Rachel Johnson: ‘If I hadn’t been born, Boris probably wouldn’t be PM’

PUBLISHED: 10:15 14 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:15 14 July 2020

Rachel Johnson at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2015 (photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Rachel Johnson at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2015 (photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Rachel Johnson’s book, Rake’s Progress, about her ill-fated attempt to be elected as a pro-Remain MEP for Change UK is hilarious, wise, and (at times) a knowingly hide-behind-the-sofa cringe. Katie Jarvis caught up with her in lockdown to ask life’s important questions. Such as, has she managed a haircut yet?

So I’m in lockdown, reading Rake’s Progress: My Political Midlife Crisis. The book where Rachel Johnson details her car-crash attempt to stand for Change UK in the 2019 Euro elections (the anti-Brexit party whose performance was the cringe-equivalent of Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner at the Oscars). (2017 but, for your sake, don’t YouTube it.)

And I’m laughing out loud.

Particularly at the bit where she’s playing tennis with David Cameron, listening to his things-you’d-never-say-in-front-of-your-granny list of swear-words whenever he muffs a shot. (To give you a flavour, “fat bugger” is at the v. acceptable end.)

And particularly at the bit, towards the end, when she confesses to Cameron – at a v. posh but v. noisy party in Regent’s Park – that she’s including a detailed list of his swear words, and he has a Prince Andrew-type panic. “I don’t want people to think I sweat!” he mishears.

And I think: This would make a great interview.

“Katie, any time!” Rachel Johnson emails back.

Stanley, Rachel and Boris JohnsonStanley, Rachel and Boris Johnson

Then there’s radio-silence.

Disaster.

I drag out my conspiracy theories.

1. Has she been banned from speaking? (Not least by Ann Widdecombe, who appears as a walk-on: “There are some people who you can’t help liking – loving – even though you dislike their politics. Ann Widdecombe is not one of them.”)

This seems both very impossible and highly unlikely.

Lionel Barber, Alan Yentob and Rachel Johnson at the Financial Times Summer Party 2014Lionel Barber, Alan Yentob and Rachel Johnson at the Financial Times Summer Party 2014

2. Has she read/been offended by my occasional anti-Gov tweets? (Eg the one with three question-marks to express my feelings about late onset self-isolation for air passengers.)

Um. Possibly.

3. Has she read/been offended by my editor’s tweets?

...Crikey. Much more likely.

I take courage and email again.

“Gosh,” she replies apologetically. “I forgot!”

Rachel and Boris Johnson at a signing session for her new book 'Shire Hell', London, 2008 (photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)Rachel and Boris Johnson at a signing session for her new book 'Shire Hell', London, 2008 (photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

****************

Rachel Johnson is lovely. Unfailingly lovely. (Even if Ann Widdecombe tells a different story.)

She just seems quite busy.

On the morning of our interview, she sends an email asking if we could move it from 10 to 11. (So not a problem. I’m currently free for the rest of my life.)

Then, when I call, she says, “Katie, yes – I’m just sending one email. Hold on right there.”

Rachel Johnson, with dogs, in Somerset, 2014Rachel Johnson, with dogs, in Somerset, 2014

And there follows a minute or two of indistinct conversation – which I wouldn’t repeat, even if I could hear more than the odd word – accompanied by the sound of intense inputting.

I don’t mind the (very slight) wait one bit. I just mind the inferiority complex.

“Because how can you be so busy in lockdown?” I ask, bemused.

“I’m NOT busy! Ziggy the puppy has got my spectacles. You can put this in. Ziggy! Ziggy! She’s got them clamped between her jaws. You’ve got to follow her on Instagram @zigguratfleur. Ziggurat is her full name; she’s a cockapoo. Ziggy! You’re a very bad girl.”

But it’s said with full-cream indulgence.

Rake's Progress, by Rachel Johnson (Simon & Schuster)Rake's Progress, by Rachel Johnson (Simon & Schuster)

She’s spending lockdown at their farmhouse in Somerset (the signal is not great; I’ll be honest), “deep in the Johnson pride-lands”. And – this is how lovely she is – she’s speaking to me despite a splitting headache.

“I hope I don’t have bloody corona. Have you had it?”

I can’t really picture a Johnson in lockdown. They’re all so – oh, goodness – unlockdownable. To borrow a brief picture of the clan, Stanley – their almost-more-famous-than-they-are, though-it’s-hard-to-know-exactly-why, dad – once counted them off as: “Boris is Mayor of London [obviously, some of these are update-able]; Jo is an MP; Leo is a sustainability expert and partner at PWC; Julia is a singer and head of Latin at her school; Max is at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong.”

There followed a pause where Stanley realised he still had at least one more finger to go.

“Oh yes, there’s Rachel…. Rachel has very good teeth.”

(This is good-naturedly quoted in Rake’s Progress by Rachel Johnson, the Oxford-educated journalist, TV and radio presenter, and best-selling author.)

So. Back to my question. She does seem busy.

“Umm. It’s weirdly busy, living in the country. There’s always something to do. You sweep around the wellington boots. Shopping alone takes a long time because, if you live two miles from tarmac, getting a pint of milk is a 45-minute round-trip.”

I will get onto the book. I promise. But. There’s a pressing question first.

Like: Has she had her hair cut?

(So famous are her blond locks, there’s even a Mumsnet thread – which she also quotes in the book – entitled ‘Rachel Johnson’s Hair’, where users scramble to describe her look. “An Afghan hound.” “A Seventies porn star.”)

“Oh, god,” Rachel Johnson says, feelingly. “I’ve been snipping my fringe, but no! How can I have had my haircut? I’ve been texting my hairdresser saying, ‘Please, please can I have a haircut!’ He said, no, not until July. I look like Dougal in the Magic Roundabout.

“I don’t think my teeth are in great nick, either. That’s my USP as a Johnson: my teeth and hair. And they’re not much to write home about.”

****************

Self-deprecation is one of the joys of Rake’s Progress – Rake being Rachel’s nickname. And it starts, as good books do, right at the beginning, with a visit to the Johnson household in Primrose Hill by a family friend.

It’s 1970 and Rachel is five. Al – as Johnsons have always called Boris – is six. She thinks, through haze of memory, that the friend is Tony Howard, editor of the New Statesman.

What she does recall with clarity is the question he asks.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Rachel and Alexander?”

Rachel, reared on a diet of Peter and Jane Ladybird books, instantly knows the right answer. “I would like to be a wife and mother.”

Alexander also knows the right answer.

“World King.”

The incident is telling for myriad reasons – and not just the blindingly apparent. Among them is the fact that Rachel’s very existence – younger sister by 14 months – spurred Boris into exhaustingly competitive action. (One of his most galvanising memories, she notes, was their granny declaring how much better Rachel was at reading.)

Or, as Rachel puts it, “If I hadn’t been born, he would probably not be prime minister.”

The second is that Boris – understandably – would really rather she hadn’t included the ‘World King’ vignette. Yet she does.

(Don’t get me wrong. There’s never a smidgeon of doubt for the reader of the unwavering loyalty and love the Johnsons feel towards one another.)

But this is a book of a gazillion things that people would probably ‘rather she didn’t’. (Including Amber Rudd divulging – at the 2018 Tory conference – the magnificent extent of Kwasi Kwarteng’s manhood.) Sheer delight.

Anyway. Back to the story. A dedicated Remainer, Rachel decides to stand for the new Change UK party in the Euro elections of May 2019. She does this without telling Ivo, her husband, even though there are implications, such as (at least temporarily) giving up her paid work on a Sky News debate show.

Ivo, when he finds out, is even crosser than when she broke the news that she was going on Big Brother in 2018. A crossness assuaged, that time, when she revealed the size of the cheque she was getting. There is no correspondingly good news with Euro elections.

The romp that follows is hilarity itself. There are contra-indications from the start, such as Rachel’s “reverse political skills – forgetting people immediately is chief among them”. And her inability to stay on message, including an interview in The Times, as her party entered the final furlough of election fever, in which she described herself as “the rat that jumps on the sinking ship”. It’s a quote everyone found funny – apart from anyone connected with the ‘sinking ship’ of Change UK. As Rachel puts it, “I had Ratnered them out in The Times.”

But these are as nothing compared to the contra-indications of the Change UK party itself. “The most catastrophic and short-lived political party in modern history,” as she describes it. Change UK, of course, failed to win a single seat in the elections; in fact, for reasons you can read about, Rachel even managed accidentally not to vote for herself.

What is endearing is the way that Boris, the ultimate winner of the Brexit bonanza, is utterly forgiving of his sister’s shenanigans. “Your campaign wasn’t so much performance art,” he concedes. It was “Dadaist.”

And she is equally forgiving of his success. Her pride, on her bro becoming PM, is touching and sincere. If clear-eyed. “I felt he had backed the wrong side [Brexit], quite possibly not for entirely selfless reasons. But his rat-like nose for power – and chanelling the sublime instincts and soaring desires of the British people – could not ever be doubted.”

****************

So why?

Not ‘Why stand up for something you really believe in?’ Her willingness to stand up and be counted for her ‘Remain’ commitment is brave. Utterly admirable.

But why write about it when you know it might cause ructions?

“Umm,” she says. “If something is going wrong, I know it’s going to make much better copy than if it’s going right. I also think you learn a lot more from failure than you do from success.”

And she did learn a lot about herself, she says, “Not very impressive. My inability to stay on message; my short attention span; my general reaction of tedium to what most of what politics seems to demand, which was huge amounts of time for very little effect. You have to spend a whole Saturday in a Sainsbury’s car park in Bristol.

“But WHY?

“You might as well sit on Twitter. Look at the impact someone like Piers Morgan has! Much more than a backbench MP.”

And what has she learned about politics, I ask. The thing that strikes me is that politicians (especially in America) can lie ad infinitum and be forgiven. But let them tell the truth – as Rachel did on so many disastrous occasions – and they’re viciously vilified.

“I think people should be able to say ‘I don’t know’,” she says. “Especially now, when everybody is flying without radar or compass or signals. The expectation that some poor sap like Matt Hancock is going to know how to deal with a global pandemic is just nuts.”

She can’t stand the way we lay into people all the time. “I think everybody has got to be much more understanding that everyone’s human and flawed and tired. I wish people understood that politicians have families; and parents; and children. And they’re not superhuman.”

So what about her family, superhuman as they do all seem. Has she had much reaction to her book?

She sighs, audibly. “I’ve had very little family response to it. In fact, none.”

Really?

“That’s because I published just as lockdown happened. So maybe that was providential. It was overtaken hugely by events. By great big grand events. This is the biggest thing that’s probably happened to all of us in our lifetime. And, you know, my little book about my very short-lived political career is a pinprick in terms of impact on the family.

“I don’t think my dad liked it, which was a bit disappointing. It was written from a place of total love for my family and I hope they can sense that, if they’ve ever read it. I hope they would feel that.”

I ask about Boris in hospital – the worry; the fear – and, understandably, she won’t talk about it. But she says so nicely, “If that’s all right.”

My favourite part of the book, I tell her, is post disastrous count. When the extent of Change UK’s failure is writ large: “We did beat UKIP, but only just.” The election count when, 10 minutes into the BBC’s coverage, she is merely referred to as ‘Boris Johnson’s sister’. Plus ça change. And then she gets a text from her son, Oliver. It reads, ‘So proud of you, Mum. You really are the best mum a son could ask for.’

I’m not being ironic or patronising or any of those other things when I tell her I consider her the most successful Johnson. Maybe it’s a woman thing. But, you know: a long and happy marriage; children who adore her; a balance of success in all areas.

And she can be true to who she is. As she always is.

Who would want to be PM at the moment? I wouldn’t. But I’d love to be someone whose son says, ‘You are the best mum’.

“Exactly,” Rachel Johnson says.

Read more

Rake’s Progress: My Political Midlife Crisis, is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, price £16.99

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