From afar, Boris Johnson is the politician with the Midas touch – the vote-winning supremo, the crowd-pulling celebrity, the Teflon-coated populist uniquely capable of having his cake while eating it and then having a bun.
He gaffes and the people laugh; he offends and they indulge him; he promises to deliver undeliverables and they vote for him. That is why he is shaking the gates to Downing Street and looks set in three weeks to be the holder of its keys.
Yet an ever-growing group of people are immune to his appeal. For them contact with the blond bombshell was neither a pleasure nor a privilege. Many who have had to work closely with Johnson emerge from the experience disenchanted and at worst horrified by what they observed. As one former colleague puts it, “the closer you get to Johnson the less you like him”. Now some appear determined to stop his ascent to the top job.
Take Sir Alan Duncan, minister of state for Europe and the Americas, and Johnson’s deputy at the Foreign Office during his tenure of 2016 to 2018. He watched as foreign secretary Johnson rampaged around the world causing gratuitous offence and displaying an appalling lack of what Duncan calls the necessary “conventional diplomacy” to carry out his job. Johnson’s “very controversial” visits overseas – ill-judged and self-serving – had “quite a lot of consequences”, Duncan explained, and “did not for Britain necessarily win friends everywhere”.
Duncan was widely acknowledged as the man with the task of clearing up Johnson’s messes, or as his overseas leaders put it, act as the foreign secretary’s “pooper-scooper”.
As Duncan later explained, publicity has proved Johnson’s “cocaine” throughout his career. He is forever seeking a headline or self-advance – even on an official trip to Serbia he was found promoting his book on Winston Churchill, leading to angry questions in the Commons.
His remarks that Libya might rival Dubai as a holiday destination once the “dead bodies” were cleared away, made headlines across the world but undid in seconds countless hours of meticulous diplomacy. The consequences are felt by colleagues doing the real graft but also by the people Johnson has been elected to serve.
Johnson may not be dull, but according to Duncan he is “not deeply inquisitive” and others at the Foreign Office (his most senior and taxing position to date) were dismayed by his failure to read his briefs.
The glaring example was when Johnson informed a Commons select committee that the British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Tehran to teach journalism. These reckless words led to further charges and the extension of her prison sentence. It was another unedifying spectacle of Johnson flexing his fame with the bill picked up by others.
He also wrecked painstaking work to project Britain as an active participant in European affairs after Brexit and failed to turn up to important Foreign Office conferences (an ambassador at one such meeting was driven to tweet in exasperation “still waiting for our host”). He was even absent at the emergency meeting of Cobra to discuss the murder (by novichok poisoning) of a British woman by foreign agents on home soil. In so doing, he showed almost callous disregard for people’s suffering or his own officials’ efforts.
Time after time he failed to show courtesy or respect, consistency or purpose, in a great office of state that requires them all just to maintain national interests. When a major, if worthy, speech was required to set out Britain’s policy or strategy, he would duck the issue and write an attention-grabbing article in The Daily Telegraph.
By the time Johnson left the Foreign Office last summer after two years, there was intense relief at his departure on what became known internally as Liberation Day. The clean-up operation began in earnest.
A few months later, after another “shock and awful” outburst from Johnson comparing prime minister Theresa May to a suicide bomber, Duncan tweeted his exasperation in decidedly undiplomatic language: “This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics… but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern”
It was not the only insult Johnson had thrown at the embattled prime minister as she strove to trace a path through the Brexit morass. Indulged by her appointment of him in one of the three great offices of state, he repaid her trust by consistently mocking her in public, describing her customs partnership policy as crazy and her withdrawal agreement (negotiated during his time as foreign secretary) as a turd.
“His every utterance is calculated to damage her,” one minister complained.
If anyone was surprised at Johnson’s antics, they should not have been. David Cameron’s time in No 10 was similarly marred by Johnson’s obsessive attention-grabbing, whether pulling faces behind him while speaking to camera or by flamboyantly attacking Jamie Oliver during a party conference to divert the spotlight from his leader who had praised the chef’s campaign to improve school dinners.
Other politicians have endured his disloyalty in different forms in Johnson’s never-ending quest to come out on top. When he was London mayor in 2011 he weaponised a private conversation with fellow Tory MP Oliver Letwin (seen by Johnson as a supporter of his great rival Cameron) in which the Cabinet minister suggested he did not wish to see more people from Sheffield flying away on “cheap holidays”.
Within hours, the comments (which were, given Johnson’s form, no doubt taken out of context) were splashed all over the newspapers to great Cameroonian embarrassment. Johnson then declared himself “scandalised”, presenting himself as the champion of the Ryanair classes, if not the most discreet of colleagues.
It is not just fellow politicians who have been angered by Johnson’s disloyalty. Journalists who have worked with him complain of his frequent unexplained disappearances, selfishness over bylines, obsessive secrecy, constant pummelling for information and refusal to return the compliment, disregard of inconvenient truths and filing extraordinarily late, keeping others waiting without so much as a thought. He is known as a user of people.
“He used to infuriate colleagues in Brussels by persuading them to take pity on him, help him, and then find themselves completely outsmarted,” remembers Michael Binyon, then of The Times.
Just as he once left the Foreign Office (aka the taxpayer) to pick up the bar bill on an official trip to Iraq while he was mayor – although he claimed it was an administrative oversight – he would also claim poverty or some other excuse for not buying a round when a journalist.
Yet the size of his expenses claims from his newspaper employers were legendary. New recruits to the Brussels press corps in the early 1990s were nevertheless warned not to agree to his frequent requests for a £50 loan – as they would be unlikely to be repaid.
This week Johnson’s former Telegraph editor Max Hastings did his part to undermine the bid to become prime minister, writing in The Guardian: “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade… Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him.”
Yet somehow, the man who would be prime minister has survived years of letting down others, breaking promises and persistent unreliability.
Stuart Reid, his deputy when Johnson was editor at The Spectator in the early 2000s, once surmised that if Johnson had not been so much fun back then, such was the frustration with him “that he would be dead by now”. Will that playfulness protect him much longer?