May 31, 2020
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Newts In His Sandpaper Hair

The many-hued stratagems of the Tories’ brainy buffoon, Boris Johnson

Newts In His Sandpaper Hair
A Brexit mural in Bristol shows Boris Johnson kissing Donald Trump
Photograph by AP
Newts In His Sandpaper Hair

Bo-Jo, Blonde Bombshell, Buffoon, the Court Jester; only fitting for a man who wears so many masques to tote so many monikers. At times a maverick conservative, at others a dyed-in-blue product of middle England’s most middling middle. He’s of late become the right-wing Euro­sceptic Svengali—a rambunctiously art­iculate, scarecrow-haired, warm beer-swilling shaman of the middle-class heartlands, using his hypnotic corporate juju to try and bewitch Britain’s undead technocrats back from Brussels. His morphing into a figurehead for the Leave EU camp is seen as a nakedly self-serving attempt to mar­shal the more extreme wing of the Conservative party and emerge not only as the winner of the debate, but as the next leader of the party—something he has been threatening to do for the best part of a decade.

Boris’s rise has been intertwined with that of his old pal-­cum-rival Cameron since both were in high shorts.  First Eton, then Oxford, with Cameron a year or so behind him. Both became members of the notorious Bullingdon Club—in which a gaggle of blue-bloods ate and drank to excess and caused mayhem around the scholarly city.

Boris went on to become a journalist at the Times, London, before being dismissed when he, in his own words, “mildly sandpapered something someone said” into a story, in which he misquoted his own godfather. His career faltered along; his pri­vileged circles yielding new chances after every debacle. As Daily Telegra­ph’s man in Brussels, his then editor Max Hastings says, he “developed the persona which has become famous today, a facade resembling that of Wode­house’s Gussie Finknottle, allied to wit, charm, brilliance and startling flashes of instability”. His editorship of the famously irascible right-wing commentary rag Specta­tor was likened by a colleague to “putting a mentally defective monkey in charge of a Ming vase”.

Then love. And sex. Married at 23 to soc­iety girl Allegra Mostyn-Owen, and years later to childhood sweetheart Marina Whee­ler (four kids). Inter alia, an affair—a “pyramid of piffle” in his words—with a colleague at the Speccy, socialite Petronella Wyatt.

As an MP since 2001, his career seemed all about raising his profile. He ran for London mayor in ‘04, won, and again in ‘08—leading a global city gave him an audience no backbencher could dream of. TV, celebrity appea­rances poured in: the lovable buffoon trope was sealed, polished elegan­tly. Now he’s every Tory’s favourite inside-outsider.

By Saptarshi Ray in London

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