Boris Johnson’s nightmare interview on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday morning is the kind of encounter that changes perceptions about a politician. Not perhaps in the court of public opinion – Sunday morning political TV is the preserve of the political anorak community – but here, such things matter.
Yesterday was an unmitigated disaster for the London Mayor, pricking the hubris of his pretensions to the Tory throne by exposing the limits of his carefully crafted buffoonery which usually helps him dodge the kind of basic scrutiny every other politician takes as par for the course.
Yesterday is the first time I can recall an interviewer not prepared to play Boris’s game. Stand-in presenter Eddie Mair is a highly effective inquisitor who never raises his voice and rarely cuts in. His questions were direct and persistently put; dredging up the less salubrious parts of the Johnson tale.
Mair asked Boris why he had lied to Michael Howard about an affair, got sacked as a junior reporter for The Times for fabricating a quote and discussed with his friend Darius Guppy, how he could obtain the address of a journalist Guppy wanted to assault.
“You’re a nasty piece of work aren’t you?” Mair chided.
The mechanics of yesterday’s encounter were also important. Boris’s usual way of handling interviews is to speak across the interviewer, refusing to engage with the questions put to him. He tries humour at first, but when this doesn’t work he drifts off at inarticulate tangents or falls back on his bumbling esoteric rhetoric until the interviewer runs out of time.
It didn’t work yesterday because he was snared in a lengthy fifteen minute interview with nowhere to hide. He was left sounding weak, evasive and oddly for an intelligent man, pretty dumb.
The look of shock on his face was because Boris usually benefits from being part of a cosy London club of politicians and journalists who think it bad form to give one of their own gang a hard time. That’s why the John Humprhies and Jeremy Paxmans can always be relied upon to give him the kid gloves treatment in interviews.
Dan Hodges at the Telegraph wrote yesterday that Boris should have told Mair to mind his own business when quizzed about his affair. Perhaps he should have, but Boris didn’t because the claims have been unchallenged in the public domain for so long they don’t appear to bear refutation.
But was it unfair to throw these questions at Johnson? Not in the context of an in-depth biographical documentary set for broadcast tonight it wasn’t. Boris argued that the BBC had already commissioned the programme ‘Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise’, so thought it better to join in.
Most other politicians would have remained apart from the whole thing, sensing the inherent danger of a forensic investigation by the veteran political sleuth Michael Cockerell. However Boris needs attention – adulation preferably – in the same way a fish needs water.
Yesterday he found himself flapping around on the hook, only too keen to have gobbled the bait of an agenda-setting Sunday morning interview where he must have known he would be asked about the documentary’s contents.
Over in the Downing Street bunker it wasn’t the sound of flapping so much as slapping as Cameroons high-fived each other, glad to see this 220lb man-mountain of human ambition taken down a peg.
Tory MPs looking for a new saviour will now keep looking.