Boris Johnson was among the first people I met after moving to Brussels in June 1989 to “report Europe” for the Irish Independent.
Had anyone told me then that he was a future British prime minister, I would have summoned the men in the white coats. Yet, it turns out – after a dysfunctional three years at the top in British politics – my instincts were not that far out after all.
Boris Johnson has shown himself to be a great man to land a big job. The shame was and is that, even on a good day, he was very poor at doing it.
With his shock of blond hair and studied “young fogey” image of scuffed brogues, and permanently rumpled trousers and jacket, he certainly stood out from the crowd.
French was the language of the EU Commission press room and his staged attempts at it – despite a long stint at the European School in Brussels – sounded rather like Peter Sellers deliberately failing to impersonate a Frenchman on screen.
The name helped – as it did through his career – and he was known as Al at home. Once in those early months, on a slow train journey to Luxembourg, we sat together and he gave me a potted history of his career to date.
It was his second job in journalism – he got the door in jig time from his first post on the Times of London for being caught making up quotes. His second job in the Telegraph sent him straight to Brussels where he began again in March 1989.
It contrasted with my seven years of journalism by then, covering court, council, matches, and garden fetes, slowly learning the trade.
It was also a thumbnail sketch of the English class system in action: Boris Johnson, an old boy of Eton and Oxford, rightly believed the earth was his – and lo it was so.
Johnson started slowly in Brussels journalism and he was well received by senior people in the policy-guiding EU Commission who had worked with his father, Stanley Johnson, who had been a senior environment expert there. However, he was soon “spinning” anti-EU stories for the Europhobic Daily Telegraph, whose editor, Max Hastings, was a keen mentor to him.
By the time he left Brussels in 1993 to work in London journalism, and starting his slow march into politics with the Conservative Party, he was a notorious figure often for the wrong reasons, often to push the truth beyond what was reasonable. The then-Tory leader and prime minister, John Major, loathed him.
Johnson himself told a good mutual friend of ours that Major had written “not one of our people” beside his name on a list of prospective candidates.
But Major was consigned to history and Johnson’s rise is now a matter of well-documented history. He had some political successes amid some spectacular nadirs. But the broad trajectory went up and up – including two rather successful stints as directly elected mayor of London, a job suited to his eclectic personality.
He used Brexit ruthlessly to drive his career and come through as UK prime minister in place of the hapless Theresa May just short of three years ago on July 24, 2019. His term started on a high – helped by then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, he cobbled together a Brexit deal giving the North special trade status and won a huge majority of some 80 seats in a UK general election in December 2019.
In the aftermath of all of that, there was talk of “10 years of Boris Johnson”. But from then on things began to spin out of control, and finally totally out of control.
In contrast to his terms as London mayor – where he was credited with hiring competent people and giving them their head – he made some disastrous appointments.
Choosing Dominic Cummings as his chief of staff was particularly poorly judged and created a hatful of continuous problems as, after an acrimonious parting, Cummings followed with a mission to publicly settle scores which continued right up to this week.
Johnson’s behaviour on the Brexit deal, which he negotiated, signed and publicly lauded, has been a total disgrace.
He went from totally dismissing fears about Northern Ireland’s special trade status to suddenly embracing it and using it to justify flouting an international treaty.
The upshot is an impending trade war, alienation from his nearest neighbours in the EU, and very strained relations with the US. The sad part here is the potentially dire consequences for Ireland, north and south.
Boris Johnson’s end at the top in British politics came suddenly due to a cabinet revolt after a series of scandals which publicly showed he had a very halting grasp of the difference between right and wrong.
Thirty-plus years ago, as a journalist in Brussels, that trait was already on display.