LONDON — It’s shortly after midday and Playbook is in the pub with Boris Johnson, just as news breaks that Kim Darroch has resigned. To his credit the man who, barring a miracle, will shortly be confirmed as Britain’s next prime minister still has a pint at the ready. He waggles a finger at one of his aides to get me a drink. “I’m not having a pint if Blanchard’s not having one,” Johnson says good-naturedly.
The pub is the Metropolitan Bar by Baker Street station, and Boris is here as part of his campaign tour to meet Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin — a fellow veteran of the Vote Leave campaign. When did Johnson last have a pint at lunchtime, I wonder? “More recently than you’d think,” he chortles into his glass. “Don’t put that in.” He drinks half and leaves the rest.
Booze meets news: The interview was meant to be focused on beer and Brexit. But just as we’re sitting down, the dramatic news breaks that Kim Darroch has resigned as British ambassador to Washington. Johnson gives a hurried statement to the BBC team recording the visit, praising Darroch’s record and condemning the leaker who brought him down. It’s a fresh crisis for his campaign team, and as the afternoon pans out he will be blamed by his opponents for failing to back Darroch to the hilt in the previous night’s TV debate. But Boris is unfazed, and in no mood to back down. He defends his approach to the crisis when we discuss it at length, and even voices support for Donald Trump’s aggressive tweets. More of that in a moment.
First things first: First we talk pubs, obviously. Along with Nigel Farage, Johnson frequently tops polls of politicians people would most like to go for a pint with. Given his celebrity status — not to mention the enormous security detail standing by the door — can he actually still go to a pub if he wants to? “Oh yes,” Boris says, clunking down his pint. “There are times when you can basically get away and do your own thing.” Does he have a favorite pub in London? Boris doesn’t exactly strike me as a Wetherspoons kind of guy. “That’s a bloody good question. The pub in London where I’ve spent the happiest, longest …” Johnson trails off wistfully. “There’s a wonderful pub right next to the Spectator. I’m going to get its bloody name wrong — it’s something like the Duchess of York or the Duke of York. It might be the Duke of York. (It might also be the Two Chairmen or the Westminster Arms.) “We used to go round and have lock-ins there when I was editor of the Spectator. Because that was a job which was eminently compatible with drinking a pint at lunchtime. It was essential.”
Weighting game: Johnson says he’s enjoyed a long and happy relationship with alcohol, and rues the six weeks he gave up drinking last year. His chief complaint while sober was dealing with other drinkers, and “how long it takes people to get to the point of their jokes” after a few glasses. I wonder if it at least helped him shed a few pounds? Not enough, apparently. “I’ve got to lose weight,” he says. “I need to get back on the treadmill … My bike is now a pathetic object propped up against the railings of Portcullis House.” Being prime minister is not going to help, I suggest. “Well, we’re not measuring the curtains or discussing the …” An aide interrupts the well-rehearsed line, handing me a pint of lager in a continental-style glass. Boris is not impressed. “That’s not a pint. Is it? Oh it is. Well, cheers.”
Beer or wine? “I’m a wine man really,” he says. Can he recommend me a good bottle? “Yes I can,” he says instantly, bubbling with enthusiasm. “It’s called … erm …” He stops. “Erm … ahh… Oh god. Wait a mo, wait a mo, wait a mo, wait a mo, wait a mo. It’s absolutely amazing. Bugger bugger bugger. It’s gone completely out of my head. It’s Italian. Wait — I’m going to find it for you.” Johnson pulls out his iPhone and hunts manically on Google. “It’s not Tempranillo. But it’s some word that ends in ‘illo.’ Hang on. Not pillow, brillo. Hang on, hang on. Wait a mo. It is absolutely delicious.”
Fit for a princess: The answer, when it comes, is not focus-group approved. “Someone was trying to … Someone bought me a crate of it, and I had no idea how expensive it was, and I was just, you know, glugging it back.” He stops. “Erm, I should be careful what I say.” “Drinking moderately?” an aide suggests helpfully. “Drinking it moderately,” Boris nods. “And it turned out that it’s literally £180 a bottle. It’s extraordinary stuff. But I mean it was delicious.” The wine in question, he says, is called Tignanello, a favorite of the Duchess of Sussex. “I discovered later that it was the favorite wine of Meghan Markle,” Johnson says excitedly. “I discovered it by Googling. I was so amazed by this wine, I thought — what is this stuff? And it said it was Meghan Markle’s favorite.” The venn diagram of things popular among both Boris Johnson and Meghan Markle must be quite small, I suggest. “Yes,” he chuckles. “I don’t know what conclusions you can draw from that.”
Sin tax error? Johnson has no plans to reduce alcohol duties, however. “I think I’ve made enough tax-cutting pledges in the last few days,” he says, a little wearily. The look on his face makes you wonder if the £3,000 tax cut for high-earners — heavily criticized by Jeremy Hunt in Tuesday night’s leadership debate — has landed quite as he had hoped.
Un-populism: By now, other punters in the pub have clocked who’s in here. One shouts an excited hello as he walks past, another collars Boris after the interview for a jovial chat. But I wonder if the public reaction in this Remain-voting city is always so rosy. I vividly recall watching a crowd of drinkers outside the Red Lion shouting abuse at Johnson as he cycled out of parliament, midway through the 2016 referendum campaign. Johnson is philosophical about the reactions he inspires. “It’s got better,” he insists. “London, interestingly, has got better. You’ve got to remember about political popularity and unpopularity, they’re both — as I think someone like Rudyard Kipling once pointed out — equally specious. Popularity is as unearned and undeserved as unpopularity, in the end. What you are doing is standing up for a certain set of views or ideas, and those will be unpopular with one lot at one moment, and then you’ll win people over.”
Unity candidate: Johnson clearly believes he can still be a popular prime minister, despite the extreme reaction he triggers in, ooh, about 48 percent of the population. He recalls the negative response when he launched his run for London mayor in 2008, and how it switched over the course of the campaign. “People were really quite nasty to me in the street,” he says. “And then that all changed. It goes up and down.” I tell him all the polling shows he is now both extremely popular and extremely unpopular at the same time. He starts to laugh heartily. “That’s, erm, that’s probably true of most relationships,” he says, presumably talking about his own. “That’s how human beings often relate to each other.”
Welcome to Brussels: There are places where Johnson is definitely not wildly popular. Brussels, for example; plenty of other EU27 capitals, too. Yet Johnson has made renegotiating Theresa May’s Brexit deal the central platform of his Brexit plan. Why on earth does he think EU leaders will bend further for him than they did for May — a woman they actually quite like and respect? “For several important reasons,” he says. “First of all, politics has changed since 2016. They know Britain has to come out now, they know we are serious about no deal. They know they have now got 29 Brexit MEPs in the European Parliament — I’m not certain they want to have Ann Widdecombe lecturing them about their deficiencies. They have the incentive of the £39 billion [divorce bill payment].
And there’s more: “They also have a government in London which is willing to think very differently. Don’t forget the backstop was very much a construct that proceeded from the brains of the Treasury and those who fundamentally wanted to keep us in the customs union and in the single market. That was its intellectual origin. I approach this from a very different perspective — a much more open-minded view of how we can come out. I don’t think we need to be lashed to these institutions in the way that Theresa’s government did.”
From Russia with love: I start to ask another question, but Johnson is piqued by the idea he is disliked in Brussels. “I love Brussels!” he interrupts. “And all these people in Brussels who say …” He pauses. “It’s not true. I had great friends in Brussels, I had great relations with people around the table at the European Council.” I point out the various quotes from senior figures angry at his 2016 referendum campaign. “Well, lots of people slag me off — but look at all the deals we did with them,” he says. “To get 153 Russian spies expelled — the French, the Germans, the Italians all came to the table. And that was a big thing to ask. For a country that’s leaving the EU, asking them to incur the wrath of the Kremlin is a big thing to ask, and they did it. And they knew I had been specifically charged with doing it. If they really had something against me … I had to spend hours on the phone to all of them, and we got it done.”
The grand tour: Johnson will not confirm he is planning a tour of European capitals in the first weeks of his premiership — though you’d think some whistle-stop diplomacy must surely be on the cards. “I don’t want to raise expectations about how we do it,” he says. “We will be very humble and very, very firm. Whether that means doing another great tour, I don’t … We will work out our position and if I’m lucky enough to be elected we will offer them a great deal, and we’ll get ready for no deal.” No-deal preparations, he adds, will start in earnest on day one of his premiership.
So what’s his message to EU leaders? “The United Kingdom is passionately pro-European, but we do not seek continued membership of the EU institutions and we want to leave,” he says. “We want to devise a new partnership based on friendship and intensified bilateral relations with Germany, with France. In some ways I think the bilateral relations have been hollowed out because everything is done through Brussels. Let’s rebuild those partnerships, let’s be much more positive about it.”
Now let’s get serious: We get onto the meat of the interview. Why did he not voice more support for Kim Darroch in Tuesday night’s TV debate? “No, I did,” Johnson protests. “I said I believe very strongly that civil servants should not have their views leaked.” But you didn’t say you’d keep him in his job, I tell him. “No, but I think it’s totally, totally wrong to drag the career prospects of a civil servant into a political debate,” Johnson says. But maybe people want to see a leader sticking up for their own side? “I made it very clear that under no circumstances would anybody else take a decision about who is going to represent the U.K. I was absolutely categorical about that. And for the record I am a long-standing admirer of Kim Darroch. And I say furthermore that if Donald Trump can make friends with Kim Jong Un, then he can make friends with Kim Dar-roch.”
Kindred spirits: I move onto Trump’s extraordinary tweets about Theresa May, which Johnson has also failed to condemn. “Well, I haven’t actually studied them,” Johnson says. I am incredulous — but Johnson insists he does not follow Trump’s utterings on Twitter. “The honest truth is I am not a great Twitter person,” he confides, quietly. Then he suddenly springs into life. “What did he say? Tell me what he said! Come on, what’s the worst thing he said?” Caught off guard, I get my phone out and start to hunt for the offending tweets. He, erm, he said her Brexit deal was a disaster, I venture, stalling for time as I scroll through my phone. Johnson chortles: “Well, I can’t dissent from that. What else?”
The Don: I read out the offending tweets — May’s approach was “foolish,” the outcome a “mess,” her “wacky” U.S. ambassador a “very stupid guy.” I want to know if our next prime minister is going to respond to that kind of attack from the president of a foreign power. “I think most people feel …” Johnson begins to flannel. What do you feel, Boris? “I feel … I don’t want anybody else telling us what to do. Or anybody else criticizing our government, I suppose is my feeling. But if you ask me whether I think the Brexit negotiations have been brilliantly handled, I don’t think so.”
Modern-day diplomacy: Is it appropriate for the president to talk about our prime minister like this? “Look …” You’re not going to stick up for her? “No, erm. I think the president was clearly being undiplomatic. But he has strong views about Brexit and he has strong views about the deal.” Aren’t you taking Trump’s side? “No — I think, probably, from the point of view of those of us who want to get Brexit done and make a great success of it, it would be fair to say this is a debate that’s best conducted within the U.K. … But you know – the president has his style and his approach. We all have our style and our approach. If you consult the record I have said all sorts of things about all sorts of people around the world. But when it comes to the context of what the president has said about the Brexit deal, I find it hard to disagree.” Welcome to the new world order.