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What's Boris really like?

Blog | By Harry Mount | Dec 10, 2018


One evening, towards the end of 2012, I thanked Boris Johnson for letting me edit 'The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson' (Bloomsbury). The conversation that followed goes a little way to unpeeling the planet-brained, blond onion that is his character.

It was at the launch, in a Tower Bridge pub, of his sister Rachel's novel, Winter Games, about upper-class English girls in Nazi Germany before the war. Rachel - no slouch in the PR department - was in lederhosen and had laid on an oompah band and plates of bratwurst to get us in the Teutonic mood. Her speech - on how to give a launch party - lampooned the limp party-planning advice of her fellow Penguin author, Pippa Middleton - "First, you'll definitely need some drink...".

And then Boris arrived - late, as usual, but genuinely trying to be as surreptitious as possible. He didn't stand a chance. Like Elvis turning up at his kid sister's party, he was mobbed on all sides by friends, relations and complete strangers. In a bid to deflect attention, he tried to make himself useful - he made for the bar and proceeded to send a convoy of glasses of red wine over the heads of the throng to his wife, Marina, and various other members of the Johnson clan.

The I'm-just-here-to-help ploy didn't work. The crowd of acolytes circled closer, pressing him up against the bar. It's hard to overstate not just Boris's fame, but also the affection he's held in. A lot of the reason for the affection is the well-practised, mock-bumbling, Latin-loving routine - Billy Bunter meets Bertie Wooster meets Professor Branestawm. But he is also very unlike most politicians - often a humourless, didactic, upwardly managing group - in that he is extremely adept at spreading the love, in all directions.

At another book party - yup, another Johnson, his father, Stanley, was launching a collection of his journalism at the Marylebone branch of Daunt's - Boris was besieged by customers who happened to be in the bookshop at the time. One pensioner wanted her photo taken with him; another berated him about the Tory policy on Europe. A friend of mine, a lady in her late 70s, went up to him and said, "I think you're much better than David Cameron [then Prime Minister], and should really be in charge."

"My devotion to the dear leader is absolute," said Boris, with such intense mock seriousness that you couldn't help but think the opposite.

He threw in a batsqueak of flirtatiousness, too. With a gleam in her eyes, my friend confessed to me afterwards that she had been utterly bewitched by him. With none of the crowd, at either party, did he show the slightest flicker of irritation, or any of the code words that suggest you want to end a conversation - "Well, it's been lovely to meet you," that sort of thing. He naturally inhabits the hallowed, clichéd persona of the ideal politician - he remembers you, and he makes you think that he really likes you. At his sister's party, I couldn't get close enough to thank him for letting me do this book, but he singled me out with a thrusting index finger.

"Harry!" he boomed, as if we were bosom childhood companions who hadn't seen each other for decades - rather than friendly old work colleagues (I used to work on the Daily Telegraph with him for five years) who bump into each other quite a lot. I went on to thank him. He professed to have no idea at all about the existence of this book - even though he had given it the go-ahead the week before. Despite his prodigious memory, there is a small chance he might have forgotten all about it.

Although lots of Boris's friends say he's lazy, the volume of work he deals with is colossal. On Wednesday evenings in the early 2000s - when I used to edit his Telegraph column - he also wrote the leader for the Spectator, went to Prime Minister's Questions and wrote a car column for GQ.

Then again, the chances are, he probably did know all about the book. Part of the Boris mystique is to veil all sorts of things in a miasma of faux ignorance - it flatters the person he's talking to, who then comes across as knowing more. When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister on May 7, 2004, his response was, "Look the point is...er, what is the point? It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it." Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP, says of Boris's pretend stupidity, "It's a great rhetorical trick to say, 'I've got five policies, erm, what are they?' "He's brilliantly worked out that English people don't like clever intellectuals, particularly in the Conservative audience he wants to appeal to. There's a smooth machine under the buffoonery. It's not an exaggeration to call him a genius."

The faux ignorance technique also doubles as a perverse device for advertising his intellect. An MP friend of mine describes a three-way conversation he once had with Boris and a conservation expert. The MP was discussing the best way to save the African elephant.

"The thing you've got to do is sell off the land to private investors," said the MP.

"Christ, that seems awfully odd," said Boris.

"Well, if the state owns the land, then the wardens just poach the elephants for themselves," said the MP, "But if you privatise the land, and reward the wardens for increasing tourist numbers, then they have an interest in the elephants surviving."

The conservation expert turned out to be rather impressed by the MP's line. Noticing the transfer of the limelight, Boris quickly shifted gear from clueless ingénue to African elephant expert.

"Ah, yes! It's coming back to me - the McTavish report, isn't it? Now of course it's worked much better with Tanzanian elephants than Zimbabwean ones..."

The faux ignorance ploy has other benefits, too. Because the public have - front of mind - the idea of Boris as a bumbling fool, they let him get away with high-brow references. In his 2012 Tory Conference speech, Boris talked of the "eupepsia, euphoria, eudaimonia" brought on by the Olympics. No other politician could use words like that, without coming across as too dangerously clever by half.

His That's-News-To-Me-Guv approach also helps get him off the hook. He used the technique many times during the years I edited his Telegraph column. Week after week, my Wednesday nights were destroyed by Boris filing so late. His Telegraph column was the last thing he did - long after the Spectator had been put to bed, PMQs was over, and the GQ car column had been filed. All the other regular columnists on the Telegraph had to file by 4pm, and they kept rigorously to their deadlines. Boris was given special dispensation; again and again in his professional, and his private, life, he has been given special dispensation by friends, family and frustrated colleagues who can't help but like him. As his biographer, Andrew Gimson, told me, "He's like the boy in the nativity play who's forgotten his lines who you're longing to help out."

So Boris was allowed to file by 7pm; but, still, week after week, he was late. On the dot of 7pm, I - and, over the years, many other colleagues on the Telegraph Comment desk - would ring his mobile. The old, hyper-friendly voice boomed over the phone. "Should be with you now, boss," said Boris, who can lay on flattery with a supersized trowel. It's ridiculous when he introduces me at parties as his old editor. His pitch-perfect prose never needed an editor - just a poor chimp prepared to check his emails late into the night on Wednesday evenings and send Boris's word-perfect, pitch-perfect copy on to the subs. But the head still swells a bit when the great man apparently defers to you, even though you know, in his heart, he defers to no one.

It helps that Boris has an exceptional memory for the times he's met you before. On the evening of his fringe speech at the 2012 Tory Conference, both Anne Diamond and the journalist Vincent Graff told stories of how Boris remembered precise details of brief conversations they'd had with him years ago. Bill Clinton did the same, filing people’s names and details in a Rolodex, and remembering them many years later. Boris manages without the Rolodex, and those who come across him - and work for him - reward his prodigious memory with affection.

A builder who once put up an extension in Islington for the Johnsons told a friend of mine he's so keen on Boris that he took time off work to vote for him. A Conservative adviser who has worked with him on many campaigns told me that, uniquely among senior Tories, Boris always chats to him, remembers his name and leaves him with a sort of Ready-Brek glow.

If you talk to Boris at a party, he never scans the place for the great and the good - he's too confident to feel he must work a room. In any case, he doesn't have to make the effort: the mountain may not come to Mohammed, but the great and the good make their way to Boris.

It helps, too, that his first name is so memorable, rare and comic, that everyone tends to refer to him by it, immediately assuming a familiarity and friendliness. When Barclays sponsored the London cycle hire scheme in 2010, they might have reasonably hoped they would be called Barclays Bikes - they didn't stand a chance up against the Boris branding.

Anyway, back to my destroyed Wednesday evenings. "It hasn't arrived," I'd say at 7.01pm. "Ah, Christ, sorry," said Boris who - again, unlike most politicians - is extremely good at apologising. He long ago learnt the ancient English art of saying sorry without meaning it, "Bloody internet! It must be pinging its way down those threadbare copper wires, as we speak, old man." It wasn't doing anything of the sort, because Boris had yet to put pen to paper; sometimes you could hear him bashing away at his keyboard in the background, just as he was telling you he'd sent it ages ago.

His technical incompetence was real enough. He once asked the chief sub on the Telegraph comment desk to translate a piece he'd typed with the shift key accidentally deployed, back into lower case. An article that read 203498BARROSO230"!INTERGALACTIC &NUMBSKULL%2#_ turned out in fact to be a learned piece on the case against the euro. It showed, too, the lightning speed he can write at when he's under the cosh - typing away without a glance at the screen.

Excuses like this poured out of the phone every week and, every week, the editor or deputy editor of the Comment pages had their Wednesday night ruined. Charles Moore, his old Telegraph editor, got Boris right when he borrowed the words used by David Niven of Errol Flynn, "You knew where you were with Errol Flynn. He always let you down." It's true, and it's truer the closer you get to him. The fans, like the elderly lady at the party, get the charm and the stardust sprinkled in their gleaming eyes. The people working for, or with, him get the charm, too, but they also have to toil to fill the gap left by his over-extended commitments, his ambition and the Olympian confidence that so often leaves him unprepared. Ian Hislop has said that most guest chairmen of Have I Got News For You? rehearse the script for two days; Boris used to arrive at 6pm, as recording began, and let his lack of preparation produce its own form of comedy.

But the thing is, however many of my Wednesday night drinks and dinners were destroyed by Boris, it was impossible to dislike him, not least because of his strange generosity of heart. When his two biographers - Andrew Gimson and Sonia Purnell - approached me for Boris anecdotes for their books, I boringly stonewalled them; for all those miserable Wednesday evenings, it felt like treachery to tell on him - as I am doing now.

It would have seemed disloyal, in a way that Boris rarely is. He'll let you down but he won't tell tales on you. Boris is again rare among politicians, in that it's very difficult to get him to be rude about his colleagues; rare among people, too, in possessing the ability to be funny without resorting to the easy weapons of rudeness and gossip. For someone who is so keen on becoming a very important person, he is remarkably free from self-importance. A few years ago, I sent him a copy of a book on Latin I was writing, hoping for a quote for the cover. More pompous, less self-confident public figures often refuse to do this sort of thing on principle, for fear of diluting their brand, of giving praise that really should only be allotted to them.

Boris said that, to be honest, he didn't have time to read my book, but proceeded to give me several quotes, adding, "Or just make one up, if you want." The one I chose - "Learn Latin - the only way forwards is backwards!" was characteristically pithy and well-calibrated. For all his gaffes - his insults to Liverpool, Portsmouth and Papua New Guinea, the affairs - Boris is in fact a brilliant calibrator. He knows exactly how much he can get away with, when not to take the blame, when to take it. When people try to attack him - like the BBC's Eddie Mair, who called him "a nasty piece of work" in March 2013 - the criticism just slides off the poor little boy who's forgotten his lines.

Not everyone falls for his laserbeam charm. A sizeable proportion of the newspaper commentariat dislike Boris; MPs, too. Much of this is down to jealousy - at Boris riding both the political and journalistic horses so well, and being so handsomely rewarded for it, too.

MPs in particular took against him when he edited the Spectator. They were amazed that Boris didn't publish their mind-numbingly dull pieces on Whither the Euro?. It's surprising how many politicians don't really understand the mechanics of a magazine - the editor commissions pieces; he doesn't passively receive them from anyone with a shopworn opinion to sell.

Their criticisms have little effect; ditto the gaffes. Boris's gaffe trajectory is the opposite of that old cliché - it's not the crime that gets you; it's the cover-up. Boris gets off scot-free from both the crime and the cover-up, because of his magical gift for surreal, amusing apology. It works like a sort of bulletproof armour – political and personal scandals that would sink other politicians just rebound off him into the long grass, where they're quickly forgotten.

He didn't in fact write the Spectator leader attacking Liverpudlians, but, still, he went up to Liverpool to apologise. Since then, he has, at his own admission, made something of a speciality of gifted apologies. In 2006, he said of the Tory Party that it had "become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing". Shortly afterwards, he said, "I mean no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us. Add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apologies."

Much of the intention of Johnsonian wit and wisdom is that crucial Johnsonian mission - to get him off the hook. When he denied his affair with Petronella Wyatt, he called it "an inverted pyramid of piffle". The affair did take place but it has been largely forgotten by the public - it certainly hasn't harmed his career the way it would that of most other politicians - while the funniness and inventiveness of the quotation is remembered. Once more, he slides off that hook, not surreptitiously; but in plain view of a packed house, laughing in the aisles.

"Piffle" is a typical Johnson word; like so many of his words, it is Wodehousian - and Billy Bunteresque - in its consciously old-fashioned, stagey, mock-posh way. He used it an early article defending private schools, written in the Eton Chronicle on December 12th, 1980, when he was 16: "I tell you this. The Civilised World can ignore, must ignore entirely, these idiots who tell us that, by their very existence, the public schools demolish all hopes most cherished for the Comprehensive System. Clearly, this is twaddle, utter bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot, piffle and fiddlesticks of the most insidious kind. So strain every nerve, parents of Britain, to send your son to this educational establishment (forget the socialist gibberish about the destruction of the state system). Exercise your freedom of choice because, in this way, you will imbue your son with the most important thing, a sense of his own importance." Boris learnt early on the power of high-falutin words and overstated, jolly-good-chap Englishness - his school and university contemporaries tell me that the 21st century Boris character is just a grown-up version of the young Boris character in short trousers.

The funny thing is, though, Boris isn't really very English. I don't mean by blood. Although it's true that his eighth of Turkish blood - and his middle-class origins - give him an outsider-among-insiders edge in modern, blue-blooded Conservative politics. He can lampoon the poshness that David Cameron - the pure British, upper-middle-class one - does so much to play down.

By exaggerating the poshness, Boris diminishes its importance. That lack of shame is very unEnglish, not least when it comes to his affairs - where Boris behaves much more like a French politician. The superposh English persona is just one of the arrows Boris pulls out of his quiver to suit the circumstances. As this collection of his words shows, Boris is a protean figure, a shape-shifter or, as one of his Telegraph colleagues called him, a greased albino piglet - the sort of animal you find in a booth at the Alabama State Fair; $50 if you catch the pig and hold on to him. You never can catch Boris - he's too heavily greased up with intelligence and humour. Make someone laugh and it's hard for them to stay angry with you. And it is striking how, as well as saying funny things, he just is funny. It's not just the shambolic hair, or its bright colour. He has funny bones that appeal to people who are normally completely uninterested in politics.

Stephen Robinson, a former Comment Editor of the Telegraph, says of him, ""He is blessed with what might be called a presumption of hilarity. Maybe it’s the shock of straw-coloured hair or the extravagant hand gestures, or the way he puckers his lips before he talks, but people expect what he says to be funny, or michevious, or indiscreet, so they may even be laughing before he has opened his mouth."

A teenage girl - who I used to teach Latin - has lined her room with pictures of him, despite being of impeccable Left-wing credentials. She just finds him innately funny. And the same is true of most people. I play a little game with myself whenever I see a picture of Boris in the papers: I look to see whether the people around him are laughing or not. There is always at least one person who is, whether it's the doomed Conservative candidate, Maria Hutchings, on the stump with him in February 2013 in the Eastleigh by-election; or London schoolchildren being taught by Boris about the Olympic flame in 2012. On each of these occasions, Boris is, like the best stand-up comedians, always getting the measure of the crowd - calibrating, calibrating - to pitch his act at the right level.

In 2010, I sat in on Boris Johnson giving a Latin lesson in a comprehensive school, St Saviour's and St Olave's, in Southwark, south London; the 15 girls he was teaching were enraptured. He didn't just turn on the old comic muddle-headed routine. He was also properly rigorous with the pupils, even in the brief half an hour he was there. The girls, who were 13 to 15, had only been doing Latin for less than a year, and, bright as they were, they only knew the basics. Boris refused to patronise them and insisted on teaching them the tricky passive: amor – I am loved; amaris – you are loved; amatur – he, she or it is loved, and so on. As is so often the case with Boris, the shabby, blond funnyman act was a disguise to smuggle in something else. In this case, it was the present passive of amo; at other times, his humour successfully disguises, and advances, his ambition.

Stuart Reid, Boris's deputy editor at the Spectator, says one of Boris's favourite expressions is "bogus self-deprecation" - a peculiarly English art, the pride that apes humility. You might say that Boris is himself guilty of the sin but that wouldn't be quite right. His whole persona is an exercise in self-deprecation, perhaps - the crumpled clothes, the false ignorance, the Wodehousian bumbling - but it isn't bogus, really. The disguise is so ludicrous, so OTT, that the ambition and success are in plain sight, really.

One friend of Boris's describes meeting him just after Boris had met Roy Jenkins.

"I want to write an epic poem about Roy," said Boris, "It's amazing. He just wants everything - the fame, the power, the girls, the good life."

The friend didn't bother stating the obvious inference: that Boris could find those characteristics much closer to home.

Still, Boris manages to pull off the trick of being ambitious and successful, at the same time as implicitly mocking ambition and success. You end up forgiving him his ambition, and not begrudging him his success, because the whole act is so funny and endearing. "Boris’s eyes give him away," says Stuart Reid, "There is almost always the hint of a smile there, or even of a guffaw. Though he sincerely wants power - because he must win - he knows that all political ambition is absurd. He knows, too, that politics is absurd. The result is that, when he makes a political pitch, there is always an element of satire in his words and manner. That would be disastrous in most men, but in good ole Boris it gets the punters in." "He made one of his best - and most reckless - gags at a time when the Tories were running an advertising campaign with the trigger line, "You paid the taxes...." Thus: "You paid the taxes, where are the schools?"

Boris adapted the campaign to the needs of the voters in his constituency, Henley: "You paid the taxes, where are the tennis courts?" "Boris is in the happy position of not having to take things seriously. People of all social classes and most political persuasions will vote for him, precisely because he reduces everything to a joke while at the same time saying what the ordinary fellow feels about Europe, immigration, athletics, money..." Boris has intuited the essential point about the British public's attitude to politics and political writing - they find it boring. Make it funny and they'll love you for ever. The answer then, is to smuggle in the seriousness in a funny costume, as he does over and over again in his Telegraph columns: smuggle in an attack on Saddam Hussein via an anecdote on the discovery of Tariq Aziz's cigar case; smuggle in a defence of the free market through your passion for Dairy Milk chocolate.

Boris has an extremely broad range of registers in the English language that he can pick and choose from. My father, Ferdinand Mount, who was the head of Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit from 1982-3, said in his memoir, Cold Cream [2008], quite how limited her registers were. He described his time working for her as "a holiday from irony":

"It was well-known that she was resistant to humour, often had to have jokes explained to her. But she was also indifferent to most of the tricks of paradox, ambiguity, understatement and saying the opposite of what you mean, which pepper the talk of almost everyone else in this country."

Boris is the polar opposite. His mind is constantly darting around from register to register, in search of the joke or the device that explodes some strongly-held convention.

He constantly plays around with words for comic effect. That doesn't just mean looking for the most obscure or Wodehousian synonym. He also plays with the words themselves, as when he describes "The Tuscan palazzo of Count Girolamo Strozzi where Tony Blair forged one of New Labour's few hard-edged ideological positions: he was pro-sciutto and anti-pasto."

He played a similar trick in a speech praising the Education Secretary, noticing that his surname lent itself to verbal trickery: he gove us free schools, he gove us freedom from government control of schools.

The keen classicist Boris is also constantly shifting register between plain, simple Anglo-Saxon words and more complex, pompous Latinate ones.

He expanded on this art in 2007 at a Latin-themed charity evening at the rectory in East Sussex belonging to the former editor of the Telegraph, Charles Moore. I was speaking, too, at the event. Just like the more nervous quizmasters on Have I Got News For You?, I had spent several days rehearsing my speech - on The Joy of Latin. Boris arrived late, in a cab, that had come all the way from the Tory Conference in Blackpool he'd just addressed.

The audience were already in a state of presumption of hilarity, as Stephen Robinson called the Johnson effect. But they went into feverish levels of laughter when he actually started to talk, off the cuff, on the apparently dry topic of the use of Latinate words in English.

"The thing about Latinate words is they're evasive," said Boris, "There's a whole world of difference between 'You're sacked' and 'We want to restructure the whole operation in the M4 corridor'. Alan Clark used the device to brilliant effect in the Scott Inquiry. 'I was economical with the actualité' isn't just brilliant - it's also less self-condemnatory than 'I lied.'"

"You can see the effect at work in Apocalypse Now in the scene where they're discussing what to do with Colonel Kurtz, the Marlon Brando character."

Boris proceeded to recite the script from memory:  

CIVILIAN: You'll go up the Nung River in a Navy PBR - appear at Nu Mung Ba as if by accident, re-establish your acquaintance with Colonel Kurtz, find out what's happened - and why. Then terminate his command." WILLARD: Terminate ? CIVILIAN: Terminate with extreme prejudice.

"Now that last bit," continued Boris, "is a terrific bit of Latinate English. 'Terminate with extreme prejudice' is a much more elusive order than 'Kill him.'"

He also understands the comic power of shifting between the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers. Through his studies of what he calls the "crunchy" linguistics of Latin and Greek, Boris learnt to examine the building blocks of English up close.

As Evelyn Waugh said of his own classical education, he learnt "that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity." Boris knows exactly when to depart from those meanings to produce metaphor or vulgarity, and sometimes both at the same time.When describing the location of his office in City Hall - "I'm on the, er, upper epidermis of the gonad. Somewhere near the seminal vesical, I expect" - the joke depends on using the formal, scientific, Latinate terms for effect. We are more used to Anglo-Saxon terms being used for vulgarity and swearwords - they become much funnier when formalised into technical, medical language.

Boris also often flicks between the two registers of high, classical art and low, juicy blockbuster for contrasted comic effect.

"He has an incredible memory," says his biographer, Andrew Gimson, "And he combines the low-brow with the high-brow - he loves extremely violent films."

His favourite film is the Ben Stiller vehicle, Dodgeball. When he says he identifies with the Incredible Hulk - "the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets" - he knows whereof he speaks.

Depending on the occasion, he'll cherrypick from his high- and low-brow memory banks. A few years ago, I remember coming across an extremely serious, erudite article by him on Horace in the Spectator - no jokes, no Incredible Hulk references. What was going on?

It was only when I got to the end that I saw the article had been taken from a speech he'd given to Oxford classics dons. Again, he was calibrating - up against the top brains, he jettisoned the trashy references. The cleverer Hulk's audience, the cleverer Hulk gets.

Even when he's apparently dropping down an intellectual notch or two, the brainpower is still churning away below the surface. Charles Moore noticed the intellect being smuggled in like this, in a 2002 Telegraph article by Boris. In it, the then Henley MP recalled being pelted with a bread roll by a Labour councillor at the Mayor of Henley’s annual dinner.

Boris opened the article by describing the arc of the bread roll as it sailed over the banqueting tables of Henley Town Hall. Leaving the roll frozen in mid-air, he turned to the serious meat of his column - some obscure aspect of Tory policy. And then, as the article came to an end, he returned to the flight of the "mini French baguette".

Boris later admitted to Charles Moore that he was consciously using an ancient rhetorical device, much favoured by the Roman orator and politician, Cicero. The trick is called digressio, where you turn to a secondary, diverting story, while leaving your exciting original story hanging in mid-air - literally, in this case. In order to learn what happened to the bread roll, we read on in suspense, our appetite whetted, waiting for the mini-baguette to hit the blond fright wig - as indeed it did.

I have in fact been operating my own form of digressio in this introduction. I began by saying that my chat with Boris at his sister's launch party partly unpacks his character. Only now have I got round to the unpacking.

"Boris," I said that evening, "I've got to write an introduction to your collected wit and wisdom. I was just wondering whether you ever use any classical devices in your speeches or your articles."

"Oh yes, I most certainly do," he said, slipping on his ultra-serious skin, "There's one particular Roman oratorical trick I use the whole time. Couldn't survive without it."

"Oh really. What is it?"

"It's absolutely crucial - it's called imbecilio."

There, in a nutshell, is Johnsonian wit: the overstated plea to seriousness, with the rug pulled out from under it by over-advertised stupidity. Those Wodehousian one-liners - or one-off words, like imbecilio - are also much harder to create than you might think. As Evelyn Waugh said of Wodehouse, "One has to admire a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page."

Boris may not manage three per page; but there's usually at least one per article.

I wish Sebastian Faulks the best of luck in his Wodehouse sequel, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, to be published this November. But I fear he won't be as good as Boris at Wodehousian simile, let alone as good as the Master.

And yet Boris pumps out the one-liners with apparent ease. In his Tory Conference speech in 2012, they came thick and fast: "the Ho Chi Minh trail into Hackney", the "giant hormonal valve" that opened up our souls during the Olympics to a wave of happiness, and the "charismatic megafauna in the Serengeti", as he referred to London’s new double-deckers.

If you try to pick apart the building blocks of Boris's style - as I have unavoidably done while editing this book - you do see a certain amount of classical inspiration. It's most apparent in his extremely easy-going, colloquial style. He can only produce that breeziness by knowing the English language inside out.

That facility is largely to do with having studied classics. I would say that, as a fellow classicist, wouldn't I? But I noticed the same pattern when I was in charge of work-experience schoolchildren and graduates on the Telegraph Comment desk a few years ago. Most of them - whether they were educated privately or not - had pretty ropey grammar, and would invariably make at least one mistake in a paragraph. The classicists never did - once you've learnt the genitive case, you never get the grocer's apostrophe wrong again.

Boris lays a few classical idioms on top of that pleasing, flowing style, particularly anacoluthon - the sudden change of syntax in a sentence. He has even created his own form of anacoluthon - faux-ignorant anacoluthon you might call it; suddenly breaking up his sentences to attack his own thought process: "As I was saying - what was I saying? - can someone tell me what I was saying?"

That said, it would be wrong to think of Johnsonian prose as just a cut-and-paste job of classical rhetoric.

As his biographer Andrew Gimson told me, "He'll know the classical names of oratorical devices but he hasn't got the aridity to be an academic classicist. He learnt everything he knows by the age of 11 or 12, from Clive Williams, his prep-school master. After that, his teachers just couldn't get him to work. The story goes that, at Oxford, he went and cried alone in a cinema when he failed to get a First. But the truth of it is, that he didn't do nearly enough work. Even an hour a week would have been enough, but he didn't do even that."

Anyone who's taught Boris has been dazzled by his wit and memory, but disappointed by his capacity for long, concentrated periods of work. I once asked one of his old Oxford classics tutors about Boris's chances of making it to Downing Street.

"Capax imperii nisi imperasset..." said the old tutor, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: "He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor."

I'm not sure he's right - the qualities needed to get a First at Oxford, or send your copy in on time to the Deputy Comment Editor of the Daily Telegraph, are not the same required to get through the door of Number 10.

The people who swot for a First or get their article in by four o'clock don't have the touch of wildness, of comic anarchy, that makes an article or speech that much funnier - nor do they develop such a popular appeal as a result.

That appeal - and his comic gifts - were never better illustrated than at the 2012 Tory conference. He was greeted like a blond Messiah at Birmingham New Street Station by an impromptu mob of activists, crying, "Bo-ris! Bo-ris!".

No other politician gets that sort of unrehearsed reception - outside the conference hall, at least. And it's not just Conservative activists who feel that way. A friend of mine, watching the Olympics opening ceremony in an earthy pub in Leith, Edinburgh’s port, was astounded to hear dyed-in-the-wool Scots Nationalist former dockers singing the same song: "Bo-ris! Bo-ris!"

The next day, in the conference hall, he crammed his speech with Borisisms. In praising Toby Young’s new free school in west London - where all the pupils learn Latin - Boris dropped in an apparent aside about David Cameron not knowing the English for Magna Carta; he had been quizzed about it on the David Letterman show in New York.

Boris followed up with an improvised, "I know you knew it anyway", directed at the Prime Minister, who was sitting in the audience. A classic bit of Boris: a jokey criticism, disguised in a compliment, and still leaving behind the imprint of that underlying criticism. Much of the speech was improvised. Frankie Howerd may have scripted his every titter-ye-not and ooh-missus, but Boris's asides jump out of the ether as he talks - which is handy, given he's not one for in-depth preparation. As Stuart Reid says, you can see the comic light flick on in his eyes; and he then makes a split-second decision whether to deploy the - possibly too risqué gag - that has instantly formed in his mind.

Politicians’ jokes are usually telegraphed from a long distance – you sense them coming a mile off; you feel the hours of rehearsal with the crack team of policy wonk humourists in the previous months. When Boris's one-liners come off the cuff, they are that much funnier for it.

Not that all his wit and wisdom are impromptu. Like all comedians, he relies on a shifting mass of familiar one-liners that he can slot in to fill gaps and answer awkward questions. On being asked whether he is planning to become Prime Minister, he has, on several occasions, said he is more likely to be reincarnated as an olive. One of his favourite words is dolichocephalic - meaning "long-headed"; his hero, Pericles, had an acute case of dolichocephalia.

Not everyone falls for this combination of rhetorical skills. One senior journalist has called him "a demagogue and rabble-rouser" for the way he manipulates a crowd. He's got a point. Look at Boris when he’s waving his arms in the air to fire up an audience, and he is almost literally rousing the rabble. But, at the same time, the other Boris is toiling away – the stand-up comedian, hamming up the rabble-rouser role. And so he's saved from any accusation of egomania and narcissism by the self-mockery.

For now, with his resignation, it looks like he has lost out on his lifelong dream of becoming Prime Minister. Still, don’t bet against the platinum blond Lazarus rising from the dead once more.