Boris Johnson Reads Poetry to Drain Stress of Being PM

Published September 15th, 2019 - 01:15 GMT
Boris Johnson (Twitter)
Boris Johnson (Twitter)
His message to Juncker is clear: Boris wants a deal, but he is also undaunted by the prospect of leaving without one and will not be constrained by the Commons vote.

As the Brexit tempests rage around him, Boris Johnson has adopted a quintessentially British routine to cope with the demands of being Prime Minister. 

Every night, he lulls himself to sleep by reading poetry which sends him 'out like a light'; then, at just after dawn – while still in his boxer shorts – he takes his new dog Dilyn for a walk around the No 10 garden to clear his mind for the rigours of the day ahead.

Mr Johnson has had a tumultuous baptism in the job he has craved since childhood, with the past fortnight proving to be particularly bruising: Pro-Remain MPs, including 21 from his own party, voted to outlaw a No Deal; he was hit by the Ministerial resignations of both brother Jo and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd; and was left stunned when a Scottish court ruled that his suspension of Parliament was illegal.

But Mr Johnson was bullishly optimistic when he was interviewed exclusively by The Mail on Sunday ahead of tomorrow's crunch meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

He is determined to 'reset' the narrative of a PM on the back foot, assailed by events, by exuding confidence about the chance of striking a deal with Brussels before the October 31 deadline.

'There is real sign of movement not just in Berlin, in Paris, but also in, most importantly and most interestingly, in Dublin,' said Mr Johnson, referring to signs of 11th-hour flexibility about how to achieve Brexit without a hard Irish border or a 'backstop' tying the UK or Northern Ireland to EU rules.

The passing of Jeremy Corbyn's 'surrender bill', obliging the Prime Minister to delay Brexit if he cannot reach agreement with Brussels, has ratcheted up the pressure for the coming week of shuttle diplomacy around Europe.

His message to Juncker is clear: Boris wants a deal, but he is also undaunted by the prospect of leaving without one and will not be constrained by the Commons vote.

It is at this point that the Prime Minister delivers a surreal comparison with the comic book character The Incredible Hulk by identifying with Bruce Banner – the mild-mannered scientist who turns into a muscle-flexing green monster when he is angered.

'Banner might be bound in manacles, but when provoked he would explode out of them,' says a now highly animated Mr Johnson. 

'The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets and he always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be – and that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31 and we will get it done, believe me.'

The Marvel Comics character was turned into a hugely popular American television series starring Bill Bixby as Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, which first aired in 1978 – the year after Mr Johnson went up to Eton.

His baffled expression at the mention of the actors suggests that TV sets were banned at the school, so our future PM gained his knowledge from the comics. 

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It is a typically colourful metaphor from the man who obliterated Theresa May's Brexit Chequers deal and put himself on the path to Downing Street by writing in this newspaper that she had 'wrapped a suicide vest' around the British constitution and 'handed the detonator' to Brussels by allowing the hated backstop.

He is now cautiously optimistic the measure can be ditched and replaced with more flexible solutions before the critical EU summit on October 17. 

Speaking in his No 10 office, Mr Johnson said: 'I think that… we will get there. I will be talking to Jean-Claude about how we're going to do it.

'It's going to take a lot of work between now and October 17 but I'm going to go to that summit and I'm going to get a deal, I'm very confident. And if we don't get a deal then we'll come out on October 31.'

He added: 'When I got this job everybody was saying there can be absolutely no change to the Withdrawal Agreement, the backstop was immutable, the arrangements by which the UK was kept locked in to the EU forever, they said no one could change that. 

They have already moved off that and, as you know, there's a very, very good conversation going on about how to address the issues of the Northern Irish border. A huge amount of progress is being made.'

He maintains that the vote in the Commons has made it harder to secure the necessary concessions from Brussels – because they no longer fear a No Deal.

'One of the first things they always say is, 'What's going on in Parliament and how's it all going?' so the most important thing to get over to them is that irrespective of that, that kerfuffle in Parliament, we are going to deliver Brexit on October 31.'

If he fails to strike a deal, Mr Johnson is adamant that he will not obey Parliament's order to send a letter to Brussels on October 19 demanding an extension to Article 50. He has said that he would rather 'die in a ditch' than do so.

No 10 strategists say that they have devised a secret plan, known only to the PM and three advisers, which they claim will allow them to ignore the order without breaking the law. Most legal experts are sceptical that such a ruse could work, arguing that the 'spirit as well as the letter' of the law has to be observed.

Mr Johnson says: 'We are going to come out on October 31, we are going to get ready to come out with No Deal. I don't want that but we will be ready if we have to.

'What I can tell you is under no circumstances will I ask for an extension, absolutely not, and I'm also confident by the way that we'll get a deal.'

Mr Johnson believes that if he can deliver Brexit – and finally turn the Government's attention fully on to domestic matters – the Tories will be thanked at the ballot box.

If his Government collapses, either through a vote of no confidence from the Opposition or because he resigns on October 18 as the only way to avoid requesting an extension, and Mr Corbyn then enters No 10, Tory strategists are confident that the spectre of a Marxist in Downing Street combined with him 'surrendering' to Brussels by delaying Brexit will lead to victory at the ensuing General Election.

He asks: 'Do people really want to spend £250 million a week staying in the EU after three years when that money could be going on hospitals. I mean, £250 million buys you a new hospital.'

Nor is he budging from his refusal to forge an election pact with Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, saying: 'We're a great party, we're an old party, we don't form electoral pacts with any other party. I'm on the record... as having personally enjoyed [Farage's] company years and years ago when he and I had a beer in a pub and I tried to recruit him to the Conservative Party and he tried to recruit me to Ukip.'

Who would he go for if he had to choose between Ken Clarke and Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of an interim government after he was toppled?

'I don't envisage that possibility and what we're going to do is come out on October 31. All other hypotheses are irrelevant.'

His expulsion of the 21 Tory rebels who voted to delay Brexit has clearly caused a deal of private angst for Mr Johnson, not least because it was the final trigger which led to the resignations of his brother and Ms Rudd.

When asked if any of them will be allowed to stand for the party at the next Election, Mr Johnson conspicuously fails to rule it out.

He says: 'Don't underestimate the gravity of what they were trying to do. Jeremy Corbyn and a few others were really trying to weaken the Government's negotiating position and I think that was a big mistake – you don't do that in international negotiations. They were effectively handing the initiative to our opponents. I just want people to understand why it was necessary to be so strict.'

The Prime Minister is breezily dismissive of the furore over Operation Yellowhammer, the Government contingency plan which has warned of chaos in a No Deal scenario. He says: 'It is merely the work of civil servants who are always asked to look at absolutely every possible scenario.

'We will be ready, the ports will be ready, the planes will be ready, the medicines will be ready, and we will make sure we support the farming community and have a panoply of agricultural support and we will be ready to come out on October 31.'

While he is criss-crossing Europe trying to strike a deal, the Supreme Court in London will decide whether to overturn the Scottish court decision on the prorogation of Parliament. Mr Johnson says that he is 'as confident as I can be' that the judges will find in his favour – but it is set to be yet another nerve-jangling week.

Our conversation takes place shortly before the first extracts were published yesterday from David Cameron's memoirs, in which he accused Mr Johnson and Michael Gove of leaving 'the truth at home' during the referendum.

The Prime Minister had already made the tactical decision not to fuel the fire by hitting back, instead praising Cameron with faint sarcasm for his 'heroic role in allowing this country to leave the European Union... although he might not see it that way at the moment'.

The pair exchanged text messages after it was revealed that Mr Johnson described Mr Cameron as a 'girly swot' in official documentation – although he refuses to reveal their content. 

He says: 'I want to say how deeply unfair it is that my marginalia on confidential documents are leaked to the media and nothing that I say or have said should detract from my affection and admiration for the Prime Minister, who was a great Prime Minister of our country and whose legacy consists on fixing the economic mess that Labour made.'

Asked whether he would bring Mr Cameron back into Government, he hesitates slightly before saying: 'I think – let's get Brexit done.'

One area of his life which remains strictly off-limits is his relationship with live-in girlfriend Carrie Symonds, with whom he travelled to Balmoral to see the Queen earlier this month. 

It was reported that Her Majesty has left Mr Johnson entranced by her memories of Winston Churchill, her first Prime Minister, but all he will agree is that the trip was a 'success'.

He credits Dilyn, the Jack Russell cross which the couple took from a puppy farm in Wales, with helping him to relax. 'The dog is in great shape,' he enthuses. 'I get up at six o'clock in the morning and stagger around, walk around the garden with the dog. It's a keep-fit regime in my boxers.'

Despite his workload, the voracious reader still finds time to turn the pages in bed at night. 'Last night, I was reading Antony Beevor's book on Arnhem and the Oxford Book of English Verse – that puts me out like a light.'

Mr Johnson's sister Rachel once famously revealed that as a child her brother was desperate to be 'World King'. Is that what being the Prime Minister feels like?

'It's a fantastic privilege to do the job, it's hard work but I've never enjoyed anything so much in my life, there's no question. I mean the whole point of Brexit is you've got to have democratic government and that is not compatible with the office of world king.

'But it's been an incredibly happy and productive time.'

This article has been adapted from its original source.    

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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