How living in the West Midlands turned Boris Johnson into a Tory
Written by The Newsroom on June 20, 2019
I was once Boris Johnson’s boss – sort of – at a crucial turning point in the life of the man who may well be our next Prime Minister ( writes Burton Live reporter Jon Griffin ).
In the mid-80s a distinguished-looking, floppy-haired character with a cut-glass public school accent turned up in the newsroom of the Wolverhampton Express and Star.
Boris was a Times trainee and the no-nonsense E&S was considered a suitable provincial training ground for aspiring Fleet Street reporters.
At the time – in the mid-to-late 80s – I was a district news editor on the multi-editioned evening newspaper, which sold around 250,000 copies a night and had offices throughout the West Midlands.
They were heady times for newspapers in the pre-internet days. In a fast-moving environment of hourly deadlines and endless print demands, Boris had to sink or swim, just like any other new recruit.
I recall a slightly shambling, friendly, endearingly unkempt character who wore a brown overcoat and a constant semi-grin.
Boris sat directly behind me amongst the banks of reporters to the rear of the newsdesk in the HQ of the E&S.
Wolverhampton proved his introduction to the real world of regional journalism – the courts, the councils, the newsroom laughs – so much from a bygone era.
But life in the Black Country proved to be a lightbulb moment for the old Etonian with his distinctive mop of hair.
In an interview with the New York Times a few years ago, the blond bombshell revealed his experience reporting in Wolverhampton had made him who he is today.
Asked if he could remember the moment he knew he was a Conservative, Boris replied: “When I was a 22-or-23-year-old reporter in a place called Wolverhampton.
“I got impatient with some of the stuff I saw going on about damp and mould, about who is ultimately responsible for improving the ventilation in people’s houses.
“I felt that people were being infantilised and made dependent by the system and that the local Labour politicians had no interest in sorting it out; were content to harvest these people’s votes without improving their lives. It was the spores of damp, of mould forming on the walls of Wolverhampton.”
And in an interview with the Independent, Boris recalls of his days in Wolverhampton: “My mistakes are too numerous to list in full, but one stands out that still makes me hang my head in shame.
“It was when I was working for the Wolverhampton Express and Star, and I wrote a piece about unemployment in Wolverhampton. It was the late 1980s, when unemployment was still pretty severe, and a lot of people were living in wretched conditions.
“I had discovered a lawnmower shop that needed sales assistants, but no-one was applying for the job. I couldn’t understand it and wrote this irate comment piece about people scrounging benefits.
“I’d been in Wolverhampton only about a month, and it was unsurpassed right-wing drivel. I suppose it was intellectually justified, but nonetheless it was condescending, and I felt afterwards like an Oxbridge graduate who had just arrived and was declaring everyone shirkers. I very much regret that.”
I recall little of Boris’ politics at the time, as my days were largely spent on the phone to reporters in Stafford, Cannock, Lichfield and Tamworth, while my Etonian colleague was being ferried around the West Midlands by hardened hacks showing him the ropes.
An old friend, former Walsall hack Steve Castle, recalls Boris being “absolutely fascinated” by the inner workings of an industrial tribunal.
Another former colleague, the late, great Andy Donkersley, took Boris off to crown court to see justice at first hand.
Andy and Boris had seemingly little in common, apart from plenty of hair and maverick personalities, but I recall they got on rather well.
According to a biography published in 2006, Boris lodged with a woman called Brenda in Bilston, home of steel factories, Banks’s bitter and pork scratchings – a far cry from the gilded worlds of Eton and Oxford.
It’s now well over 30 years since I shared a newsroom with the man who today stands on the very doorstep of 10, Downing Street. The world has moved on at a remarkable rate in the intervening three decades – and so has Boris.
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