The first time I ever spoke to Boris Johnson, almost certainly Britain’s next prime minister, was when my phone rang in London’s Soho back in 2002 and a now familiar voice boomed “I want to interview Saddam Hussein.”
At the time I was the only British politician still traveling to sanctions-stricken Iraq and the only one who met regularly with the Iraqi leadership in the run-up to the war. As a sweetener, Boris, for it was he, threw in that he didn’t “believe all that stuff” about weapons of mass destruction. Not that such disbelief was ever enunciated publicly of course. I passed on his request but the Iraqis, never having heard of him, turned down the request.
His call and its follow-up pressure taught me several things about the future foreign secretary and soon-to-be prime minister.
The first and most banal was his extraordinary presumptuousness. I was then a more senior parliamentarian than he – I had been elected in 1987 he only in 2001 – we had never been introduced (still a ‘thing’ in parliamentary terms) and he didn’t bother even introducing himself, merely an announcement followed by a request for access which sounded awfully like a demand.
The second was, like the young Churchill – his idol – his thirst to be where the action was even at personal (not inconsiderable) and definitely political damage. I wasn’t known then by my enemies as the MP for Baghdad Central for nothing!