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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

Mr Johnson's arrested development

Three and a half years since he began so fervently to advocate leaving the EU, Mr Johnson has come up with his first suggestion as to how we might do that. He seems not the least contrite that his effort has been so long in gestation, and he clearly presumes that his tour de force, his palmarius as he might think of it, will be adopted with alacrity by a grateful world.

Not a state of affairs for the UK to be proud of, but as a serial procrastinator myself, how can I comment on the extraordinary belatedness of the PM's offering. On top of that I am at a loss as to what to say to my Tory friends when asked my opinion on the scratchiness of thsee papers we have been allowed to see. Where to start?

By good fortune, while I was musing after supper on this poser, who should phone but my seer in matters of the mind, Sir Arthur Whatnot, FRCPsych. Arthur called to chat about someone he enjoys observing from afar, Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, but as I blurted out my concerns, Arthur offered to give them some thought.

He was back within the hour.

‘Well, my boy,’ he said, ‘I think we have the culprits.’

I hadn’t been looking for felons, I protested, merely sought to understand.

‘Bear with me,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to be harsh. When I say “culprits”, I mean people who have been, in a sense, inadvertent offenders.’

Careless, lacking due care and attention kind of thing, but nothing malicious?


So who …?

‘Editors, my dear chap, newspaper editors, most recently Chris Evans at the Telegraph.’

Go on.

‘Newspaper editors are the terror of the newsroom, aren’t they, cowing all and sundry, and beholden to no-one but the proprietor? It’s the stuff of movies. But in the case of their columnists, editors are pussycats. Such weekly and occasional contributors are indulged like billy-o. They need not stick to a rigorous line in the way a political correspondent does, nor do they have to bother with solid research. Their inventions, malice, wit, sarcasm and misunderstandings – often adding up to a load of tosh – are all part of the appeal. The more tosh the better, because a column is, how can I put it …?’


‘Just so. I realised, therefore, that Johnson is altogether unused to anyone throwing his writing back at him and telling him it’s not up to snuff. Most of us mortals are only too accustomed to rejection, but for Johnson it’s a shocking experience. Hardly anyone, since his nanny, has said to him “that simply won’t do, Boris”.'

Arthur paused. I knew he was trying to be exact. He coughed, then:

'Of course, we do have to look at earlier causes. My considered view is that Johnson's ability to realistically appraise his own work was probably arrested during late puberty, and at one moment in particular. The evidence is that he was praised inordinately for an essay on Pericles that he had assembled carelessly in about 20 minutes between bouts of self-pleasuring ... Help me out here, not sure about “assembled carelessly”. What’s a better way of expressing writing in haste?’

Tossed off?

‘My dear boy.’ A choking sound was the last thing I heard before Arthur hung up.

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