Recognisable instantly in this photograph is a young Boris Johnson. Sitting Buddha-like in the gardens of New College, Oxford, the 20-year-old student is brooding intently — his mind clearly elsewhere.
Typical Boris, he always has much going on in his brain — although a notable characteristic is that others never quite know exactly what he is thinking.
Also in the picture is Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his future wife, gazing at him tenderly. I am the young man looking wistfully off-camera unenticed by the cucumber sandwiches. Out of shot is Boris’s mother.
At the time, I was a university boyfriend of Boris’s younger sister, Rachel. It was she who famously recalled that he said at the age of eight that when he grew up, he wanted to be ‘World King’.
Recognisable instantly in this photograph is a young Boris Johnson. Sitting Buddha-like in the gardens of New College, Oxford, the 20-year-old student is brooding intently — his mind clearly elsewhere
I became a token member of the family for four years and rubbed along with the quartet of remarkable, high-achieving siblings: Boris, 55, Rachel (now 53 and a broadcaster and former editor of The Lady), Leo, 51 (an entrepreneur and Radio 4 presenter) and Jo, 47 (Tory MP and former minister).
As such, I became the Fifth Johnson — in a similar way that the ‘Fifth Beatle’ is an informal title applied to any number of musicians who were at one point a member of The Beatles.
By enlisting me in his cosy fraternity, Boris gave me a ringside seat to witness the invention of the man who is set to be our next prime minister.
The Johnsons were insanely competitive, full of boundless self-confidence and shared an enviable zest for life.
I loved them all and hoped some of these qualities would rub off on me. Indeed, my claim to be the Fifth Johnson was enhanced by the fact that my hair was blond and even messier than Boris’s. In fact, part of me wonders if I inspired his trademark unkempt look.
Looking back at that garden photo with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen as a symbol of what Classics-quoting Boris might call his modus operandi.
During one university summer vacation, I recall Boris’s father, Stanley, arranging for Boris and Rachel to investigate ‘animal atrocities’ in Spain and Portugal for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Allegra and I were WAGS who went along for the ride.
After a week attending bull fights and monitoring the cruel tradition of photographing captive animals on beaches, Allegra left us to return home and we continued on our way.
Partying again in 2008: Boris and Sebastian at a bash held for the 180th anniversary of The Spectator
Each night for a week, Boris would sit me down, man-to-man and ask me over tapas whether he should marry Allegra. He was clearly in a state of mental anguish.
By telling him they were far too young and that he should hold his horses, I felt like a Cassandra figure prophesying doom.
Most of his other male friends also cautioned him against a precipitate marriage.
Imagine my mortification when I later discovered that Boris had already secretly proposed to Allegra before our trip abroad.
He had not been confronting the agony of indecision, as I thought at the time, but the agony of having already embarked on a course of action from which he felt there was no way back.
There is a clear pattern of behaviour here: suffering mental anguish over difficult decisions and devising uniquely Boris strategies to wriggle through.
For example, the way he weighed up both sides of the question of marriage was similar to what he did three decades later when he prepared two drafts of his weekly Daily Telegraph column — one in favour of Brexit, the other for Remain — before deciding which one he would use.
Ever the intellectual, he explained that such bizarre behaviour (which critics said proved he had no principles) helped make his mind up.
Another case in point was his attempt to become president of the Oxford Union debating society. Although not as Left-wing as the student body at his college, Balliol, it was inconceivable for a Tory such as Boris to be elected president.
Balliol’s then Master, Anthony Kenny, later remembered: ‘Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. So far as I know, he told no actual lies, but his strategy recalled Thomas Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: “Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.”’
I became the Fifth Johnson — in a similar way that the ‘Fifth Beatle’ is an informal title applied to any number of musicians who were at one point a member of The Beatles
He said, in reference to the Austrian and French diplomats during the Napoleonic era that with ‘Talleyrand-like skill’, Boris was duly elected president of the Oxford Union.
Kenny went on to say that he was subsequently contacted by an MP for the then Social Democratic Party who was looking for an intern to work for him.
‘I’ve just the man for you,’ Kenny told him. ‘Bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson.’
When Kenny summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, Boris burst out laughing: ‘Master, don’t you know I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tory?’
Whenever I see him at London parties these days, we reminisce in mock reverie about our Oxford University days together before he always mutters under his breath the words: ‘Omerta, omerta.’
This is a reference to the code of silence practised by the mafia (and a refusal to give evidence to police about illegal activities). Boris says it half in jest, but also half in earnest.
Boris Johnson holds up a bagged smoked fish during his speech during a Conservative leadership hustings
He expects loyalty from his closest friends (of whom there are very few) and the unspoken understanding is that their loyalty will be reciprocated.
In the infamous secret tape-recording of a conversation between Boris and his Old Etonian friend turned jewel thief Darius Guppy in 1990, Guppy pledges his ‘love’ to Johnson after he agreed to help him track down and beat up a tabloid journalist who was on Guppy’s trail.
(Incidentally, I once recall him thumping his sister during a heated discussion about who was the lead singer of The Clash. Rachel had insisted it was Paul Simonon. Boris rightly named Joe Strummer.)
Boris later dismissed the conversation with Guppy as a joke.
But for him, friendship is no laughing matter.
When I went to study at Oxford University in 1984, Boris had been there a year and had already made his mark.
He was fully formed, unlike so many other juvenile undergraduates, and was talked of as a future statesman. He was super-clever (with Balliol having given him a scholarship funded by a bequest dating back to the 19th century from the philanthropist Hannah Brackenbury), could recite Shakespeare sonnets on the hoof as he strode down Oxford’s streets and had bagged Allegra, the most beautiful girl in his year. At the time, she was a Conde Nast magazine cover girl.
At the Oxford Union, he was justly renowned for his oratory and seemingly off-the-cuff jokes. Of course, we all suspected they were well-rehearsed but they were no less funny.
He sprinkled his speeches with Latin and Greek references — many of which went way over our heads. Of course, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, the notorious and elitist dining society which generally invited only Old Etonians to join.
He was present during one of its meetings in Oxford when a pot plant was thrown through a restaurant window and some members ended up in police cells.
Many years later, Boris, who was among those arrested, recalled: ‘The party ended up with a number of us crawling on all fours through the hedges of the botanical gardens, and trying to escape police dogs. And once we were in the cells, we became pathetic namby-pambies.’
In fact, the Boris I knew was not the Bullingdon Boris nor the Oxford Union Boris — it was not Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson at all.
He was known by his family and friends simply as ‘Al’, an abbreviation of his first name. Boris nicknamed me Bossman Von Sebsies (don’t ask me why).
We holidayed together. We romanced together (with our respective girlfriends). We played what he calls whiff-whaff (the game invented on the dining tables of Victorian England and which most of us know as table-tennis) and enjoyed our gilded youth.
Al was warm, affable, tremendous company, sensitive and artistic.
This was a talent inherited from his brilliant artist mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who always insisted her eldest son was a softie who could be more easily hurt than Rachel. That was her version of Al, which didn’t quite square with the public Boris.
Sometimes the two sides of his character seemed to be in tension.
Boris loved playing to the gallery, was ever restless, competitive and had a hunger to succeed.
Boris Johnson speaks at a Conservative Party leadership campaign hustings at the Excel Centre in London
Rachel recalls he once broke one of his toes by kicking the table in a temper over losing a table tennis point to her. He once played me at squash and obliterated me over five games. The score? 9-0. 9-0. 9-0. 9-0. 9-0. I privately thought: ‘Come on, you bastard, surely you can give me one point! Instead, I meekly said: “Well done, Al.”’
To understand the Boris phenomenon, you have to look at his parents’ disastrous marriage.
Critics say Boris Johnson loves only himself, whereas the truth is that he is always seeking love and approval.
The Johnson sibling rivalry is well known. For example, Rachel once said to Boris: ‘Have you heard the bad news about Jo? He got a First.’
And when Boris was at university, he felt he was in competition with his own father.
Stanley had been another early achiever who met his future wife when both were Oxford undergraduates. (Charlotte gave birth to Boris when she was 22 before she had graduated and Stanley won the Newdigate poetry prize.)
Boris’s father later divorced Charlotte, and her prolonged absences in hospital with depression meant all the children were frequently left to their own devices.
Self-sufficiency became an imperative.
Boris, it seemed, was determined to match, if not eclipse, Stanley’s matrimonial, procreative and academic achievements.
Stanley certainly put me through my paces.
When once visiting his family farm, Nethercote in Exmoor, he proposed a walk one morning and suggested we exchange Wellington boots.
I thought this was some quaint West Country ritual I was unfamiliar with, or maybe a throwback Turkish custom in honour of his Eastern roots.
I happily obliged.
Only half an hour into our walk did the purpose of his gesture become apparent.
Both my feet were waterlogged. One of Stanley’s boots had holes in it. He cackled with laughter and found it all tremendously funny. Another episode became famous in the Johnson family annals and was referred to ever after as ‘the Rape of the Jacket’.
Boris, Jo, Leo, Allegra and myself were seated at table for lunch. I was in the habit of wearing a jacket, even in hot weather.
Calmly, Stanley repeatedly asked me to take it off, saying: ‘It’s fairly warm in here.’
But then he erupted: ‘Right, that’s it. I can’t take it any more.’
Before I knew it, he had got up from his seat, marched around the table to my chair, stood behind me and yanked the jacket off me.
The whole family sniggered with laughter. Heartless or too hearty? I could never decide.
For all the talk of Boris’s Turkish ancestry, he was born in New York, educated at Eton College and was brought up in the heartland of the privileged, metropolitan elite.
His godmother was Lady Rachel Billington, novelist daughter of the prison reform campaigner Earl of Longford. And dinner chez Charlotte in Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill, was always a stimulating affair that resembled the talking shop of the British Establishment.
One night we would be joined by Anthony Howard, the then deputy editor of The Observer. Another night it would be Simon Jenkins, the future Times editor.
Boris always held his own in such company. But then again his maternal grandfather was a Fellow of All Souls in Oxford and reputedly one of the cleverest men in England. That key human value for Boris — loyalty — emerged once more.
For example, when Anthony Howard cast aspersions on our university contemporary Toby Young, Boris loyally rose to his defence.
Other principles were firmly held.
I remember one conversation he had with his maternal grandmother on the Isle of Skye. She asked Boris if he believed in free will. (Such weighty issues were what passed for small talk in the Johnson household.)
‘I think I believe in the sensation of free will,’ said Boris. In other words, he believed in fate.
The truth is that Boris has always had a sense of his own destiny and this matched his childhood vow to become world leader.
Other values are also non-negotiable.
Much has been written about Boris’s chaotic organisational skills.
His stag night was a classic example. One Sunday, a week before the wedding in September 1987, he belatedly realised that he hadn’t organised one.
So we set off that night on an impromptu outing.
We chose to visit the drinking dens of Soho — believe me, it was much seedier then than it is now.
There were four of us — the groom, myself, his brother, Jo, and an Eton friend.
Wild horses wouldn’t drag from me the truth of what went on that night. (‘Omerta, omerta,’ I hear Boris say.) You’ll have to wait for Boris’s memoirs to find out.
Suffice to say it was a spectacular farce commensurate with what happened a week later at the wedding when he had to borrow a pair of trousers from a guest and lost his ring at the reception.
One of Johnson’s predecessors as a scholar at Balliol was Aldous Huxley, author of that great dystopian novel Brave New World. How apt that next Tuesday, Boris Johnson could be ushering in his own brave new world for this country.
Yes, I always believed he was destined for high office but not even my old Oxford self would have dared to believe that Britain’s future would one day lie in this infuriatingly paradoxical man’s hands.