Boris Johnson watches the election results with his wife Marina after winning Henley in the 2001 General Election PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Artillery Row

How New Labour made Boris Johnson

Twenty years ago, the Conservative Party was at its lowest ebb. But on the night of New Labour’s greatest triumph, one man promised to revive their fortunes…

As the sunset on eighteen years of Conservative rule in May 1997, Tony Blair had already set his sights on his next task. His primary focus was to do something that had evaded all previous Labour Prime Ministers: to secure a second consecutive full term in office. Four years later, with the backing of the majority of the press, he secured another three-figure majority. Labour could confidently claim to be the natural party of government. 

What then was the point in a Conservative Party that could no longer win elections? In 2001 voters believed that Labour had more assertive leaders, the best policies and a better handle on the economy. For Professor John Curtice, the evidence was clear: “William Hague’s popularity remains low. But not as low as the policies he is promoting.”  

With politics moving towards the progressive centre, even the Daily Mail had a crisis of confidence. “Is Conservatism Dead?” they asked as Fleet Street turned its back on the party. In 2001 The Times, The Sunday Times, the Daily Express and Sunday Express all switched to Labour. Blair commanded the most overwhelming press endorsement in the party’s history.  

The most brutal critic was the paper that had done so much to advance the Thatcherite cause in the 1980s. The Sun pronounced the “DEATH OF THE BLUE RINSE TRINITY” to its readers in the wake of the landslide.  Along with the Church and Marks and Spencer, the Tories were “in crisis because they lost touch with their customers”. With over half of Sun readers now voting Labour, the paper argued that the Conservatives no longer spoke “in a language that the ordinary men and women of Britain can understand”.

Johnson understood that after 1997 the resistance to New Labour would not be played out in Parliament but in the media

There was, however, one Conservative figure who appeared to buck the trend. In amongst the talk of decline, Boris Johnson appeared to speak in a language that was popular both with the “blue rinse brigade” and the “young professional” readers of GQ magazine. 

As comfortable on Question Time as he was strolling around Glastonbury with Billy Bragg, Johnson finally came of age in the late 90s. In an ever-changing world, he chose to embrace the absurdity of life as a Conservative in Labour Britain. He emerged just as politics was deemed to be less serious and the commentators were becoming as well known as the politicians they reported on. 

Johnson understood that after 1997 the resistance to New Labour would not be played out in Parliament but in the media. Less than a week into Blair’s reign, he used his Telegraph column to write of the new “dictatorship” in No 10, with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson having sent “their thought police into every level of government”.

That Summer, as Blair became as popular as Churchill in the wake of Diana’s death, Johnson maintained that the public had been conned and urged people to “explode the big lie”. Blair “has no answer to the ill-effects of market liberalism” and “the damage done to the nuclear family by the mass arrival of women in the work force”.  

Tony Blair arrives back at Downing Street after Labour’s victory in the 2001 general election. (Photo by Ferdaus Shamim/Sygma via Getty Images)

Britain, Johnson argued, was not naturally a Labour country. Voters had been taken in by Blair’s “extraordinary skill in presentation, his ability, like some high-tech bra to create a sense of uplift out of nothing; and his amazing luck”. He was political Teflon where “people seem to believe anything if it comes from his lips”. He reassured Tories that they would only win when  “enough people realise they have been swindled”.

In an age where Conservative ideas appeared to be on the way out, Johnson consistently gave the Telegraph words of comfort.  He called for the Tories to be bolder in defence of their values, “to remind the world that this party is still that great party which liberated so much of the British economy” and that “there is nothing chthonic, dark or rancid about the forces of conservatism”. In his column to mark the end of the 20th century, he assured readers that having looked into his “mystic window pane”, Conservative ideas would indeed survive into the year 3000: “I reckon we will still then be eating meat, wearing trousers, having conventional sexual relations and reading the Daily Telegraph – preferably all at once”.

Johnson emerged as a thorn in New Labour’s side just as expert “analysis” and “star” punditry replaced traditional editorials as the go-to place for newspaper commentary. In an era of soundbites and government message discipline, journalists took on a more significant role in the day to day drama of politics, to decipher what was really happening in Westminster. Johnson’s style proved popular with the times. He was named Political Commentator of the year in 1998 by ‘What the Papers Say’ and was later nominated for the Edgar Wallace Trophy for “consistent writing of the highest quality”.  

Had he confined himself purely to the political pages, Johnson would have stood a good chance of securing a safe Conservative seat in the 2001 election. But it was clear that he had ambitions to reach beyond traditional political lines. In the late 90s, he fine-tuned his persona as the “loveable buffoon”, or the  “self-depreciating toff” as the Independent described him. In a culture that no longer feared Conservatism but openly ridiculed it, Johnson had the opportunity to thrive.   

The Conservative Party’s image problems were central to the politics of the period as William Hague’s attempts to modernise were met with resistance. Norman Tebbit caused a stir when he argued that gay pride was “not compatible with our family values”. Even trying to modernise their clothes had proved difficult. One row broke out over whether Tory MPs should be pictured without their suit jackets, while others were advised not to wear knitwear in front of cameras. 

Hague understood that in the age of celebrity, the politicians had to have a hinterland. Yet the desire to manufacture a personality led to a series of gaffes that have since entered political folklore. From his appearance at Notting Hill Carnival to wearing TEAM HAGUE baseball caps on a log flume, his leadership was a continual reminder that the party was out of touch with the modern world.  

In a desperate attempt to outbid Tony Blair’s “lad” credentials, Hague claimed to have drunk 14 pints a day while working as a drivers mate for the family business. “Anyone who thinks I used to spend my holidays reading the political tracts should have come with me for a week” he told GQ. It didn’t seem a credible story from a man who had addressed the Conservative Party conference aged sixteen. The “14 pints story” dogged his leadership for an entire Summer as Labour went in for the kill. 

As the 2001 election approached, the broader question was why Johnson would want to trade celebrity for politics

Boris Johnson’s approach to the new Britain was quite different. In the Telegraph, he regularly came into contact with the celebrity world for his “Monday Interview”.  He played golf with Chris Evans, almost came to blows with Frank Bruno and took apart the idea of  “lad culture” with the Loaded founder James Brown. He even struck up an unlikely friendship with the “blonde bombshell” Ulrika Johnson – who took him out dancing for a magazine feature. But rather than try and fit in with them, Johnson simply amplified the pomposity and his awkwardness. Often at his own comedic expense, he defined himself against them and their attitudes. 

The BBC understood this when they invited Johnson to attend Glastonbury with Billy Bragg in 2000. Johnson was set up as the joker for a particular television feature. He played along from the off by forgetting to get off his train: “I was in deep trance at an important leader in the Daily Telegraph”. Bragg and Michael Eavis ridiculed him for pronouncing the festival Glar-stonbury before he was placed in front of a group of nudists and given a temporary tattoo. But whereas Hague had bombed playing it seriously at Notting Hill, Johnson embraced the idea of being the Conservative outsider.

Later in the broadcast, he argued that Glastonbury’s ethos was the essence of Toryism, a “capitalist extravaganza”.  He said he felt “at home here. I feel these people represent a strong libertarian ideology. In fact I would say there are a lot of natural Tories here.” When he stumbled upon someone selling magic mushrooms, he joked that “This is capitalism, this is commerce! What you’re looking at is the triumph of right-wing ideology!” In an age where Liberal ideas appeared to be winning, Johnson’s antics were always taken with a pinch of salt. But his style also disarmed his rivals, as the on-screen chemistry between the pair showed. 

There was always a more serious political undertone to his persona. The more opportunities he had, the more he framed himself as an outsider. When he was replaced as a presenter on The Week In Westminster for being “too posh” he claimed the BBC was classist: “I pondered some protest on behalf of all the plummy-voiced yuppies, fogeys and buffers”. When he was ambushed on Have I Got News For You over the Darius Guppy tape he claimed the show was a complete fake. And when the Independent’s Andrew Marr was appointed political editor of the BBC, he was quick to point out that a Conservative commentator, such as himself, would never have been selected. 

With the Conservative Party at its lowest ebb, Johnson was already defying political gravity

As the 2001 election approached, the broader question was why Johnson would want to trade celebrity for politics. There was little doubt about which field held the most appeal in the early 00s. Austin Mitchell, who had made the same transition from journalism in the 1970s, argued that pundits were “the new Masters of the Universe” and nobody “in their right mind would swap one role for the other”. Johnson agreed that “politicians are at the very bottom in the pinnacle of public approval, so in my quest for popularity I am taking a step down”.  

Political “apathy” was the buzzword of the age. With the rise of the hit reality show Big Brother, there was increasing concern that more people had voted in the show than had participated in the European elections. Labour strategists raised doubts about the  “Royle Family” voters who would prefer to stay at home – like Jim Royle – than go out and vote. Campaigning in Henley, Johnson tuned in to the new mood. Handing out leaflets, he joked that they could “always throw it away later”. When just 59.4% of people turned out in the 2001 election, serious questions were asked about political participation. 

Perhaps then, the stage was set for a different type of politician. When Johnson had become editor of the Spectator in 1999, he had promised to define himself against the new world of professional communication. People “want something that will challenge and provoke them”. In one of his more revealing columns, Johnson pondered whether in the “age of entertainment”, with politicians “less and less important”, the public actually wanted to see ”a rounded politician –  chiaroscuro dark and light with a full and convincing set of vices”.  

In an election without many shocks, the media were inevitably drawn to his victory. Professor Anthony King spoke of his delight that a “genuine character” had entered the House of Commons that was becoming a “character free zone”. And with the Conservative Party at its lowest ebb, Johnson was already defying political gravity. He was singled out as on the “sane wing” of the Tories in the Independent while being tipped as a future Prime Minister in the Daily Mail.  At his count, Anna Ford asked him whether his  “liberal message” was more suited to the Labour Party.  On the contrary, he declared. “I think my electoral address was core Conservative values”. And with that, the Boris Johnson era of British Politics began.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover