Artillery Row

What might have been: an alternative Boris interview

Extreme wealth, Netflix fame, and a completed Shakespeare biography

Imagine a different Britain in 2022. Theresa May has limped on as PM with a small working majority after calling an election at the end of 2019 in a desperate, and partially successful, attempt to “get Brexit done.” Keir Starmer’s Labour party have been consistently ten points ahead in the polls for the past eighteen months. The media demand Mrs May’s resignation, and wistfully wonder if “the new Churchill” might yet step up. But, as Alexander Larman discovers, Boris Johnson is quite happy where he is, thanks. Or is he?

Arriving at the imposing Westminster Georgian townhouse that doubles up as Boris Johnson’s offices-cum-base of operations-cum home, I’m struck by an unusual feeling. For the past half-decade, Johnson has occupied a unique place in public consciousness. First, he successfully led the Leave side in the Brexit referendum of 2016, and then, his work apparently being done, duly stepped away from politics, saying that it was time for an “old warhorse” like him to spend more time with his other opportunities and projects. That he dramatically revealed, on the eve of the 2019 election, that he had, in fact, voted Remain “for personal reasons” did little to damage his public popularity. 

So far, these extra-curricular activities have encompassed a bestselling book on Shakespeare, The Riddle of Genius, a critically ridiculed memoir, Boris, and now a new Netflix series, which, the publicity bumph assures me, “will delve into the mind and soul of one of Britain’s most fascinating public figures like never before.”

He is rumoured to be paid well over £1 million per year by the Daily Telegraph for his weekly column, and the Netflix deal was said to have netted him “a very substantial seven figure sum.” He is wealthy beyond most people’s wildest dreams; hence the townhouse. But has it brought him happiness? 

Johnson then submits to interrogation, with all the openness and willingness of a Cold War spy

I spend the first twenty minutes of our allotted hour waiting in a grand drawing room, as young, blonde-haired PR girls, all of whom seem to bear the same coquettish expression of complicity whenever they refer to “Alex”, keep telling me that “Boris is on his way”, and that “he won’t be a minute.” Just as I am about to enquire as to why it’s taken him all this time to descend the staircase from his private quarters where he lives with his third wife, the 26-year old singer-songwriter and model Dua Lipa, there is a great clatter and then, tousle-haired and wild of eye, the man who could have been king stumbles into the room. He points in my direction, and shouts “Aha! There he is!” I look behind me, half expecting to see some interloper. But, no, it is me who Johnson is — apparently — pleased to see.

We gossip inanely for a moment, while cups of tea are brought. Johnson has clearly been briefed — “The Critic, eh? A fine, fine magazine” — and mentions that we have two mutual friends. Unfortunately, one of them died a decade before, but it seems churlish to blame him for his fact-checker’s ineptitude. And then two cups of Lapsang Souchong are brought in, along with some crummy-looking Jammie Dodgers, (“Crikey! Down the hatch!”) Johnson then submits to interrogation, with all the openness and willingness of a Cold War spy. 

He refuses to answer any question about his time in politics, or his support for Brexit, or what he thinks of Theresa May’s handling of the current situation. He alternately refers me to his Daily Telegraph column (“I honestly can’t improve on what I wrote there, you know’), quotes Shakespeare accurately but irrelevantly, or compares himself to a range of historical figures including Alexander the Great, Plato, Aristophanes, Beethoven and the “cheeky chappie” comedian Max Miller.

What is marriage to Dua Lipa like?

He claims to be hungover, as he waves away any attempts to discuss any issues that are even vaguely important. He uses my first name constantly. “Can’t you see, Alex, that you’re giving me the old third degree with the capability of a Chinese water torturer — which I accept is very much your job on behalf of the good readers of The Critic — but it is also my god-given right as a true-born Englishman not to answer them?” That he was, famously, born in America is not alluded to. If this is what the Netflix series is going to be like, I can foresee the share price falling even more rapidly than his trousers. 

In despair, I resort to asking him various quickfire yes or no questions, in the hope he will be less evasive. Does he believe that lockdown was necessary? (In countless Telegraph columns, he wrote emotively about how “we were kept in Samson-like bondage, in the darkness of our homes, whether they be mansions or hovels, and it was time for Mrs May to show some divine mercy and fling a little light on our predicament”, or similar words to that effect.) A great grin comes over his face. “All things can be necessary, Alex, but it depends whether they’re wise or not.” Does he now regret backing Brexit? The grin stays. “I believe that Brexit offers many opportunities, whether or not the government has the good sense to take them is another matter.” Why did he vote for Remain? “I don’t believe that my personal actions in the sanctity of the ballot box five and a half years ago are of any particular interest to your good readers.” I am tempted to respond that he chose to divulge this information to the millions of readers of his Telegraph column, but refrain. 

Any attempt to ask him about his personal life is met with benign stonewalling. What is marriage to Dua Lipa like? “Wonderful, wonderful. Such an inspirational woman.” And how does he feel about the recent revelations of his fourth illegitimate child? “Alex, you and I both know that the papers will print any old codswallop and bunkum and balderdash if it sells copies. I sit at home and benignly take no notice of such piles of piffle.” Is it a relief not to have any financial worries any more? He smiles with what seems genuine happiness at this point, but then obfuscates again. “I lost my debit card the other day, and it was a dickens of a job to convince the bank that I was who I said I was. Perhaps nobody recognises me any more!” Given that he is one of the most famous — or infamous — men in Britain, I smile politely and do not dignify this obvious falsehood with an answer.

“I have nightmares about it sometimes. Global pandemics; a third world war”

One of the blondes re-enters. “Five minutes.” As we still have fifteen on the clock, I have been conned out of half an hour, but Johnson seems delighted by this premature end to his inqusition. “Give me your best shot then, sir, I implore you!” In desperation, I ask the most obvious, prosaic question that I can think of. “You’re often cited as “the best Prime Minister that Britain never had.” Do you have any regrets about leaving politics?” 

Somewhat to my surprise, he doesn’t laugh it off, but instead looks pensive, for the first time in our meeting. “There’s a divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. I have the awful feeling, Alex, that if I had been Prime Minister, that something would have gone very, very badly wrong indeed. I have nightmares about it sometimes. A third world war; police investigations of No 10; opinion poll ratings going through the floor. I awake fearing I will be smothered by colleagues thrusting cakes at me  — bizarre stuff. It would have been, to coin a phrase, a very, very bad business.” 

He stands up, extends a hand and looks me in the eye. “That’s not to say that I haven’t played the old “I wonder if…” game. Of course I have. But I think it’s fair to say, given everything, that things have turned out rather better than they would have done otherwise.” And with that, the great survivor marches out of the room, waving a cheerful hand, as if he’d just seen an old chum for a catch-up. “And tell your editor I say hi, and that I don’t bear him any ill will about that disgraceful hatchet job on me!” 

Which one, I want to say. But Alexander “Boris’ Johnson has disappeared, leaving nothing but Jammie Dodger crumbs, an undrunk cup of tea and a Cheshire Cat grin in his wake.

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