‘We’re a sleeping giant,’ Bill Shankly told Gordon Milne – and he was right

  • July 09, 2019 10:48
  • Jon Henderson

Harvey Elliott, the 16-year-old whose move from Fulham to Liverpool is being widely predicted, is just the latest in a long line of players who have found it impossible to resist the lure of Anfield – even when the club was in the Football League’s old Second Divison...

 

In the summer of 1960, Gordon Milne found the appeal of a move to Liverpool FC irresistible even though it meant leaving Preston North End who were in the old First Division and going down to the Second.

Milne, who had just come out of the army after doing his national service, says: I’d played 80-odd games for Preston in the late Fifties and I’d also played for the army team, which in those days was a good strong side.’

First Arsenal made an approach for the newly demobbed Milne, before Bill Shankly, the recently appointed Liverpool manager who had played for Preston, expressed an interest. ‘You don’t want to go to London, son,’ Shankly, a Scot who specialised in succinct advice, told Milne after making a special trip to see him.

He also told Milne, ‘We’re a sleeping giant’, a reference to the fact that Liverpool, who had won their fifth League title in 1947, were now in the second tier and still looking to win the FA Cup for the first time.

‘I’d read about Shanks,’ Milne says. ‘He was just an enthusiast. His passion was for football and he believed in Liverpool. He knew what he wanted and he knew how the game should be played – simple and straightforward. He always emphasised the team, players complementing one another.

‘But at the time it worried me whether I’d made the right decision by turning down Arsenal, who were in the First Division. It was only in the long term it turned out to be the best move I ever made.’

Liverpool paid £16,000 for Milne with the player receiving the statutory tenner as a signing-on fee.

‘Shanks had started building at that time and I was the first one of that team he signed,’ Milne says. ‘Afterwards he signed Willie Stevenson, big Ron [Yeats], Ian St John and Peter Thompson. This group joined what they’d already got there: Tommy Lawrence, Chris Lawler, Gerry Byrne, Ian Callaghan and Roger Hunt.’

Milne did not start well. His first-team debut was against Southampton in a Second Division match at Anfield a few weeks after joining the club. It ended in a 1-0 defeat.

‘I always remember Joe Fagan, who was number three behind Shanks and Bob Paisley, coming to me. Joe had a different nature from the other two, a softer nature. Joe said, “The manager thinks it’d probably be better if you had a little spell in the reserves. Moving clubs is a big thing.”

‘In those days you didn’t challenge things. There wasn’t the arrogance among players there is now.’

After that faltering start against Southampton, Milne would become a key member of one of the great teams of English football in the twentieth century. He made more than 200 appearances for the club, helping them win League titles in 1964 and 1966.

In 1966, as an international player, he narrowly missed out on selection for England’s World Cup-winning squad.

Milne has mixed memories of the loss to Southampton on his debut.

These include being driven to Anfield by his dad with his mum and Edith, his wife-to-be, coming along, too.

‘There was no meeting at a hotel or anything like that. You just turned up at the ground. It was a wet night, we parked in a side street and walked to the ground.’

When they went back to the car after the game, they found it jammed in by other parked vehicles.

‘Now I’d just signed for Liverpool and we’re standing there wondering what to do. Some fans came by who recognised me. “Oh, there’s Gordon Milne. Let’s go and help.” And they bounced the car out. They bounced it so my dad could get the front of the car out. “Don’t worry about the game,” they said. “It’s only your first game.” All this sort of stuff. Typical Scousers.’

 

This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.

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Understanding Iran: and Why It Distrusts Britain by Jack Straw — ‘this turbulent history is essential reading’

  • July 08, 2019 12:41
  • Justin Marozzi, Sunday Times

Sunday Times Review:

The English Job by Jack Straw

 

Jack Straw, the first British foreign secretary to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution, experienced this at first hand in 2015 while travelling there with his wife and two friends. What had been intended as a cultural adventure swiftly became a “forced conscription into a thriller”, as they faced menace, intimidation and hostility from gangs of Basij goons, the shadowy militia of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Visiting a famous tree supposedly planted by Noah’s son Japheth several thousand years ago, Straw was formally presented with a two-page leaflet detailing why he was not welcome in Iran.

Cover jjjjjThis consisted of a long charge sheet of national humiliations, from the 1857 Paris Treaty and the Reuters and tobacco monopolies of 1872 and 1890 to “the stealing and looting of Iran’s oil” from 1901, the British-led coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and the support given to Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–88.

To take just one of these grievances, the Reuters concession gave the German-born British entrepreneur Baron Julius de Reuter the monopoly right to build railways, canals, irrigation systems and mines, and develop all future industries, for 70 years. Not a bad return on the bribes totalling £200,000 (£23m today) that Reuter paid the key players in Tehran. It was, said the future foreign secretary Lord Curzon, “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamt of”.

The English Job takes its title from an old Iranian expression that continues to see a British hand behind everything. As a longstanding Foreign Office joke goes: “Iran is the only country in the world that still thinks the UK is a superpower.”

Being bundled in and out of cars and dodging aggressive rent-a-mobs would put many visitors off Iran for life, but Straw is made of more resilient stuff. He admits he has succumbed to the Iran “bug” and can’t get enough of the place. One might contrast his evident affection for the country with the astringent criticism from the conservative commentator Melanie Phillips, who has publicly asked, “Why does Jack Straw shill for Iran?”

While that lurid accusation is completely overdone, there is a potential danger in all this admiration for Iran’s rich cultural hinterland that, when combined with self-flagellation for Britain’s colonial-era exploitation, lets the revolutionary regime in Tehran off the hook. This, after all, is a country second only to China in the world league of executioners. “Failing on all fronts” is the title of Amnesty International’s latest report on Iran, but Straw has little to say about Iran’s egregious human-rights record.

He is clear-sighted and lucid, however, in his analysis of Iran’s self-destructive obsession with Israel, be it the routine threats to wipe the country off the map, the “Death to Israel” slogans on its ballistic missiles, or the countdown timer showing the hours and minutes left until the destruction of the “Zionist regime”. This morbid fixation with Israel is as much a barrier to the country’s return to the community of nations and an end of its international isolation as the occasional rampage by regime thugs against foreign diplomatic compounds. If you want to be treated with respect, it doesn’t matter how glorious your history might be, you just don’t do that.

Straw rightly laments Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal he and others laboured so long to bring about. He gives short shrift to President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a career advocate of regime change in Tehran and a man who has taken money for appearing on platforms supporting the Iranian opposition group MEK, previously banned by the US and UK as a terrorist group.

Those, such as Trump, Bolton and fellow hawks, who trash the deal need to answer the single most important question: why have you chosen to make Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons more, not less, likely? Unless the objective is all-out war, it makes no sense. Straw doesn’t say it, but one might add that for decades Saudi Arabia has been an infinitely more destructive funder of global Islamist terrorism than Iran.

Straw argues that there is no such thing as a single regime in Tehran. There are instead multiple, competing sources of power as hardliners do battle with reformists. That distinction is all very well for diplomats, but since each is ultimately subordinate to the octogenarian, anti-semitic, hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, mastermind of his country’s isolation since 1989, it doesn’t get you far. As Straw ruefully acknowledges, unless Tehran changes its ways, it will surely remain a pariah.

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You couldn’t make it up: two Scotsmen meet by chance in a street in north London – and end up playing together for Chelsea

  • July 05, 2019 11:52
  • Jon Henderson

The year was 1946 and not only did the chance meeting have an immediate consequence – it had a repercussion more than 60 years later...

 

The story starts when the girlfriend, Eileen, who was to become Johnny Paton’s wife, asked him to Sunday lunch with her family in north London.

It was just after the Second World War when Paton, who was from Glasgow and playing for Celtic, was stationed in north London still doing his national service.

Eileen had been unsure about going out with the young Glaswegian at a time when many footballers were paid barely as much as other working men.

‘She asked me what I did for a living,’ Paton says. ‘I told her I played football for Glasgow Celtic up in Scotland, which meant nothing to her. I could tell her mind was going round wondering how being a footballer was going to pay the rent and other bills.’

The moment he knew she had overcome these misgivings was when she invited him to her home in Greenford. ‘The family want to meet you, Johnny,’ she said. ‘Can you come for a roast dinner on Sunday?’

‘I wasn’t going to miss that,’ Paton says. ‘A roast dinner. Never heard of it up in Scotland. We got mince and potatoes for Sunday dinner up there.’

It goes without saying, of course, that a bigger reason than the meat and potatoes for accepting the invitation was Eileen.

At this point, Paton says, fate took over. Walking from Sudbury Town tube station to keep his lunch date with Eileen’s family he noticed another man coming briskly down the road towards him.

‘There were only the two of us,’ he says. ‘There was no traffic on the roads in those days.’

To his surprise, the other man stopped and – to his even greater surprise – said: ‘I know you, you’re Johnny Paton, aren’t you? Glasgow Celtic.’

Paton took a closer look and saw it was Johnny Harris, the captain of Chelsea. ‘He was much better known than I was,’ Paton says.

‘Yeah,’ Harris said, ‘what are you doing down here in London?’

Paton explained he was waiting for his demob and travelling up to Scotland every Friday night to play for Celtic on the Saturday.

‘I’m under contract to them. I’ve got to get my wages.’

Harris had a better idea: ‘Why don’t you come and play for us?’

And that extraordinary chance meeting was how Paton came to play for Chelsea for the 1946-47 season.

‘It was a unique one-season transfer,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a loan, it was a complete transfer and a complete transfer back. It was because I wanted to be here in London with Eileen.’

In his season with Chelsea, Paton played 18 times and scored three goals, but it was many years later, in old age, that he had more of an influence on a Chelsea match than he ever did as a player.

In December 2013, eight months after his ninetieth birthday – by now he was the oldest surviving Chelsea player – the club invited him to watch a Sunday match against Southampton at Stamford Bridge. And once there he was invited to go onto the pitch at halftime to address the crowd. He agreed because there was something he badly wanted to say.

He remembered that in his Chelsea playing days he thought the home support was pretty pathetic compared to what he was used to at Celtic. And now, nearly 70 years later, he felt the same.

Chelsea were losing 1-0 to Southampton at halftime and the crowd were not giving the team the lift they badly needed. So he took the microphone: ‘I’ve waited a long time to say this. I’m 90 years old but I’m very, very proud to have worn the Chelsea jersey, 67 years ago, on the left wing, when we beat the Arsenal in an FA Cup tie.’

The stadium, which had been quiet, erupted and the noise rose to a crescendo as Paton asked twice: ‘Do you really want Chelsea to win this game?’

He now had a captive audience. ‘Well,’ he told them, ‘I want to hear the Chelsea roar. The players on the field, in my opinion, won’t win this game – you will.’

‘The place went mad,’ Paton says. And down in the Chelsea dressing room, John Terry told Paton later, the players were aware of a buzz going on and wondered what it was.

After the match, Chelsea having won 3-1 after scoring within minutes of the restart, a message reached Paton that Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, wanted to see him. ‘I’d never met him,’ Paton says. ‘And you know what he said? I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Johnny, I want to thank you. You helped us to win this match”.’

Paton told him that he had merely done what came naturally.

 

Johnny Paton, the loveliest of men, died aged 92 in 2015

This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback

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‘I fell in love with the beauty of Norfolk’

  • July 04, 2019 14:16
  • Jon Henderson

These days it’s barely believable that once upon a time an outstanding young player could cite an idyllic landscape as the reason he settled, reluctantly, for a move from the top division of the Football League to the third tier...

 

Terry Allcock made his debut for Bolton Wanderers as a 17-year-old against Manchester City in a home game in October 1953.

He remembers his great excitement at being picked and playing in front of 50,000 people in what was a local derby, City being just five miles up the road. ‘The crowd was big,’ he says, ‘but we’d been playing regularly in front of ten to 15,000 in the reserves, so it wasn’t too much of a shock.’

Allcock would score twice – a goal with each foot – as Bolton beat City 3-2. ‘This was quite normal for me,’ he says. ‘I naturally worked the ball with my left foot but I felt equally adequate with either foot. Not like present players who can use only one foot.’

But before the Fifties were out, Allcock had been transferred to Norwich City. He would spend the rest of his football career at the Norfolk club playing in the lower divisions.

From today’s perspective, it seems nonsensical that such a talented player still in his prime, he was only tweny-three, could make such a move. It was very much of its time, though.

The transfer decision was made for him without consultation and without an agent in view because no one had agents in those days.

Without any warning he was told when he arrived for training one morning that Norwich had made an offer for him, which Bolton would be accepting. The club had an embarrassment of good attacking players and jumped at Norwich’s offer to take one of them off their hands.

‘Having got over my surprise,’ Allcock says, ‘my first thought was, “Where the hell’s Norwich.” I thought for a minute it was Northwich.’

Before agreeing to the move he was at least allowed to visit Norwich. This involved catching a train to Peterborough where he would be picked up by car. Allcock worried how he would recognise the driver but was told the driver would recognise him.

‘And do you know,’ he says, ‘I was met by a midget. He worked for the chairman who was a friend of his. He was one of the famous circus acts.

‘When we got in the car he said, “Do you mind if I drive fast, there’s a match on at Carrow Road and we might catch the second half.” They were playing Coventry. I was frightened to death. He had wooden things on the pedals and he couldn’t see over the steering wheel. But we did make it for the second half.’

In explaining why he didn’t make more of a fuss about having to move from a First Division club to one in the Third Division South, Allcock points out that there was no financial downside. Because of the wage limit that applied throughout the Football League – earnings were capped at £17 a week in 1958 – he would earn as much at Norwich as he had in the top division.

Should he stay in the north-west, where he felt so at home, or should he go?

The clincher, Allcock says, was that ‘I fell in love with the beauty of Norfolk’.

 

This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback

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Boris Johnson

  • July 01, 2019 16:14
  • Sam Macrory

Chapter 22
 

What if... Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?

Oxfordshire, 2019
Sweat dripping from his brow, the middle-aged man with the unconvincingly covered bald spot jogged slowly up the driveway towards his front door. Gasping for breath, he stopped to glance at his watch – and winced. He seemed to be getting slower by the week. Then again, the regular jogs through the Oxfordshire countryside kept him feeling healthy, and relatively happy.
Kicking off his well-worn running shoes, he padded through his tastefully furnished home towards the kitchen. No messages on the answer phone from anyone important – as usual. Turning to the mock art deco fridge, he dug out a carton of ginseng-infused water, poured a glass and then lit up a cigarette – a soothing habit which he no longer worried about hiding. Switching on the television, he impatiently flicked through the channels until he reached UK Fox, the twenty-four-hour rolling news channel which had dominated the airwaves since its controversial launch eighteen months before.
He strained his eyes in an effort to make out the images in front of him. A crowd had gathered on what looked like an unpromising pile of earth, with cameramen desperately clambering over each other for the best possible angle to film whatever it was they were watching. Their attention was focused on a rotund figure in a fluorescent safety jacket who was recklessly waving a garden spade around his head, apparently to the delight of his
What if …
350
audience. As the cameras zoomed closer, a familiar shock of blond hair
could be spied escaping from beneath the hard hat on top of his head.
Back in the Oxfordshire kitchen, the man’s hand gripped his glass
tensely. He didn’t need the caption on the bottom of the screen to tell him
what was happening: ‘Prime Minister celebrates as work commences on
“Boris Island” Airport’. The cameras zoomed closer, revealing the grinning
face of Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the last four years.
Struggling to make his excitable gabbling heard over the cheering
crowd, the Prime Minister bellowed: ‘This is an historic day. Pat your
neighbour on the back. Shake their hand! Plan your holidays! This will be a
new airport for a new Britain. The Thames Estuary will never be the same
again, and neither will Britain! New jobs! New transport! A chance for all
of us to pull together for our … great British society.’
Staring into the Fox camera, the Prime Minister seemed to be locking
eyes with the man in the Oxfordshire kitchen. The glass narrowly missed
the TV screen as it smashed against the wall. Collapsing into the nearest
chair, David Cameron asked himself, as he did every hour of every day:
‘How on earth have things come to this?’
Eight years earlier
As 2011 drew to a close, David Cameron stood in the same Oxfordshire
kitchen and waited for his guests – Elisabeth and Matthew, Andy and
Eloise, and Bono and Ali – to arrive. The Christmas holidays could not
have come quickly enough he thought, as he stared out across the snowcovered
lawn. The feud over NHS reform – and it was bloody annoying
the way Nick claimed to have saved it! – had drained him, Ken Clarke’s
radio interviews had frayed his nerves, and, as every admiral and general
kept telling anyone who would listen, British involvement in Libya was
proving to be uncomfortably expensive. Then there was that rather awkward
thing with Andy and the phones – no invitation for Rebekah this
year. The backbenchers were hounding him, the Lib Dems were harassing
him, and the next three years of this wretched coalition seemed to stretch
351
… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
out interminably. Still, he thought to himself, he was the Prime Minister!
And only 45 years old! This was the mere adolescence of his premiership!
The ungrateful bastards would soon remember what he’d achieved: overthrowing
the Labour government, gaining huge local election victories,
bringing in tougher sentencing powers, and, of course, dealing with any
plans for electoral reform for a generation. The alternative vote was dead,
the constituencies were being redrawn, and the Conservative Party, with
Prime Minister Cameron at the helm, should be looking forward to a long
stretch in power. His mood considerably lifted, Cameron smiled – 2012
was going to be a good year.
~
The bomb went off at 8:57am on Wednesday 9 May, a few hundred yards
from Stratford tube station. Striking the heart of the Olympic village, the
message was clear: whoever planted the bomb could do it again, at any time
– perhaps when the Olympic Stadium was packed, as it would be in just
three months’ time.
With incredible good fortune, however, it appeared that the timing and
location of the bomb had been botched. David Cameron was in Germany,
invited by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make the second
speech of his ‘multiculturalism’ series, so Nick Clegg – the day started
with a series of ‘Don’t Forget!’ tabloid headlines – was in charge. After
digesting the news, the Deputy Prime Minister sensed the chance to flex
some muscle. Boris Johnson, the recently re-elected mayor of London,
had been dominating the airwaves, redirecting his early morning run to
make his way across to East London and condemn the attacks. In response,
Clegg quickly summoned a meeting of COBRA – one for the rolling news
cameras, he thought – and began to prepare for what he hoped would be an
easy opportunity to dominate that afternoon’s Prime Minister’s questions.
Initial briefings were encouraging: no loss of life had been reported. This
was a near miss rather than a catastrophe.
Then the call from MI6 was put through. Clegg’s facial features fell back
to their familiar setting of tired and grey. ‘You’re absolutely certain? I see.
What if …
352
Thank you.’ The phone went down. Norman Lamb, his political adviser,
and James McGrory, Clegg’s press secretary, looked concerned.
‘Not good. Not good at all,’ Clegg told the anxious-looking pair. ‘Well,
obviously. But nobody was killed’, Lamb replied with an optimistic lilt.
‘That’s not the problem,’ Clegg replied, wearily. ‘Until yesterday,
the suspected bomber was being held – without charge – on suspicion of
involvement in a terrorist plot.’ A puzzled McGrory asked why the bomber
was on the streets. ‘Yesterday was his fourteenth day. By law, the police
couldn’t hold him any longer. He was released, and then met up immediately
with the cell that had plotted the attack’, Clegg replied, planting his
head in his hands. ‘We changed that law. That was our law.’ No one said
anything in return. The implications were clear. Life was about to get very
difficult for the Liberal Democrats.
~
PMQs were a nightmare for Clegg, as Tory and Labour MPs alike accused
him of putting British people at risk with his soft approach to terror.
That afternoon David Cameron, who had flown back from Germany,
announced emergency plans to increase to ninety the number of days that
a suspect could be held without charge. Given the public mood and the
frenzied response of the right-wing press, the protests of Liberal Democrat
MPs – and a rather half-hearted David Davis – were easily drowned out.
That evening, in a ferocious behind-closed-doors exchange, Clegg tried to
convince his MPs that he had been wrong: they should now back the new
anti-terror legislation and demonstrate that they could be taken seriously
as a party of power. His MPs stared back incredulously – the Rubicon of
coalition compromise seemed to grow wider still. Warning of the irreversible
effects of the ‘poison of power’, Charles Kennedy was the first MP to
walk out of Committee Room 11, while Sir Menzies Campbell, after a
short speech on the sad death of Liberal principles, followed suit. Vince
Cable just looked glummer than ever. Clegg was confident however – if he
could steer his party through the tuition fees row, then surely they would
come round on an issue of national security?
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
He was badly wrong. Just three Liberal Democrat MPs supported the
measures: Clegg himself, Danny Alexander, and David Laws. By voting
no, every other Liberal Democrat minister had effectively left the
government.
Later that evening, Sarah Teather, the young MP who had once been so
decisive in the downfall of Charles Kennedy, was sitting in the Newsnight
studio, telling Jeremy Paxman why Clegg had lost the support of his party.
From the safety of the 10 Downing Street kitchen, the Deputy Prime
Minister watched with a concerned David Cameron. ‘That’s that. It’s over’,
Clegg declared, staring vacantly at the TV.
‘Come on – there must be a way through this? We could speed up the
timetable for Lords reform. I know, why don’t we get David Laws into
the cabinet? Nick, if you walk away, then you leave me horribly exposed,’
Cameron pleaded.
‘I’m sorry Dave. We did our best. Events, dear boy, isn’t that what your
hero Harold said?’ Clegg replied, as he stood up to leave.
‘Let’s talk this through in the morning – it isn’t over’, Cameron shouted
after him, but Clegg had already shut the door. Sam had prepared a spare
room so that he could avoid the media throng on his journey home to
Putney, but Clegg knew he wouldn’t sleep. He was already running
through the wording of a resignation statement in his head.
Twelve months later
After Clegg stepped down, David Cameron initially embraced the
opportunity to head up a minority government. His backbenchers were
thrilled by the new arrangement, with the 1922 Committee holding a
‘Not for Turning Again’ reception on the Commons terrace, and a string
of promotions to fill the Liberal Democrat vacancies triggering a second
honeymoon for Cameron as he wooed the disaffected in his party. Andrew
Tyrie succeeded Alexander as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Bernard
Jenkin took over the constitutional affairs brief, and Grant Shapps replaced
Chris Huhne as Energy Secretary. All spoke a rather different language
to that of their coalition predecessors, and so now did Cameron, with his
What if …
354
talk of the ‘Big Conservative Society’, warnings of the growing ‘European
menace’, and speeches on the need to be ‘tough on crime – but tougher on
criminals’.
Cabinet government, ministers declared, worked far more successfully
without the need to kowtow to the demands of a minor party, and after
a summer of back-slapping, that October’s party conference, hastily rearranged
to be symbolically held in the nostalgia-packed Blackpool Winter
Gardens, took place against a back drop of Union Jack-waving triumphalism.
‘At last – it’s our party … back again’, a cheering Norman Tebbit
was overheard mumbling, while a misty-eyed Tim Montgomerie, whose
ConservativeHome website did its best to claim credit for reshaping the
government’s new direction, dominated the airwaves.
The traditional vision of Conservatism mapped out in Cameron’s
conference closing speech met with loud cheers, but the Prime Minister
left Blackpool feeling hollow. The party was pushing itself in a direction
which was, he believed, ultimately unsustainable, and on the train home to
London his mood plummeted. He hadn’t spoken to Nick in weeks, while
his strategy adviser Steve Hilton was spending ever more time ‘working
from home’. Ken Clarke, who appeared to have slept his way through
Cameron’s speech, seemed utterly detached, while Nick Boles, a one-time
Notting Hill set associate, was stirring up disquiet amongst disgruntled
modernisers.
Cameron’s mood was not misjudged. By December, the government
had suffered humiliating back-to-back Commons defeats, as hastily published
bills to make fox-hunting legal and set in motion a programme for
nuclear weapons renewal – red meat for the Tory right – failed to make
progress. Tim Farron, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats following
his defeat of Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, had little difficulty
persuading his MPs to vote against the Conservative Party, with former
Lib Dem ministers jeered by Tory MPs as they filed through the no lobby.
The impossible mathematics of minority government began to bite, slowly
gnawing away at the electorate’s faith in the Prime Minister. When a crisp
and snow-free winter provided no excuse for the appalling economic
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
figures of the last quarter, a harsh truth was made unavoidable at the start of
2013: Britain was sliding towards a double-dip recession. The increasingly
ragged Chancellor George Osborne refused to bow to demands to switch
to a ‘Plan B’ to fix the economy, however, and once Andy Murray fell in the
second round of Wimbledon the newspapers turned their attention on the
under-pressure occupant of 10 Downing Street.
‘For God’s sake. I gave him his sodding TV deal – this is ridiculous’,
shouted Cameron on sighting a particularly uncompromising Sun. On the
front page was pictured a mallard, with a top hat and full Bullingdon Club
tails photo-shopped on its feathered frame. ‘Quack off! Lame-duck Prime
Minister must go’, ran the headline.
A string of poorly attended Cameron Direct events failed to mask the
obvious: it was now clear that Cameron’s government was effectively unable
to legislate. The modernisers were disaffected and the right – Defence
Secretary Liam Fox to the fore – were grumbling. The reputation of Ed
Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, was steadily rising as the economy refused
to pick up, and even Farron’s Liberal Democrats had seen some of their
core support return. As Parliament returned that September, and with the
fixed-term parliaments unexpectedly bogged down in legal complications,
Cameron was left with no choice but to call a general election.
Standing on a ticket of ‘no more compromise,’ the Tory leader embraced
the campaign with gusto. The early public backing of Tony Blair – now
envoy to Tripolitania, the western part of the former Libya, ruled by Saif
Gaddafi – was mildly awkward, but he was pleased that Nick Clegg, not
contesting his Sheffield Hallam seat, was helping out behind the scenes.
The television debates were confusing. Tim Farron agreed with Labour
leader Ed Miliband, and Ed agreed with Tim too, but Tim also wanted to
claim credit for much of what Dave was bragging about, none of which Ed
wanted to praise at all. Dave just looked horribly isolated.
Away from the TV studios, the rush for selection had witnessed some of
the most unsavoury sights in recent years. The worryingly rapid reordering
of Parliamentary constituencies had seen 650 seats reduced to 600, an ugly
equation which saw sitting MPs given little time to reapply for seats and
What if …
356
fight for the right to keep their jobs. In South London three seats turned
to two, with Chuka Umunna forced to intervene as Harriet Harman’s and
Tessa Jowell’s verbal spat threatened to turn physical, while up in Stoke a
teary-eyed Tristram Hunt found his political career prematurely ended as
his seat vanished from the Parliamentary map.
The result shocked politicians and pundits alike. Labour secured 293
seats, the Tories 261, and the Lib Dems 37. Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh seat fell
to the Tories, two UKIP MPs, from Essex and Kent, entered Parliament,
while the Greens gained two more MPs, in Norwich and Oxford, to join
Caroline Lucas at Westminster. Incredibly, there was no clear winner, so
despite Liberal Democrat losses a second hung Parliament once again saw
their leader play the part of kingmaker.
The thought of another round of coalition talks left Cameron feeling
exhausted. ‘I’m not doing this again. I can’t. I mean, do they really want
another referendum?’ he wondered. However, after Tim Farron and his
negotiating team of Steve Webb, Norman Lamb, and Duncan Hames had
spent three days scuttling between their Labour and Tory equivalents, a
referendum on the alternative vote is exactly what Cameron offered.
However, the stakes were now higher. With that promise in his pocket,
Farron forced Miliband and his deal-making unit of Ed Balls, Sadiq Khan,
and Chuka Umunna to raise Labour’s bid. A switch to the additional member
system (AMS) was offered without a referendum, and a deal between
the Liberal Democrats and Labour was hastily drawn up. David Cameron,
having failed twice to secure a majority for his party, was now officially the
least successful Tory leader in history, in electoral terms, but as a man used
to winning, he was not prepared to accept failure. The Saturday evening,
with the dustsheets not yet removed, he summoned his closest allies to his
old North Kensington home and began plotting for his survival.
~
At the BBC’s Millbank studios the following morning, Tom Bradby –
who had succeed Andrew Marr earlier in the year – was preparing for his
regular Sunday morning show. Post-election analysis would dominate the
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
programme, but an upbeat interview with the Mayor of London should
provide some light relief. After all, it really had been an astonishing year
for Boris Johnson. After successfully distancing himself from the more
unpopular policies of the coalition government, Boris had comfortably
beaten Ken Livingstone in the previous May’s mayoral election. The
London Olympics followed, and after Boris’ defiant stand against terrorism
an entirely glitch-free Games took place, with the British athletics
team amassing a record medal haul. Spectators had made their way across
London on Boris Bikes – number 50,000 was cycled hands-free into the
stadium by Boris himself – and the new Routemaster bus was a hit with
London commuters, all of whom travelled for free for the duration of the
Games. Ever the showman, Boris ensured his place on the front pages as
he embraced the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on closing night at
the Olympic Stadium, with photographs catching Cameron looking on
awkwardly.
With his poll ratings soaring, Boris had every reason to look forward
to the next three years. So, he told Bradby, did London. But that wasn’t
all Bradby wanted to discuss. ‘It has been a terrible few months for your
party. What will you be doing to help?’ he asked. Without hesitation,
Boris answered: ‘The answer, of course, Tom, is whatever I can. I’m a
Conservative mayor and a member of the Conservative Party. I love my
party, and I want it to be in government.’ Naturally, Bradby then asked
the question which Boris had straight-batted away many times. ‘And could
you be the man to lead it there?’ Apparently off the cuff, Boris replied:
‘As I said, Tom, I’ll do whatever I can. Whatever my party asks me to do,
however my country needs me, I am merely a humble servant.’ Watching,
Guto Harri, Boris’ press chief, mouthed one word: ‘Perfect.’
~
Just one week later, on the back of a series of pleas from Tory associations
and MPs, Boris resigned as Mayor of London. ‘For the good of my country,’
he declared, ‘It is time to leave City Hall and return to Westminster.’
Conveniently enough, the general election count in Sheffield Hallam had
What if …
358
been declared null after pro-PR campaigners had set fire to a pile of ballot
boxes. The courts demanded a recount, and to add to Boris’ good fortune
the Tory candidate stood aside to create a vacancy. ‘Don’t worry, Dad. This
will work out well for both of us’, Boris told his father, Stanley, who had
sacrificed his long-held dreams of becoming an MP.
As Cameron began to panic, his ever-loyal spinner Gabby Bertin busily
spread tales of Boris’s colourful private life, but nothing seemed to stick.
In homage to Alan Clark, Boris told hustings meetings that he had ‘whole
cupboards of them’ when asked about the skeletons in his private life. ‘I’ve
said this before: there will be the odd indiscretion, but then who can’t say
that? We’ve all done things which we wished we probably hadn’t.’
The threat to Cameron was clear. Boris, a former schoolmate and
Bullingdon Club drinking partner of the ex-Prime Minister, knew far too
much. As for Boris’ colourful CV, the blue-rinsers in the party loved him
for it. A bit of back-to-basics mischief was to be forgiven, and anyway, his
long-suffering wife Marina was always by his side. He narrowly edged
out Chris Huhne – still denying newspaper reports of alleged speeding
offences – to victory in Sheffield, and just twenty-four hours later the Boris
bandwagon rolled into Westminster. He didn’t wait to catch his breath.
‘I’m often accused of not being serious. Well, I’ve never been more serious
about anything’, he announced as he arrived on the steps to Parliament.
‘Some people write down their dreams on the back of envelopes. Well, I’d
decided in the womb before I could, er, write. How we failed – twice – to
beat a discredited Labour Party is beyond me. Do we want to win? If the
answer is yes, and I jolly well hope it is, then it is time to think again about
the journey we must take to get us to that green and pleasant land.’
The phone banks were firmly in place and the support had been
primed: that evening fifteen Conservative MPs published a letter calling
on Cameron to resign, including backbench rebel leader Mark Pritchard,
Boris’ brother Jo, Theresa Villiers – still smarting at failing to make cabinet
under Cameron – and Iain Duncan Smith, whose welfare reforms had been
repeatedly undermined by former Chancellor George Osborne. Boris led
the news bulletins and dominated the next day’s papers: ‘The Boris Factor!’
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
shouted The Sun. ‘Time to get serious’, announced the Telegraph. ‘Better
late than never’, declared the Mail. Guto had been busy.
~
‘What on earth are you doing? You’re tearing the party apart. You had
a perfectly good job. Don’t do this to me!’ Cameron was screaming into
his mobile phone, Bertin looking on nervously. ‘Yes, you bloody well
are. This is about you, your ego, and getting one over me. Just stop it.’ He
resisted throwing the phone at the door – but only just – and turned to
his worried-looking aide. ‘What? What are you looking at?’ he shouted
at Bertin. ‘This isn’t about me. I am thinking about the bloody party.’ He
looked close to tears.
But as the grassroots membership flocked to Boris, and the majority of
the party’s MPs followed suit, Cameron was left with no choice but to call a
leadership contest. The voting was worse than he could have expected, with
Cameron forced to drop out after the first round, leaving Boris to romp to
victory against the unpopular pair of George Osborne and Liam Fox. At
that year’s delayed Conservative Party conference, Boris was unveiled as
the party’s new leader. Walking on to the stage to the strains of the Beatles’
‘Here Comes the Sun’ – Boris’ ‘fantastically optimistic’ choice on Desert
Island Discs seven years previously – he sent delegates into wild delight as
he declared: ‘Mr Miliband – we’re coming for you. Mr Fallen, er, Farron
– watch your step. The Conservative Party is back and ready for business.’
~
Over the next few years, Boris successfully dominated the media, outwitted
the earnest Miliband at PMQs, and prompted a rapid rise in party
membership. His reserves of energy surprised many pundits, but those who
knew him best recognised the same youthful Boris who would smash his
siblings at table tennis and repeatedly top the family general knowledge
contests.
Miliband and his team were at a loss. Class warfare didn’t work – Boris
felt no shame in talking about his happy days at Eton – and any attempts
What if …
360
to paint the Conservative leader as a philandering cad were met with a
shrug of the shoulders. And if Boris ever strayed into un-politically correct
territory then he seemed to have little problem laughing it off. The
non-political classes loved him; the Tories felt indebted to him; and his
opponents were driven to despair. Ed Miliband was unable to make himself
heard, while Boris’ apparent inability to remember Tim Farron’s name had
the desired – humiliating – effect.
David Cameron, meanwhile, had slipped from view. Bloggers joked
that he was now living in isolation with Gordon Brown, who despite his
re-election in Kirkcaldy in 2013 was still rarely spotted in the Commons.
But the truth was that Cameron was in a state of shock: he simply could not
accept that his old rival had beaten him. But Boris didn’t give his predecessor
a moment’s thought. All eyes were set firmly on the next election.
~
It came quicker than he had expected. By the start of 2016 Ed Miliband
was in a precarious position. His inability to break through Boris’ wall of
sound had caused considerable disquiet in party ranks. The Labour Party
was increasingly split as the Prime Minister’s feuds with his brother David
Miliband, the Home Secretary, were played out via anonymous briefings.
Boris, meanwhile, had lost his clownish reputation. Osborne, Michael
Gove, and Fox were all denied roles in his shadow cabinet, with a welltimed
visit from his old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, reputation restored
after the success of Terminator IV, leading to the inevitable headlines in
the tabloids. Boris seemed to be taking the reverse journey of a number
of his predecessors as Tory leader – the buffoon was now respected for his
seriousness.
Worse still for the government, the international situation had dragged
Miliband horribly away from his party. The great uprisings of 2011 had
seen unrest spread across the Arab world and the Middle East, and by
2016 Iran was on the brink of war with Israel. US President Romney,
desperate for re-election, was pushing for military intervention. Not on
speaking terms with France’s President Le Pen since calling time on the
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
UK’s three-year-long involvement in the no-fly zone over the former
Libya, Miliband had led his government into near-global isolation, with
foreign leaders far more interested in spending time with the charismatic
new Tory leader. In a desperate bid – his ‘Falklands moment’, suggested
some commentators – to regain some international standing, Miliband
declared his support for Romney. Fifteen years since they had gathered
to register their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the anti-war marchers
reassembled on the streets of London, holding aloft placards of the late antiwar
campaigner Brian Haw. Deputy Prime Minister Farron was quick to
resign, and Ed Miliband, having learned from Cameron’s inability to lead a
minority government, wasted no time in calling a general election.
~
The campaign, of course, was dominated by one man. Boris, preaching
a return to ‘good old-fashioned Conservatism’, flamboyantly dominated
the television debates as Farron and Miliband unconvincingly argued the
toss over the Lib-Lab coalition’s failings. The cameras loved him and the
right-wing press cheered him has he cycled his way across the UK, soapbox
never far behind.
His shadow team, containing the likes of Ken Clarke, Iain Duncan
Smith, Rory Stewart, Margot James, and his uncompromising Chief Whip
Mike Penning, provided an impressive mixture of youth and experience,
and while his policies were light – national Boris Bike roll-out, nationwide
crime-mapping, the revival of Green Line buses, and the creation of a wave
of so-called ‘Boris’ Grammars – the media were hardly exacting in their
scrutiny. Boris-mania had gripped the country, and there was nothing
anyone could do to stop it. Farron’s Lib Dems were increasingly divided
at Westminster, while Miliband and Miliband were barely able to share a
platform together. Boris seemed to be the only candidate leading a party
which was pulling in the same direction.
To the evident bamboozlement of the psephologists, the 2016 election
was also the first contested under AMS, as the 2014 Electoral Reform Act
had easily passed after Farron and Miliband had presented a united Yes
What if …
362
front. Boris had seemed strangely calm during the TV debates, telling
interviewers ‘that he would play the ball, not the man’ – a nice line which
saw that clip of his famous popular footballing cameo replayed endlessly
on the rolling news channels. The result saw a tentative re-ordering of
the political landscape. Parliament now had 12 UKIP MPs, 7 Greens and,
depressingly, 2 BNP members. Boris, however, had secured a 53-seat
majority, defying predictions that nothing but first-past-the-post would
suit the Tories. Second-choice votes fell almost unanimously for the Tory
leader. ‘Tory? Well, of course. But not in some ghastly tribal way. I’m
British, I just happen to be a politician. That’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Boris
had famously declared on the Today programme as the election approached.
His party flinched, but the opinion polls soared. London’s doughnut, the
ring of suburbs which had flocked to him in the 2008 mayoral elections,
filled out nicely across the central boroughs, while a record number of
Labour constituencies showed their anger at Miliband’s foreign policy by
noting their support for Boris, a man who every house in Britain was aware
of. The country’s most recognisable politician had reaped the benefit of a
system in which everyone could vote more than once.
Following a visit to Buckingham Palace and a meeting with the recently
crowned King George VII, Boris skipped down Downing Street in front
of the waiting media. ‘Floreat Patria’, Boris declared, modifying his old
school motto, with his triumphant victory cheer picked up by an ITN
microphone as he bounded through the front door of Number 10. For
some reason Gordon Brown, the recently appointed Greenspan chair of
economics at Harvard, had still refused to submit a photo for the famous
Downing Street stairwell gallery, but Boris didn’t care. He had done it.
A Conservative Prime Minister with a majority government, the first in
nearly twenty years. Life had always been rather interesting, he thought,
but this was something else.
~
Cabinet appointments followed. Clarke became party chairman, IDS
was handed the Home Office, while his old schoolmate Rory Stewart
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
was made Foreign Secretary despite some last-minute lobbying from
Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Philip Hammond was made Chancellor, Zac
Goldsmith was handed the energy brief, Margot James was fast-tracked
to Business Secretary, and Jo Johnson, Boris’ younger brother, was
promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. A series of policy announcements
followed. Lords reform, which had progressed no further than
the abolition of a further forty-two hereditary peers under the Lib-Lab
government, was thrown out, work on the controversial High Speed 2
rail project was stalled as Boris ploughed resources into speeding up the
completion of Crossrail, a promise for ‘all of Britain to fly where they
want to’ was issued, and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the
EU was casually talked up. Boris then exerted his authority in the most
extraordinary of ways, declaring that to ‘be elected is to be given the
power to decide’, after King George had called for the construction of
a Poundbury in every county. Boris’ chiding somehow managed to be
deferential, playful, and authoritative all at once, and across the board, the
remaining newspapers – 2015 had seen the closure of both The Independent
and The People, with The Guardian becoming an entirely online operation
– declared their admiration.
The Lib Dems, shell-shocked after securing just 40 seats under the new
system, endured their most fractious autumn conference in living memory,
with a split between the party’s left and right wings ending a torrid week.
Farron remained in charge of the Liberal Democrats, while David Laws
and Danny Alexander left conference vowing to establish the New Liberals
as Britain’s realistic alternative. From his position as EU Commissioner for
Trade, Nick Clegg expressed his support for the latter.
The Labour Party, meanwhile, was far from happy. David Miliband had
been elected to lead under the slogan of ‘New Labour – the Only Way’,
but Lord Prescott had been aggressively beating a drum for a Real Labour
Party to represent honest working people. Ed Balls, left out of a job after
the abolition of Labour’s shadow cabinet elections, was notably supportive.
So along with the four Irish parties, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP, as
well as Liverpool Wavertree’s Socialist Labour MP Ricky Tomlinson,
What if …
364
the Palace of Westminster was now officially home to fourteen parties, all
jostling for attention.
~
Some Tory MPs, however, were not so comfortable with Boris’ nationwide
appeal, and on May Day 2018, Penning broke the news to him. Three senior
government figures had resigned: Ken Clarke, Caroline Spelman, who had
been reinstated as Environment Secretary by Boris after her 2012 resignation
over the sensational badger-culling U-turn, and Stephen Dorrell, the
Tory Health Secretary – then spokesman – since Andrew Lansley’s stressrelated
retirement from front-line politics in late 2012.
For the past three months the Conservative Party had been at war with
itself over the issue of Europe. Egged on by the old Maastricht rebel Iain
Duncan Smith, and further supported by the influential junior ministers
Chris Heaton-Harris, Andrea Leadsom, and Mark Pritchard, Boris had got
dragged into the tedious legalities of how to hold an in/out referendum
on the EU. The party was not as supportive as he might have hoped, with
77-year-old father of the House Clarke continuing to make persuasive
speeches in support of the EU and rumours of splits in the cabinet eagerly
seized on by a media looking for a way around Boris’ dominant personality.
The triple walk-out came as little surprise, with poverty guru Michael
Heseltine, nearing his ninth decade, praising their boldness, and Sir David
Cameron, in California for the latest leg of his lucrative global lecture tour
with Tony Blair, declaring himself ‘intrigued’. Anything to knock Boris of
his perch must be good, though, he privately thought, as he headed off for a
set of doubles with Tony, Silvio, and Cliff.
Boris laughed off the resignations as ‘irrelevant piffle – just three people
who are out of touch with the country’, and moved quickly to replace the
grumbling trio.
Perhaps it was five years of media adulation. Maybe he had been
encouraged by the splits amongst his rival parties. Could his majority
have left him feeling invulnerable? It was, according to The Times, the ‘the
most embarrassing reshuffle in history’, while The Sun, with a woefully
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… Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2016?
politically incorrect picture of Boris in President Mobotu-style headwear,
announced the reign of ‘Tin Pot Boris’.
Stanley Johnson, Lord Johnson of Exmoor, had been named as the new
Environment Secretary. At 77, he was the oldest man ever to be appointed
to the cabinet for the first time, the great Sheffield Crucible Pact paying off
at last. Just as unexpected was the elevation of Kit Malthouse, Boris’ former
mayoral deputy and now MP for Witney, to the policing brief, while Ray
Lewis, MP for Hammersmith and another former City Hall colleague,
was handed a job in the Cabinet Office. His opponents screamed cronyism
– ‘Who next? Darius Guppy?’ snarled Danny Finkelstein in The Times
– while the London-focused leader’s circle left many in the party deeply
concerned. Boris declared himself uninterested. ‘I was elected to save this
country, whose people share my vision, and that is what I am doing – with
the best possible people I can work with.’
But alarm bells in the party were set ringing. With Boris’ local
government reforms passing slowly through Parliament, 57 Tory MPs,
the majority of whom represented rural constituencies, were led by the
restless – and jobless – Liam Fox into an informal voting bloc with the
Commons’ UKIP MPs. Though agreeing with Boris’ European plans,
they were in opposition to his proposed council tax reforms which, following
a deal with Mayor of London Lord Coe, were designed to favour a
capital ‘still paying the price for hosting this country’s perfect Olympics’.
Noting the shift in influence, the 23 members of the Liberal Democrats
quickly stitched up a cooperative pact with Caroline Lucas’ growing
Green Party, with David Laws’ New Liberal grouping, the last rump of
Nick Clegg’s coalitionists, now effectively operating as Westminster’s
fifth largest party.
~
A week before Christmas, Boris and Guto were reclining in the Prime
Ministerial den with plates of bangers and mash and Dijon mustard and a
bottle of red wine. ‘Don’t worry about Liam and those UKIP loons. He’ll
come back – they always do. The party needs me more than I need them’,
What if …
366
Boris declared through a mouthful of food. ‘But the time seems right,
wouldn’t you agree?’
Guto nodded. ‘Jobs, money, national pride, and named after you. Not
bad. Incidentally, the latest polling has you as pretty much every non-Tory
supporter’s second choice – again.’
Boris smiled. ‘Good-o! Need to win an election? Appear on TV a lot
then slap your ugly mug on every election pamphlet and the undecided
or the uninterested tick the box. This additional member thing is bloody
brilliant.’
Guto chuckled, and replied: ‘And when the election comes around, just
build an airport, eh? Now, let’s get to work on that press conference.’
He set off to break the good news to Lord Branson of Kidlington, the
new transport envoy. ‘Guto, hold on’, Boris shouted. ‘Will you sort a meeting
with Rachel while you’re at it? I never really agreed with the need for
a women’s minister, but she’s been nagging me for ages. Seems a harmless
enough thing for her to do once we get the second term sorted out. And
shall we take a look at this voting systems green paper again? There might
be something that will do me even better than this current arrangement,
and this really is such terrific fun. I’m only 54 after all – and up for another
decade of this …’.

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