. If you were too busy being fired from the British Cabinet this weekend, I hope you'll want to check out one or three of the foregoing as a new week begins.
Part Four of Three Men in a Boat airs this evening. Tales for Our Time is made possible through the support of The Mark Steyn Club. As our third year cranks into top gear, we are more keenly aware than ever that the important, critical element of the Club is its members. I hope to be able to thank many of you personally on our sold out Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise or, if not, our just announced Third Annual Steyn Cruise sailing the Med next year and with the above-mentioned Conrad Black among our shipmates. It means an awful lot to know you value what we do here - transient politics, big-picture civilizational collapse, audio fiction, video poetry, live music. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here - and don't forget our special Gift Membership.