Reg Little hears Boris Johnson put his political contemporaries into historical perspective

‘Aone-eyed what, Boris?” An odd question to put to Boris Johnson, you might think, following his eagerly-awaited appearance at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival to talk about Winston Churchill.

But, maddeningly, the London mayor’s typically colourful way of comparing the great war leader to the politicians of today had not quite carried to the back of Blenheim Palace’s packed Orangery.

Happily, Boris was more than happy to put me right, as he settled to sign copies of his new book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.

“Pterodactyl,” he shouted above the din of admirers gathering in front of him.

It all now made perfect sense.

The festival audience had, in fact, been informed: “All today’s politicians have more in common with a one-eyed pterodactyl than they do to Winston Churchill.”

Before he could elaborate further the new Duke of Marlborough had suddenly appeared, to warmly shake his hand and express personal thanks for making the post-festival event such a lively and entertaining affair.

But then, how could the combination of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson and Blenheim Palace possibly be dull, while marking, as it did, the first big public event to be attended by the 12th Duke of Marlborough since his father’s death last month.

The timing of the book’s publication might have been good for Blenheim but it can be viewed as even better for Boris, with the prospect of a starring role in Westminster politics beckoning once more for him.

After that a Tory leadership bid, perhaps, for the Mayor of London. Johnson was MP for Henley for seven years until being elected to City Hall in 2008, with the chances of a leadership contest significantly increased were his old Oxford University and Eton pal David Cameron to lose the election in May.

Some political commentators reckon his reflections on the ultimate Tory hero represents nothing less than a “personal manifesto by other means”, or as one put it, “a massive wink to the gallery”.

Either way, The Churchill Factor will certainly not do the Boris Factor any harm with either Tory MPs and the rank and file, who might even see the odd similarity between Boris and Winston.

Boris may not have won a world war and saved civilisation but his description of Churchill’s genius for self-promotion — “a glory-chasing, goalmouth-hanging opportunist” — might be equally well applied to him.

Mastery of the art of speech making could also be added to any list of similarities, along with highly-prized and highly-priced journalistic talent, shiploads of ambition, hunger for headlines, titanic ego tempered by humour and a readiness to fly through the air without a care in the world, although pre-First World War aircraft must be considered altogether more daring (and dignified) than pre-Olympcs zipwire-riding in London.

The sold-out event in Woodstock on Friday night certainly pointed to Boris’s own star quality, with his arrival from the back of the Orangery greeted with a roar bringing to mind a Rolling Stones concert, although of course Bojo fans are much younger.

But as befitting a speaking engagement at Sir Winston’s birthplace, Boris was determined to ensure that the subject of his new book was the star of this show.

“Churchill had a greatness of soul and a generosity of spirit,” he said, recalling as evidence of these great Churchillian qualities an hilarious episode which involved a Conservative minister’s liaison with a guardsman in Hyde Park one February morning On being informed by the Chief Whip of the potential scandal, which the press had apparently got wind of, Churchill puffed his cigar.

“Did I hear you correctly in saying that so-and-so has been caught with a Guardsman?” enquired the Prime Minister after a long pause. “In Hyde Park? On a park bench at three o’clock in the morning.”

“That’s right Prime Minister,” came the nervous reply.

“In this weather,” boomed the PM. “Good God, man, it makes you proud to be British.”

Other biographers may offer more insight into Churchill’s war strategy, but few will have shown him to be quite as human as Boris has.

Nor as courageous, not least when it comes to flying, something Churchill took up just 10 years after the very dawn of flight.

When Churchill took up flying one flight in 5,000 ended in death. Churchill survived serious crashes, while some of those who instructed him were not so fortunate.

“Churchill was an extraordinary man for his bravery.”


Witney Gazette:

Sir Winston Churchil on a visit to Blenheim Palace in 1958

It was a quality he showed as a soldier, when he would continually display “suicidal daring”.

“Churchill has the unique distinction, as a prime minister, of having been shot at on four continents.”

However, it is the psychology behind this bravery that most fascinates Boris.

As a child Churchill had been “a weedy, runty sort of kid” with a 31in chest and stammer, who had endured the humiliation of having to hide in the woods when boys at Harrow threw cricket balls at him.

The memory was to stay with him: having felt judged and found wanting, by an act of will he chose to defeat his cowardice; in other words, he had something to prove.

As a journalist himself, Boris expressed his awe at Churchill’s writing output.

“Churchill produced not just more words than Dickens, or more words than Shakespeare – but more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined.”

Invited to reflect on what Churchill would have made of the modern world, Boris had no doubts.

“He would have been awe-struck by the technological progress and fascinated by the new means of communication. He would have been a massive self-Googler, Facebook user and tweeter.

“But he would have been concerned about what is happening in society, particularly the widening of the wealth gap.

“And he certainly would not want to see the British Prime Minister excluded from any major European summit.

When another questioner from the floor invited Boris to compare himself to Churchill, Boris — mindful perhaps that Sir Winston lies at peace nearby at Bladon, with no wish to imagine him turning — wisely shook his head.

It would be absurd and impertinent for him or any other politician to invite comparison with Churchill, he said, gently mocking young Tories who choose to wear bow ties.

“Nobody can possibly imitate the guy. He was a one-off. I think the general experience of people who write about Churchill is just incredulity.

“It is like climbing Everest — you think you are at the summit and another aspect of Churchill is in front of you, then another huge peak appears in the distance.”

The book had been written simply because he had been invited to write an appreciation to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston’s death in 1965, he insists.

But were Boris to improve his own political prospects by his pen and determination to remind the world how one man can make a difference, surely Churchill would not have minded in the least.