In the early 2000s, I was strolling over a zebra crossing near Highbury Corner, in London, on my way home from work when I was almost hit by a bicycle. I immediately recognised the rider: it was Boris Johnson, and he was chatting away on his mobile phone while cycling right at me. Furiously I yelled at him, “Get off the phone, you Tory w**ker!” Usually, one thinks of a clever quip several hours later but even almost 20 years after the event I don’t think I can improve on my gut reaction; because that little incident epitomises the man. The rules don’t apply and no Dorothy Parker-esque witticism would have given him cause to stop and consider himself.
Fast-forward several months and the erstwhile MP for Henley appeared on the Orwell-inspired Room 101, at the time a popular BBC comedy show, presented back then by Paul Merton, in which a celebrity guest had to make the case for things they hated to be despatched through a trapdoor into eternal oblivion. What did Boris want to rid the world of? He told a story about a recent incident in which he was abused by a woman on a zebra crossing and that he wished to rid the world of people who shout at him when he’s cycling. As the full tale emerged the audience guffawed at his witty storytelling.
Mercifully for me, reason prevailed. The audience agreed that he should have been focusing on the road, not his phone. The woman’s anger was quite justified and she should not be consigned to perpetual doom in the Room 101 vault.
This article was originally conceived as a political obituary which I began jotting in preparation for rapid publication when Johnson is finally prised from office and sent packing. As I started to research a list of his many shameless political and personal acts it became apparent that there are just too many exhibits, and that rather than 20 volumes of career lowlights, it’s more interesting to look back and reflect via a single anecdote that this man has shown time and again who and what he is. The rules of the road don’t apply to him. Thou shalt not wrong Boris. If you make a funny story out of it, all will be well. And, of course, his great fear is to be disliked – a hopeless flaw in a politician.
I have never been one to hold a grudge but that personal encounter with Johnson rankles every time I hear his overpronounced Eton vowels on the radio. The repeated untruths about our economic success or the 40 ‘new’ hospitals, the feeble apology for ‘partygate’, the doubling-down on his smear of Keir Starmer. He cannot be wrong and it’s never his fault. One of my personal bugbears is people who cannot take proper responsibility.
My televisual brushes with Johnson continued when a friend and I went to a recording of Have I Got News For You a year or so later, something we had done several times before. Unusually, we were seated in a side row very close to Paul Merton and we spied a perfect opportunity to inveigle ourselves into the ‘green room’ for after-show drinks by using that Room 101 anecdote because, as you may have anticipated, the guest presenter was none other than the careless cyclist.
The evening’s recording went on and on and on, far longer than previous experiences, and then we had to sit through around 20 minutes of retakes of fluffed lines and failure to read the autocue. If Johnson chairs cabinet meetings this ineffectually, you get an insight into his government. When the producer finally declared a ‘wrap’, the bored panellists scarpered before I could tap Paul Merton for the chance to hobnob backstage.
I watched various Boris-fronted episodes again on YouTube by way of research for this article, and all were telling: bravura outings for Johnson the TV personality, utterly chaotic thanks to his total lack of control and his inability to discern a right answer from a wrong one. The despairing panellists laughed at him and joked about his potential to be PM, unaware of the monster they were helping to create. One episode included a round devoted to Blair-bashing, Johnson criticising the then-Prime Minister for lying, taking a gratis holiday villa and using too many soundbites, before laying into the BBC for unfairly representing the Tory party. He was clearly gobbling up those political lessons for future use.
I take pride in the fact Johnson tried to put me in Room 101; the impulse is entirely mutual. If his great fear is people shouting at him when he transgresses, he is surely living that personal hell now. Only carefully controlled appearances now keep him away from the anger of the public. Let us hope it is not too much longer before he disappears through the trapdoor into political oblivion and certainly before he makes Orwell’s dystopia a settled reality. I know I had the measure of him two decades ago as a self-serving egocentric. It is a shame for our country that it has taken so long for the scales finally to fall from the collective eyes.