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Boris Johnson in Brussels — visibly invisible

Jim Gibbons
July 20, 2019

Boris Johnson's ubiquity these days can be tiresome. But as a newspaper hack in Brussels he preferred to keep a low profile. Jim Gibbons recounts the many faces of the man who could be the UK's next prime minister.

Boris Johnson holding up a bagged smoked fish
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/F. Augstein

Many people say there are two Boris Johnsons: the bumbling everyman so beloved of his fans in the UK and a foul-tempered liar driven by ambition. Neither of them turned up very often at the European Commission for the daily midday briefing during my years in Brussels. He wasn't interested in the finer points of EU policy and liked to stay below the radar of his boss, Max Hastings, at The Daily Telegraph. He claimed that the paging service run by Belgium's Belgacom didn't work, which wasn't true; it did, to my frequent annoyance; my clients always seemed able to reach me, whatever I was doing.

But perhaps his non-appearance at the daily briefings, where most of the Brussels press corps gathered, was because many commissioners simply wouldn't speak to him. They saw him as a source of negative — and often made-up — stories about what was going on and furthermore someone who could easily misquote them in the unlikely event of an interview. He was not the first, nor the only creator of what have become known as "Euromyths" — Brussels correspondents did the bidding of their bosses back home and they eagerly sought euroskeptic stories, true or otherwise.

Former DW presenter Jim Gibbons
Jim Gibbons hosted DW's Europe Magazine until 2013Image: privat

Boris' 'Town of Babel'

During John Major's time as prime minister, the Foreign Office set up what they unofficially called a "Boris unit" to counter his weirder claims. These included one that fishermen were being forced by the Commission to wear hairnets and also that the European Commission was planning to build a 3,000-meter-high (10,000 feet) "Tower of Babel" to house the EU institutions. I'm told there are people in today's UK Conservative Party who still believe it's true, although it never was, of course. A political group press officer at the European Parliament at the time admitted that he seldom saw Boris. The passage of legislation through the Parliament and its many committees was too slow to interest him, so he simply ignored it.

Boris was known among his fellow Brussels journalists for being tightfisted, always willing to accept a drink but seldom paying his round. Boris would never talk about what he was doing and kept the office he shared locked. Part of his job was to cover Belgian and other European stories, too, but he could never be bothered and was inclined instead to ask colleagues with better contacts, then write up an exaggerated version of what he'd been told, quoting them as "EU sources."

Read moreWho is Boris Johnson, Brexit champion and wannabe British PM?

Once, in The Old Hack, a pub next to the Commission, I mentioned to him that a new freelance had been asking me what stories I was chasing that day, then contacting my regional television clients to offer them coverage before I had checked the facts. Boris suggested telephoning him, claiming to be from the TV station ITN in London, and sending him off to Moscow on a wild goose chase, leaving him stranded there after an expensive flight he would have had to pay for.

Don't be fooled by appearances

Far more seriously, Boris also helped an old school friend, Darius Guppy [a British-Iranian businessman who was embroiled in an insurance scam — the ed.], by providing the address of a News of the World journalist, Stuart Collier, who'd been investigating Guppy's business activities. He did so, knowing that Guppy planned to have Collier beaten up, although Guppy assured him it would be nothing more than "two black eyes and a cracked rib." The beating never happened but Collier is still awaiting an apology. Guppy was later jailed for fraud, while Johnson got nothing more than a telling-off from Hastings.

Boris could be kind. When a journalist friend admired a book he was reading Boris simply gave it to him. He also slipped £5 (€5.60, $6) to a trainee journalist sent to interview him at the Spectator magazine, telling him to get himself a sandwich and a cup of coffee. He eagerly indulged in sporting activities with colleagues: he is a talented fast bowler as many an amateur batsman or wicket keeper can testify, with bruises to prove it. But he also had a ferocious temper that could catch unawares those who mistakenly saw him as some kind of cuddly Falstaff figure. It's the sort of irrational loss of control that might make even his British supporters wonder about the wisdom of giving him control of the nuclear launch codes.

We lived near each other but in different worlds. He had been to Eton, I had attended the local state grammar school in north-eastern Jarrow. I rented a one bedroom first floor flat while he owned a 4-story "maison de maître" around the corner. Boris spent his time avoiding calls from The Daily Telegraph whilst dreaming up far-fetched tales of a European super-state trying to take advantage of the honest British worker. He described it once on the BBC as "sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England." 

Boris Johnson jogging through a field
Would you trust this man to run the UK?Image: Getty Images/L. Neal

A walking disaster

Those close to him felt he'd crossed over from journalism to politics. If he becomes prime minister he may find that ducking out of the way and making things up without research or forethought doesn't work as well at Number 10, Downing Street, as it did in the Brussels office of the The Daily Telegraph

Described by one former colleague as a campaigning genius who doesn't actually believe in Brexit, he leaves a trail of misfortune and disaster, partly among a number of women in his complicated romantic life. The last time he visited the European Parliament in Brussels as Mayor of London, he was crossing the glassed-in footbridge from one building to another, when he passed his sister-in-law, then-BBC correspondent Shirin Wheeler, conducting a TV interview.

"Good morning, Shirin," he boomed, merrily interrupting her in her work. She immediately turned to look out of the window." Just checking that it really IS a good morning," she replied, "because you're such a liar, Boris."

His lies have paved the way toward Number 10, convincing many that the EU is bad for Britain, but if they continue once he's in office, they could easily pave the way out again.

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Jim Gibbons had the (dubious?) pleasure of meeting and working with Boris Johnson during the former's time as host of DW's Brussels-based Europe Magazine show until 2013.