Boris will be Boris … again
How to end up a happy ex-prime minister
When I was starting out in newspapers in the 1990s, I used to say that my career ambition was to be an ex-editor. It seemed to me that the people who had the very best of Fleet Street were the ones who’d once run the place then stepped down or — more often — been given the push. Accustomed to passing authoritative judgement on the events of the day, the ex-ed crew could hold forth as columnists and authors. The grandest collected glittering prizes: Oxbridge masterships and seats in the Lords. The pay-off cheques were nice too.
The point was that former editors had made their bones. It didn’t really matter whether they’d run their paper well or badly. They’d done a job that few others had. They had standing, the right to speak, and be heard — because of what they used to do. Boris Johnson understands this very well, and not just because he technically qualifies for the ex-editor title, having — nominally, at least — run the Spectator. It’s one of the reasons he’ll be a very good, and happy, ex-prime minister.
This column isn’t an attempt to predict either when or how Johnson will become our former PM. I’m more interested in what he’ll do when he joins Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and May in the most exclusive and difficult club in politics. And my money is on him having a fine old time.
The final years of my time in newspapers were spent on the comment desk of the Daily Telegraph, where the worst days were the ones where both Boris and Charles Moore were filing columns. That meant negotiating with both about the topics they’d write about, usually with the requirement that they cover different issues, since readers crave variety and editors abhor duplication.
Unlike some, I generally found Boris a fairly reliable columnist, usually making contact mid-morning for a chat about ideas, before filing in decent time. In those mid-morning chats, often before volunteering his ideas for the column, he’d be keen to know: “What’s Charles writing about?”
Answering this question candidly was a bad idea. The Baron Moore of Etchingham in the County of East Sussex is a punctilious columnist who calls early in the morning to propose his thesis for the day, which is, quite naturally, often about the biggest story of the moment. And as an ex-editor, his suggested topic would, in most circumstances, be accepted nem con.
Except if someone on the comment desk was daft enough to blab to Boris about that topic. In which case, the Johnsonian nostrils would fill with the musky scent of prey: “Ah. Um. I see. You know, that’s exactly what I was going to write about. Do you, ah, think you could ask Charles to do something else?”
Did Boris change — or simply invent — his plans for what to write about purely to snaffle a topic from his colleague and ex-editor? I can offer no answer, though I will say I never took this sort of behaviour as indicating any animus towards Moore, whom Boris did after all make a peer.
Instead, I think that Borisonian demand for first pickings from the news agenda says something about him, as a journalist, politician and, in due course, a former politician. He wants and needs to have his say, and he fully expects that he will be heard, and heard first.
He also knows extremely well how to play the game and work the machinery of the media. People need and want things to talk about, and he is very good at providing them. Johnson is sometimes lazily described as “gaffe-prone”, but most of his “gaffes” are perfectly deliberate, words carefully gauged to catch attention and put him where he wants to be, at the top of the agenda.
Cameron has meandered, aimless and shameless, since running away from the mess he made in office
Why should anything change when the inevitable day comes and he’s turfed out of Number 10? Even members of his team at Number 10 privately despair that he often approaches the business of government with the sensibilities of a journalist looking for headlines: some complain that meetings are not so much “how are we are going to change the country today?” as “what’s the line on that story, then?” Freed of that burdensome governing malarkey, his natural urge will be to return home to roost in the upper reaches of the commentariat.
There, his status as ex-prime minister will give him standing nonpareil. Name your subject, the words of the former leader of a nuclear-armed G7 State will carry some weight, or least some interest.
Remember: after Johnson was binned as May’s foreign secretary, he didn’t miss a beat before returning to the Telegraph as a columnist, and not just because he had (very considerable) bills to pay. It’s what he knows, what he is. What he’ll be even after he’s done being prime minister.
The others who have done and left that job have all since struggled in their different ways.
David Cameron has meandered, aimless and shameless, since running away from the mess he made in office. Did he sell himself and his contacts book to a dodgy Australian financier because he wanted to be even richer but couldn’t be arsed to work for it? Or just because it was a way to kill a few of those long, dead hours between lunch and dinner when your chums can’t play tennis because they have actual jobs and actual lives? The dreadful emptiness of Dave’s post-premiership shouldn’t surprise: he had no purpose in the job, so he’s hardly likely to develop one now he’s out of it.
Still, Cameron can take hope from John Major, who proves that if you wait long enough, some people will forget how abject your premiership was and just assume that someone who did the top job must be worth listening to.
Gordon Brown was mostly miserable in Downing Street, and has never been mistaken for a ray of sunshine since leaving. He still beavers away at pamphlets and papers, perhaps hoping to recapture those days of 2007 and 2008 when he could make a decent claim to have saved the world from a far worse financial crisis. But he’ll never silence the voices that whisper: what if you hadn’t blown it all in 2010?
Tony Blair is hardly troubled by doubt: he never lost a general election, after all. Yet even he took time — and a lot of questionable money — before finding his feet as former PM, most recently setting the pace on pandemic policy and offering good political advice that Keir Starmer just isn’t Blair enough to take. And for all Call-Me-Tony’s professions of silver-haired contentment, you just know he’d be back in No 10 in a heartbeat if he was offered the job again.
Arguably it’s the least distinguished PM who has made the best fist of the post-premiership. It’s always hard to say if she enjoys anything at all in life, but sitting stony-faced on the backbenches, Theresa May radiates a certain, limited contentment. Unlike all the others who quit the place, by staying in the Commons, May ensured she had something to go back to after Number 10; a role and some purpose.
Boris Johnson has something to go back to too, a role that’s bigger than even the biggest job in British politics: his own. He has always been his own purpose. He was “Boris” before he was PM and he’ll be “Boris” afterwards too.
Only this time the fees will — by necessity — be higher, the advances more extravagant and the audiences bigger. I suspect a man who backs himself to knock out biographies of Churchill and Shakespeare will have noted with interest Barack Obama’s evolution into a global media star.
Of course, some people will boo and snark about his failure and duplicity in office, but like all good hacks, Johnson will shrug off criticism as inevitable, and fleeting.
Tomorrow will always come around, and it must have fresh headlines, new things to talk about. And Boris Johnson, once a prime minister, will be quite happy to keep them talking.
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