Just how cunning is Boris Johnson? In his new book The Churchill Factor he doesn’t actually compare himself to Winston. That’s left to the reader. Here’s his description of traits shared by Churchill and Disraeli: “the journalism, the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes, the sense of history… the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportun- ism”. Remind you of anyone?
“Well, that’s very kind of you to say so!” says Boris.
This is a rollicking tale of a political maverick, a hack reporter and popular wit, a maker of often reckless blunders, who was believed untrustworthy and lacking gravitas until, as Prime Minister, he rose to reveal his unsurpassable greatness. Isn’t this just an elegant wind-up for David Cameron?
Boris sniggers, paws his head and makes the posh, bass rumble he employs to fill the air while evading a question. Which he does often; he is the slipperiest of interviewees. “No, it’s not, it’s not. No… I think my experience of books is that they’re politically neutral at best.”
Still there are chapters on the Middle East and Europe, all refracted through the prism of Churchill, but nonetheless highlighting Boris’s own views. Isn’t this a covert manifesto for a future leadership bid? “No.” More deep rumbling. “No, I absolutely swear it isn’t. I know this is what people will write. I know that if I were reviewing it that is exactly the direction I would go in. I would say: ‘Here are all the superficial, absurd points of comparison that this buffoon wants us to draw out, and here’s why it’s nonsense.’ ”
Anyway, Boris insists, the book wasn’t his idea; he was invited by the Churchill Estate to commemorate next year’s 50th anniversary of Winston’s death. “I’d written another essay about Churchill, 10,000 words somewhere, which was widely neglected. I think they wanted Stephen Fry originally. But it happens that I am genuinely obsessed. I think there’s no politican living or dead who can be remotely compared to him.”
He describes Churchill’s working routine with admiration and awe: drink a dilution of whisky from breakfast, toil all day in high ministerial office, enjoy a hearty dinner with claret and cognac, then at 10pm sit down to knock off 2,000 words of his latest book.
“I mean, what was he on? How did he do it? He was incredible. I was trying to think of somebody in our profession that could do that still. Jeff Bernard [the late Spectator columnist and epic soak] could. I mean, I can drink an awful lot at lunch and then write very fluently and fast. But if I drink at dinner, it just peters off.”
The book prompts the question, how did Boris – mayor of London, Telegraph columnist and, as we meet, prospective Tory candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip – have time to churn out 350 pages? But it also contains the answer: if Churchill multi-tasked like mad, why not Boris?
Is he frustrated by the modern notion that a politician should do nothing but graft 24/7 at his post? “I have often used Churchill, and indeed Disraeli, as justifications for the way I do things,” he says. “I asked Hugo Young [the late, august Guardian columnist] about this, and he said, ‘It’s all nonsense; politicians also should write.’ ”
Boris is fond of quoting Dr Johnson on how “no man but a blockhead” would write for free and earns a reputed £250K for his Telegraph gig.
He tells me he just delivered a 5,000-word speech on Periclean London “to about 13 somnolent right-wing bankers”. Was he paid? “Um, not so far, no.” Will he be paid? “Um, it is possible.”
He certainly admires Churchill’s financial wheeler-dealing. “The best thing,” he says with relish, “was Churchill got an advance of £20,000, when he was Chancellor. You’d have thought he had to be responsible and show that he cared about the public purse and setting a good example to taxpayers of this country. But he got some brilliant accountant to deem that since he had become a politician, any literary earning ceased to be income. That it was capital gains. And he didn’t pay any tax!”
But, he says, Churchill also needed to write. Does Boris? “Absolutely.” I ask when he found time. “Very early in the morning. Crack of dawn. Before sun up. While most people were still in a blameless slumber. In the still watches of the night…” He is blithe about the effort, but later admits how much he cared – “it felt almost sacrilegious to get something wrong” – and when I remark the book was better than I’d expected, he says with feeling: “I want you to know, I almost killed myself writing it.”
Why do it then? Does he, like Churchill, find relentless activity beats back depression’s Black Dog? Is he able to sit and simply do nothing? “No,” he says. “And what is the origin of all this? It is most interesting. The infantile desire for praise and approbation probably. Something in our first four or five years conditions us.”
His siblings – Leo, an environmental entrepreneur, Rachel, a writer and Jo, a Tory MP – are notoriously competitive. But what drives Boris so hard? “I get out of bed and I know exactly what I need to do. To bash on with about a dozen things I’m trying to make happen. You know, pushing, which I quite enjoy. I had no ball co-ordination at all, but I was very good at rugby, in that I could go in very hard and then sort of grind away. Sort of crud my way forward. That I can do.” Is that how you get through life? “Yes.”
His family call the era after he was sacked by Michael Howard for lying about his affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt, Boris’s Wilderness Years. Although he is Britain’s most popular politician, his reputation in Westminster was flakey. If elected again, will he be a different MP?
“I don’t want to sound too defensive about it,” he says, sounding defensive, “but this is complete nonsense. We were in opposition when Blair was absolutely at the height of his game. I did have a variety of shadow ministerial posts, and one of them at least, I think, I did pretty well…”
He becomes abruptly serious: “I think probably it’s true that I have changed as a politician, yes. The experience of running London for six or seven years has shown me what you have to do to get things done, and the energy and the application you have to put into it.” What will his London legacy be now that his Thames estuary airport idea has been canned? More bikes, he says, buses, the Garden Bridge, the Tube extension, the Olympic development. “And more than these physical things, in 2008, people were saying London was going to lose its place in the world. It was Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai, Bye-bye, or something. And that’s not what people are saying today.”
So why has he not harnessed his popularlity to save the Tories from probable Ukip defeat by standing in Clacton. Didn’t Churchill believe in fighting on the beaches? At this Boris claps his hands and guffaws, exposing his snaggly teeth.
“Yes, but don’t forget,” he says, “he was also going to fight them in the streets. And in the hills. And in the landing grounds…”
Unlike Blair, Cameron or Ed Miliband, Boris has never felt compelled to let the public into his family life. Perhaps he is being protective or maybe he knows his persona is large and abundantly human, without having to prove he makes his kids’ breakfast. Boris’s wife Marina, a barrister and mother of their four children, is described by friends as a saint. In his descriptions of Chartwell, with Churchill supervising a gazillion projects and a hurlyburly of staff, dictating books and articles, painting, building walls and pig keeping, I reflect that you can only be a Great Man if domestic matters are shouldered by a great woman. What does Boris contribute to the running of Johnson Towers? “You’d better ask higher authorities,” he says. He can cook, he tells me reluctantly “although it is not actively encouraged… fish pie, spag bol, and I make a lot of jam. Damson.”
But when I push him, try to get a picture of his off-duty self he gets, for the first time, fractious. “I like pottering around at home and doing stuff.” Like what? “Very bad paintings.” (His mother Charlotte Johnson Wahl, is an artist.) But what about domestic matters? “Would I be any good with the washing up?” he asks tetchily. “Did I do the nappies? Yes. Gosh, I don’t want to go into all this.” OK, what kind of father are you? He looks aghast. “Avoid! Swerve!” he cries like a malfunctioning robot. “Swerve, swerve, swerve…”
In his book he remarks of Churchill, whose father died of syphilis and mother had many torrid romances, that this example had chastened him. Winston and Clementine, he argues, were largely faithful. Unlike his parents, Churchill wasn’t, in Muriel Spark’s phrase, “famous for sex”.
But you are, Boris, with your several noted extra-marital affairs. Will this matter if you want to be PM? Serious Boris is back. “I fought two quite heavy-duty elections, which had quite a bit of national scrutiny,” he says, “and I genuinely think that what people are interested in is how you are going to build more homes in London, fight crime, bridge the gap between rich and poor. Do you have a vision for society? Those things are a million times more important.”
Boris is 50, an age at which Churchill was Chancellor, having been a war hero, the most successful journalist of his age and an MP for 23 years. “When you study the life of a person, it’s only human to think, ‘Could I compete with him in any respect?’” What about as a journalist? “No!” A painter? “He did 539 large oil canvasses. A huge amount of work.” What about in a fight? “Well,” reflects Boris, “Churchill was only 5ft 6, with a 31in chest. But he probably killed more people, you know, from developing countries than any prime minister in history.
The guy would be lethal.”
This is an edited version of the interview with Boris Johnson available in the new issue of Radio Times magazine out now. The interview is also in this week’s newsstand editon for iPad and iPhone.