I know thee not, old bean
Boris Johnson escapes traps set for him by his arch-nemesis, Boris Johnson
“You have … six kids?” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie was trying to get some light chit-chat out of Boris Johnson at the end of their interview in New York, and might not have realised what a delicate area she had wandered into. The prime minister paused for a moment, perhaps trying to remember precisely what had been admitted in court. “Yes,” he said, finally.
It was noteworthy as the first time Johnson has confirmed a number on the record. Let’s not quibble about how accurate it is. It’s enough to have an answer at all. If it turns out not to cover everything, he can tell us something different next time.
People bringing up inconvenient bits of the past has been something of a theme of Johnson’s visit to America. He’s there to talk about climate change, something he has cared deeply about for several months, and there are all these questions about dismissive things he said in 2015 (or, as Johnson put it, “20 years ago”). “The facts change and people change their minds,” the prime minister explained, without getting into the detail of which facts, precisely, have changed in the last six years.
As ever, Boris Johnson is being forced to escape traps set for him by his arch-nemesis, Boris Johnson. For years, observing him has been like watching a skier trying to outrun an avalanche they have started. At times, it has seemed to engulf him, as he is caught red-handed in some betrayal or deceit, but then always, just as it seems he is done for, out he speeds, once again ahead of the cloud of snow and ice, once again free and clear but with no time to slow or take a breath as the race against the consequences of his actions continues.
Were you under the impression that one of the big prizes of Brexit was a US trade deal? Turns out it’s a long way off, and not as important as all that. Did you think Northern Ireland would be leaving the EU with the rest of the UK? Not just yet, but don’t worry, the Dutch prime minister wants to mediate. Or perhaps he doesn’t. Don’t know where people got that idea from.
Observing him has been like watching a skier trying to outrun an avalanche they have started
Were the people who received an invitation to dinner with the prime minister at Chequers under the impression that Boris Johnson was going to be present? Tough luck. Once it became clear that Theresa May was the only former prime minister who was going to turn up, the dinner had become an embarrassment, and off, we’re told, Johnson toddled, leaving the guests to fend for themselves.
The guiding rule for Johnson has always been to say whatever is convenient in the moment. There was surprise expressed last week when the prime minister dumped Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick, who had displayed toadyish levels of loyalty to him. But they had become inconveniences, slowing him down. You can’t carry passengers when you’re escaping an avalanche. It is true that Johnson values loyalty, but only in other people.
So let it be with Donald Trump. “People here perceive you as two peas in a pod,” Guthrie observed. Johnson was dismissive: “It is the job of any Prime Minister of the UK to have a good relationship with the President of the United States.” I know thee not, old bean. Joe Biden is “a breath of fresh air”. Poor Donald, sitting at Mar-a-Lago, wondering why “Britain Trump” never returns his calls.
And speaking of people whose calls don’t get returned, back in Britain the pole-dancing tech entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri, was giving evidence about Johnson’s trade trips when he was London Mayor. She was an avalanche all of her own, the words pouring out and quite overwhelming the London Assembly members who were supposed to be questioning her. By her account the centre of London’s tech scene in the last decade was her flat in Shoreditch, where pub crawls ended every Friday night with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg passed out on her sofa while Elon Musk cavorted on her pole (the Sketch may have imagined some of that).
She didn’t want to discuss her relationship with Johnson, she said, except to add that “everyone could see the dramatic difference in this man when I entered the room”.
There was a dramatic difference too between his approach to the NBC interview, for which he allowed Guthrie to speak almost as much as he did, and his interviews with British outlets. These were far more combative, with the reporters constantly interrupting his long lists of high-speed talking points to bring him back to the questions. But then the questions were, if less personal, of more direct interest to British voters.
“I don’t think people will be short of food,” he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. “Christmas is on,” he told Sky’s Beth Rigby.
Could he guarantee the lights will stay on? “Yes, yes I can.” There you are: Christmas confirmed and lighting guaranteed by Boris Johnson. You can put that in your gas meter, and see what happens.
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