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How we beat Boris

When Boris Johnson announced he was standing as Edinburgh University rector in 2006, the media declared he was a shoo-in. But voters weren't so sure.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
19 June 2019
Mark Ballard being installed as Edinburgh University rector after beating Boris Johnson
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Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

It was early 2006: the launch of Cameronism, “Vote Blue Go Green” and “hug a hoodie”. The Conservatives wanted to show they could attract votes in Scotland, and among students. The Edinburgh university rector election, they decided, was their chance. And their candidate, at the height of his ‘Have I Got News for You’ popularity, was Boris Johnson.

A second-year student at the time, I’d nominated the then Green MSP Mark Ballard for the position and was preparing his campaign when Johnson made the announcement. Where we’d struggled to gain attention, the press went wild for Johnson, turning the vote into national news and crowning the shadow Higher Education Minister (that was his job back then) the presumptive winner before a ballot had been cast.

Johnson came to Edinburgh more in the manner of a conquering victor than a humble candidate, and The Student newspaper wrote a celeb-gossip style column about how he toured posh clubs frequented by the university’s notorious ‘yah’ crowd, signing at least one young woman’s chest in the process.

Even some of my generally left-leaning friends told me they were voting for him - because, you know, “LOL, Boris, legend”. It felt for a while like we’d already lost.

But then a group of us got together and came up with a plan. People were supporting Johnson because they thought this was merely a symbolic role, and that he would be an entertaining figure. But the rector is the chair of the university court - effectively its board of governors. They can shape university policy. If they so choose, they can have national sway on higher education policy.

Bate Boris into talking about policy, turn this into a race for a serious job rather than the selection of a ceremonial celeb, and we could still win. That, and puncture the idea that he is funny when his lines aren’t scripted by a behind-the-scenes comedian.

At the same time, Labour students - no fans of Ballard, but certainly not wanting a Tory victory on their watch - brought a motion to the Students’ Association, calling on it to campaign against Johnson in the election on the grounds of his support for top-up fees, though not endorsing any candidate (John Pilger and Magnus Linklater were also standing).

Once the motion passed, this freed then Students’ Association staff member (and future Scottish Labour leader) Kezia Dugdale to print public-health-themed posters warning students that they might come to regret the potential consequences of a “BJ”.

And when Johnson tried his luck beyond the more expensive bars, he didn’t do quite as well. He showed up for an event launching his campaign at a Halls of Residence bar and found a group of us protesting outside, with signs saying “Bog off Boris you top-up Tory”.

He entered through a back door, and a few of us attempted to get into the packed-out bar, only to find a barricade of Conservative students blocking our way. As we tried to squeeze through their scrum, one shouted “I thought you guys were meant to be in favour of peace”, to which Labour student chair Tom French - who’s now press officer to the SNP MPs - shouted “I’m not, I’m Labour!” and pushed himself through a gap.

We made our way through the crowds just in time to see a member of the socialist society upend his pint over Johnson’s head - which was the equivalent of milkshaking someone, back when students could afford alcohol.

Moments after he was drenched, the future foreign secretary thrust his hand into mine, and I found myself remonstrating with him about student debt (he later described me in his Telegraph column as “surprisingly bourgeois”). Fair play, his charm held.

But Johnson’s next trip to the campus was for the pre-election hustings, and by then, we were feeling a little more confident. His campaign had fallen into our trap, and produced leaflets with a list of policies: confirming our framing of the election, that this was a vote for a role that could actually do something. Now that was the debate, we found more students were coming round to our side.

Ballard’s recollection of that week is of touring lecture theatres, pointing out that court sets rent in student halls and oversees bursaries for low income students. Who would students rather chaired that meeting - him, or Bozza?

The hustings itself was chaired by a students’ association vice-president who did side-splitting stand up comedy in his spare time, and who ran the event with an Alan Partridge theme. John Pilger (who I still suspect didn’t actually know he was standing) was represented by an Edinburgh SWP member who knew exactly how to get under Johnson’s skin. He would start his answer to each question by saying something sensible, sat down, and would then stand up and deliver with some vocal force a few lines making clear his diametric opposition to Johnson, complete with hand gestures.

(“University societies are a vital part of campus life and we will do everything we can to support them…

“BUT IF THERE IS A CONSERVATIVE SOCIETY ON THIS CAMPUS, OR ANY OTHER SOCIETY WHICH SUPPORTS THE WARMONGERING CAPITALIST SYSTEM, I WILL SMASH THAT SOCIETY”)

Johnson didn’t respond well, and crowds of students who had come along to see the funny Boris from ‘Have I Got News For You’ were confronted with a furious, red-faced man, ranting about why we should all pay top-up fees. Next to the genuinely very funny chair, he turned out to be a poor comedian (Ballard remembers that he repeatedly tried to make jokes about Irn Bru, to awkward silence). Next to Ballard and Linklater’s calm and sensible explanations of the issues, his bumbling was exposed as ignorance, and wound up by his Trotskyist opponent, his charm turned out to cover a remarkably short temper. The “legend” was exposed as a construction of fawning journalists.

Later that week, Johnson was sat in a BBC News24 studio as the rest of us gathered at the count. The media was preparing to pronounce his sweeping victory and the return of the Tories in Scotland and among the young.

It turned out they were hopelessly out of touch. When the result came through, Mark had won on a record turnout, and Linklater had come second. Johnson was a distant third: students had seen through the media personality to the real man behind it. They had decided that this was a serious job, and voted for the serious candidates.

Fast forward thirteen years, and he has, of course, transformed his image, from clown to bigot, liberal Mayor to centrists’ nightmare. But it’s interesting to watch many of the same dynamics unfold.

While Johnson has worked hard to construct an image of the well-read, multilingual public-school colonist, with his Latin quotes and bumbling ‘charm’, he is facing the real deal in the Tory leadership race. Because Rory Stewart is everything that Boris Johnson pretends to be: multilingual, charming, travelled and knowledgeable - the sort of nineteenth-century colonist that Anglo-Britain thinks should be in charge.

While closer inspection of Johnson reveals that his persona is the product of media myth-making, seeing Stewart up-close reveals a genuinely impressive figure, though one I disagree with about most matters.

Unlike Johnson, he’s not a fraud - he’s run southern Iraq, walked across Asia, and written best-selling books. He can kick a football and, I suspect, would know how to kill you in two moves. He is the candidate capable of giving a last gasp to our dying establishment, of romanticising one last time our wilting Empire State.

Of course, in postmodern Britain, with its oligarch-owned media, the impersonator has much more of a chance than the real deal. But the question is: how long until British voters, like Edinburgh students thirteen years ago, see through Boris’s bullshit. Or perhaps, unlike Edinburgh students and their rector, Britain’s voters have decided that the office of prime minister is no longer to be taken seriously.

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