The bitter jealousies between the three ex-Bullingdon boys who ran Britain


Tensions were running high between the three men sharing a cheese fondue at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2013. 

United in leading the governing Tory Party and yet utterly divided by their ambition, Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson had exhibited their childlike rivalries at a dinner the previous night.

Inevitably, Boris had been late.

‘Oh look,’ shouted Osborne, ‘the leader of municipal government in England has arrived.’

‘Would you like a drink?’ Boris asked.

‘Yes please,’ replied Osborne.

‘Then get one!’ snapped Boris.

The barbed exchanges could not disguise the issue preoccupying all three men: Brexit.

Boris’s position at the time, as ever, was unclear. He lacked the certainty of Cameron and Osborne, both Remainers. 

In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson (both above) and Chancellor George Osborne were united in leading the Tory Party but divided by ambition

The majority of Tory Party members were Eurosceptics, many urging a referendum on the 2007 Lisbon Treaty increasing the authority of Brussels. 

Boris straddled the two sides. Squaring the circle seemed impossible.

At the end of the meal, Boris left first, without paying his share – a characteristic habit. Although he was married at the time, and in the middle of an affair with the American Jennifer Arcuri, he rushed off to meet an Englishwoman. 

The brunette would never forgive him for making it a one-night stand and remains one of his most vocal critics.

The story of the complex relationship between Johnson, Cameron and Osborne is one of the most intriguing in modern politics. 

Their intertwining careers have been characterised by intense rivalry, but also a paradoxical co-dependence in which they have relied on each other to achieve their political ambitions.

Their connections go back not only to their first day as new MPs in 2001, but to their membership of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club.

For Boris, the Bullingdon was not a chance to eulogise the exceptional qualities of Old Etonians but about embracing an anarchic passion to break rules.

I’ll kick you in the b******s

After Theresa May’s disastrous General Election in 2017, opinion polls cast Boris as the favourite to succeed her.

However, he feared that too many MPs did not trust him. Indeed, at a party a month later, David Davis told Boris openly: ‘You’re a failure.’

‘I’ll kick you in the b******s,’ retorted Boris. Two years after that conversation, Boris was Prime Minister.

After Boris was elected MP for Henley, Iain Duncan Smith, who was Tory leader at the time, concluded about him: ‘He did not enjoy Parliament. He was only interested in what would get him attention. Boris was always about Boris.’

Even his weekly duty – along with Cameron and Osborne – to help prepare Duncan Smith for Prime Minister’s Questions was laboured. 

Boris did not find the task easy and gave up, uninterested in political principles or puncturing Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Having struggled to get a parliamentary seat, his arrival at Westminster was all rather an anti-climax. Everyone agreed he was a fish out of water. 

For his first few years as an MP, the glamour was outside the Commons – and Boris enjoyed it in his other job as editor of The Spectator.

He often missed important votes to fulfil his journalistic commitments and test-drive cars for GQ magazine, whose editor complained that his reviewer’s parking tickets had cost them £4,500.

Despite hating a backbencher’s routine drudgery, Boris had no doubt about his destiny – to be Prime Minister. 

‘All politicians in the end,’ he admitted in an interview, ‘are like crazed wasps in a jam jar, each individually convinced that they’re going to make it.’

After the Blair government was re-elected in 2005, the leadership of the Tory Party fell vacant again.

 ‘You’ve got to run for this thing, Dave,’ Boris urged Cameron, ‘or else I will.’

‘I am backing David Cameron’s campaign out of pure, cynical self-interest,’ Boris told an interviewer. 

He expected to be rewarded after the new leader was named. But his sense of vulnerability increased after Cameron won convincingly.

‘He was shocked to his foundations that the man whom he claimed to have outshone at Eton and Oxford could have leapt over him,’ wrote journalist Stephen Glover. ‘It was as though a cosmic injustice had occurred.’

Intensely disappointed not to be in the Shadow Cabinet, Boris told a fellow MP: ‘I dimly remember Cameron [at Eton] as a tiny chap known as Cameron minor.’

He was contemptuous of that ‘second-rate’ man.

The story of the complex relationship between Osborne, Johnson (both above) and Cameron is one of the most intriguing in modern politics

The story of the complex relationship between Osborne, Johnson (both above) and Cameron is one of the most intriguing in modern politics

Those like Cameron who got firsts at Oxford were ‘girly swots who wasted their time at university’, he scoffed, privately incensed that he himself had not achieved the grade.

But his career was to receive an unexpected boost.

In July 2006, the London Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley suggested to Boris that he should run as the capital’s Mayor, challenging Labour’s long-time incumbent Ken Livingstone.

She told Cameron that her newspaper would support only Boris.

Cameron dismissed the idea. Boris, he believed, was ‘useless’ and could not be trusted to run anything.

But with no real alternative, he reluctantly agreed to support his accident-prone colleague, although his office privately briefed against him.

Initially, Boris’s campaign made no impact. Many wondered if it even existed.

Facing chaos, Cameron stepped in. He called Jonathan Marland, the no-nonsense Tory Party treasurer. He told him: ‘The campaign’s no good. Take over.’

Marland asked: ‘Why me?’

‘Because you’re the only person Boris will be frightened of.’

Marland called Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist, and, over two hours the two men read Boris the riot act. ‘There’ll be no more womanising. You’ve failed at everything so far. You need a win. This is your last-chance saloon in your political career.’

A downcast Boris acknowledged that the campaign was his redemption rather than a stepping stone to something greater.

With Crosby taking ‘total control’, Boris’s chances were transformed. 

Indeed, he went on to become London Mayor with a convincing majority in May 2008 – an extraordinary triumph for a Tory.

Almost exactly two years later, it was the turn of Cameron to face the electorate as Opposition leader in the 2010 General Election.

‘Shouldn’t you send Dave a text wishing him well?’ asked Guto Harri, Boris’s media adviser.

‘Why?’

‘Because you’re old friends.’

‘I don’t see why I should wish him well.’

After some persuasion, Boris sent a text: ‘Good luck Dave and don’t worry, if you bog it up I’m standing by to fill the gap.’

For good measure, he added a list of the previous four prime ministers who, like himself but not Cameron, had been King’s Scholars at Eton.

Cameron duly became Prime Minister – albeit in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Boris dubbed the Lib Dems ‘a bunch of Euro-loving road-hump fetishists who change their opinions in midstream like so many hermaphroditic parrotfish’.

It was the turn of Mr Cameron (pictured in 2016, with his wife Samantha and children) to face the electorate as Opposition leader in the 2010 General Election

It was the turn of Mr Cameron (pictured in 2016, with his wife Samantha and children) to face the electorate as Opposition leader in the 2010 General Election

He said nothing publicly about his rival Cameron beating him to Downing Street.

Despite their common cause, Cameron regarded Boris as ‘full of jealousies and paranoias, which so often influenced his behaviour’. 

There was an unreliability and habitual mess about Boris which made Cameron laugh but also fuelled his unequivocal declaration: ‘I didn’t always trust him.’

Soon after the Election, Boris cycled to see Cameron at No 10 to discuss money for transport in London, which had been hit by the Chancellor’s austerity cuts. 

During their conversation, Boris could see that Cameron was looking at a Treasury briefing paper. Naturally, Boris wanted to see it, but Cameron refused.

Lunging to grab it, Boris fell on the desk and Cameron pulled away. 

Wrestling on the floor to get hold of the document, both would later claim to have won ‘the battle of the paper’, but either way Boris left the building defeated.

Funding for London was at the heart of another extraordinary exchange, this time between Osborne and Boris in the run-up to the 2011 Tory Conference. 

Perhaps recalling barnstorming speeches by Boris which had upstaged Cameron at previous conferences, Osborne phoned him in advance.

‘Please, no fireworks,’ the Chancellor pleaded.

I’ll change name… for £50m 

During the first eight years of its operation on London’s streets, a hugely popular official cycle rental scheme cost ratepayers more than £100 million. 

This was despite sponsorship by Barclays Bank and Boris’s promise that it would not cost taxpayers a penny.

To add to the problem, the bank’s chairman, Marcus Agius, complained that despite the £50 million Barclays had donated to the scheme, they were universally known as ‘Boris Bikes’. 

The Mayor snapped back: ‘Give me another £50 million and I will change my name by deed poll to Barclays.’

‘What’s it worth?’ asked Boris.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Osborne.

‘Well, I’m sitting in front of a blank screen and I’ll write [an article] to support an EU referendum on Lisbon if you don’t give an additional £93 million to the Met Police.’

‘Are you joking?’ asked Osborne.

‘I need to fulfil an election pledge,’ replied Boris.

Osborne succumbed.

In the local elections nationally in May 2012, Labour won 38 per cent of the votes against the Tories’ 31 per cent. Middle England was angry that Cameron had ignored their opinions, especially Euroscepticism. 

Yet Boris’s overwhelming victory in being re-elected London Mayor protected Cameron from total humiliation. The polls showed that only Boris, as the party leader, could defeat Labour.

‘Both Cameron and Osborne had to indulge Boris because he was a huge asset and everything good he did was good for the Tories,’ said a mayoral aide.

The Mayor’s growing celebrity brought warnings from advisers at City Hall about the risk that Boris’s father Stanley would use his son’s fame to promote his own journalistic career. Similar fears were expressed about his sister Rachel.

‘There are no boundaries,’ advised one aide, ‘about how RJ and SJ will exploit you for their own profit. They do anything to live off you’.

Asked during this period by a TV journalist whether his ambition was to be Prime Minister, Boris denied it. He also told Cameron after his mayoral success: ‘I’m going to do this job, and that’s me done with public life. People say I want to be an MP. I don’t.’

Six weeks later in New York, Boris revealed the opposite: that his true ambition was to be Prime Minister. And he counted on the forthcoming Olympic Games to boost his chances.

The day after the Paralympics ended, a million people gathered in London for a victory parade. The crowd chanted Boris’s name. Beside him was Cameron. The Prime Minister was a bystander watching the Mayor’s triumph.

Outmanoeuvring Osborne, his principal rival, had been much easier for Boris following the Chancellor’s derided ‘pasty tax’ Budget that imposed tax hikes on heated takeaway food.

His only opponent now was Cameron. ‘I can’t possibly do a worse job than he’s doing,’ he told Guto Harri as they discussed tactics in Boris’s Islington home.

‘Stop it, Guto!’ shouted Boris’s wife Marina playfully. ‘You’re giving him this mad idea.’

‘This is his destiny,’ replied Guto. ‘He’s wanted to do it since his schooldays.’

The unremitting competition with Cameron and Osborne had taken an extraordinary turn on an official trip to China in 2013. 

The Prime MInister'sconnections with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne go back not only to their first day as new MPs in 2001, but to their membership of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club

The Prime MInister’sconnections with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne go back not only to their first day as new MPs in 2001, but to their membership of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club

During a visit by Boris and Osborne to Beijing University, the Chancellor spoke first, explaining in serious tones that his daughter was studying Mandarin.

Next, the Mayor, a considerably better speaker, stood up. Not only was his daughter also studying Mandarin, he said, but ‘she’s coming to Beijing next week. How about that, George?’

Osborne winced as Boris love-bombed the audience.

That night, the Chinese hosted a dinner for Osborne and Boris. At the end, the two men stepped into a small lift. Osborne’s bodyguard decided to walk down the stairs.

During the short ride down, the two men grabbed each other and fought. When the doors opened on the ground floor, both walked out without showing any emotion.

The rivalry surfaced once again on the General Election trail in 2015 when Boris, wearing odd socks and a crumpled jacket, smiled for selfies.

A disgruntled Cameron complained that he was doing all the hard work himself. Boris was unreliable, untrustworthy, crass, bumbling, ‘and loving twisting the knife’.

His wrath rose after Boris wrote an article about past Old Etonian prime ministers. ‘The next PM will be Miliband if you don’t f****** shut up,’ Cameron texted Boris.

A year later, as the Brexit referendum loomed, Cameron invited Boris for a game of tennis in an attempt to recruit him to Remain. 

If he supported the Government, suggested Cameron, Boris would be guaranteed a key job.

Still undecided, Boris met political strategist Lynton Crosby.

Even Guardian women adored him 

When he was editor of The Spectator, Boris’s fame irritated the magazine’s jealous directors. After one board meeting, everyone headed off for dinner. 

As many of the directors met outside the restaurant, Boris arrived on his bicycle. 

‘Hello Boris,’ said a passer-by. ‘Can I have a go on your bike?’ 

‘No you can’t Elton,’ laughed Boris – to Elton John. ‘You’ll go off with it.’

With his book on Churchill, Boris was assured of a global hit translated into 36 languages. 

That year, 2014, he earned £612,583, including £127,505 as Mayor, exciting considerable envy. 

During a promotional tour, an eyewitness recalled: ‘Women threw themselves at Boris.’ 

Socialite Nancy Dell’Olio pestered an aide for his number and Guardian women were attracted by his animal magnetism, Boris discovered.

The Brexit campaign, he was told, needed him as a leader. ‘It will show the difference between you and Dave,’ said Crosby. ‘You’re the next leader after Dave.’

Conflicted, Boris said: ‘I’m not going to do it. I can take Dave and George down any time.’

Most commentators – and Cameron – assumed that Boris would support Remain. That opinion changed when lawyer Marina spelled out the case against the EU from a legal perspective in a brilliantly well-argued piece in The Spectator.

She focused on how the European Court of Justice had acted capriciously, thwarting Acts of Parliament and crushing British sovereignty. 

Those close to Boris would say that his wife’s article and their conversations had a profound influence.

Cameron, for his part, failed to understand how Boris had learned to deliberately conceal his lodestar.

As a loner, his character had become impenetrable to other men. He revealed his true feelings only to a few selected women, namely Marina and his secret girlfriends.

When Boris officially came out in support of Leave, Cameron’s response was succinct. ‘He’s ruined my life,’ he said.

On referendum night, a group gathered in the Johnsons’ den to watch the news. At 10.03pm, Nigel Farage appeared on the big TV screen to concede defeat to the Remain campaign.

In No 10, there was satisfaction that Boris was finished. But at 12.20am, the die was cast. Sunderland voted overwhelmingly to leave. 

‘Holy s***, we’ve done it!’ shouted Boris, genuinely happy; 17.4 million voted for Leave and 16.1 million for Remain.

Cameron did not conceal his anger. Boris and Michael Gove, he cursed, had ‘behaved appallingly’ for betraying him and the Government, and for aligning themselves with liars and racists.

Cameron had been horrified when Gove, a close friend (they were godfathers to each other’s children), had revealed he would campaign for Leave.

As Boris watched Cameron resign, he said: ‘Oh God. Poor Dave. Poor Sam. Jesus.’

He had not anticipated this or expected to watch Samantha Cameron, dazed by the unexpected result, wrestling with her emotions.

Outside Boris’s house, an angry crowd had gathered to scream obscenities at a man accused of dividing the country.

Later that day, he texted Cameron: ‘Dave. I am so sorry to have been out of touch but I couldn’t think what to say and now I am absolutely miserable about your decision. You have been a superb PM and leader and the country owes you eternally.’

By nightfall, he no longer felt so bad about Cameron’s demise. He buried his quip that his chance of becoming Prime Minister was as good as being ‘reincarnated as an olive’.

There would be many twists and turns to come but the boy who would be ‘World King’ was finally on the path to seizing his destiny.

© Tom Bower

Extracts from Boris Johnson The Gambler, by Tom Bower, published by WH Allen, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, on Thursday.

‘Boris’s life hung in the balance but a family row wasn’t far away’: When PM was hospitalised with Covid, his relationship with ex-wife Marina’s children was strained… while his sister Rachel rowed with their father Stanley, writes TOM BOWER

One week into Boris Johnson’s campaign to take over from Theresa May as Prime Minister last year, long-standing differences of opinion among his team erupted. 

Lynton Crosby, the strategist who had masterminded his victory as London Mayor, was frozen out by Boris’s partner Carrie Symonds, who was convinced he had orchestrated her recent departure from Conservative Central Office as well as a run of negative media stories.

Instead, Boris decided that Dominic Cummings was critical to his campaign and his potential premiership.

A controversial figure, Cummings has been described by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’, by senior Tory Oliver Letwin as ‘an unelected foul-mouthed oaf throwing his weight around’, and by John Major as ‘an aggressive bully’.

For Boris, importing Cummings added fuel to the fire.

Four days after Mr Johnson announced lockdown, Downing Street revealed that he had 'mild symptoms' of Covid-19 (above, Prime Minister's video statement during Covid battle)

Four days after Mr Johnson announced lockdown, Downing Street revealed that he had ‘mild symptoms’ of Covid-19 (above, Prime Minister’s video statement during Covid battle)

On the morning of July 23, the result of the Tory leadership election was announced. Boris had won 66 per cent of the vote.

As the new Prime Minister came down from the stage at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, he walked towards his family in the front row. 

There was a double-kiss for his sister Rachel, a warm glance at his younger brother, Jo, but a firm rejection of his father Stanley’s outstretched hand.

At his moment of supreme triumph, Boris refused his father’s congratulation – a private reminder that Stanley had ignored his children when he was needed.

George Osborne had once joked that Boris always dreamed of addressing the entire nation on TV. 

But in his wildest dreams Boris could not have imagined that more than 27million Britons would watch him at 7pm on Sunday, May 10, as he updated them on the country’s response to coronavirus. 

That was more than had watched the London Olympics Opening Ceremony and even William and Kate’s wedding. Boris’s credibility depended on a similar chorus of approval.

Instead, at 7.14pm, the nation was left confused. Few understood whether schools would reopen, how care homes would be protected, and when the coronavirus lockdown was ending.

His first address to the nation had come on March 23, when he announced a total lockdown. (He refused to use the word ‘lockdown’ itself, which he thought was ‘draconian’ and implied ‘captivity’.)

Four days later, Downing Street announced that Boris had ‘mild symptoms’ of Covid-19.

On Sunday, April 5, it was decided that his life was in danger, and he was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital. Some reflected that if he had still been with his ex-wife Marina, he would have been in hospital days earlier.

Within minutes of his arrival, the medical team pumped him with anticoagulants, antivirals, antibiotics and litres of oxygen to save his lungs, weakened years earlier by a dose of pneumonia.

‘An hour later,’ a doctor subsequently told him, ‘and you could have been dead.’

Even so, with Boris moved into intensive care, he was fighting for his life. It was touch-and-go whether he would need to be put on to a ventilator, implying at best a 50 per cent chance of survival. 

There was tension between Boris and Marina's children after Stanley had a conversation with Carrie Symonds at a Tory Conference (both pictured outside the Japanese Embassy in London)

There was tension between Boris and Marina’s children after Stanley had a conversation with Carrie Symonds at a Tory Conference (both pictured outside the Japanese Embassy in London)

The Johnson family were told the truth – but as ever, a family meltdown was never far away.

About six months previously, Boris’s brother Jo, a Remainer, had resigned as Universities Minister, citing an unresolvable tension between family loyalty and the national interest.

There had been the tension, too, between Boris and Marina’s children and his father after Stanley was spotted on TV engaged in friendly conversation with Carrie Symonds at the Tory Conference in Manchester.

Stanley and Boris’s sister Rachel knew that over the next hours the PM’s children should see their father, possibly for the last time.

Since Marina refused to speak to Stanley, Rachel needed to phone her about Boris’s condition.

Without a mobile phone signal at her house in Exmoor, she wanted to use the land line in Stanley’s neighbouring home. An enormous argument erupted about Rachel entering the house. 

Her trips to London, she was told, risked importing the infection. She should stay away from Stanley’s house.

Eventually, reason prevailed. Marina was given the news. Some of her and Boris’s children, still estranged from their father because of his treatment of their mother, went to the hospital.

In Downing Street, Boris’s closest aides were shocked. Some cried. ‘I fear the worst,’ sighed a supporter, convinced the end was just hours away. Obituaries were rapidly commissioned.

For three days in intensive care, Boris was bombarded by oxygen and drugs. 

‘It was a tough old moment,’ Boris later admitted. ‘I won’t deny it. They had a strategy to deal with a ‘death of Stalin’- type scenario. I was not in particularly brilliant shape and I was aware there were contingency plans in place.’

Three days later, friends were told he had eaten a jacket potato and baked beans. He had survived. On Easter Day, April 12, he left hospital.

In the early days of his premiership, Boris’s mother was his trusted confidante. 

Eventually during Mr Johnson's battle with Covid, Marina (above) was given the news. Some of her and Boris's children, estranged from their father due to his treatment of their mother, went to the hospital

Eventually during Mr Johnson’s battle with Covid, Marina (above) was given the news. Some of her and Boris’s children, estranged from their father due to his treatment of their mother, went to the hospital

Destabilised by his divorce from Marina in May and the relentless fracturing of relations with the rest of the family, it was to 78-year-old Charlotte that he has turned for support. Only she was sincerely loyal. In solidarity, she had voted Leave.

To this day, Charlotte worries about the damaging effects on Boris of his parents’ marital discord witnessed as a child.

Meanwhile, many people have wondered whether the near- death Covid experience had drained him of his mojo – and with it his grip.

Some of the complaints levelled at him have proven to be unfounded, but the long-standing rebuke about his disorganisation and lack of attention to detail have come back to haunt him.

But Boris, with the chance to reshape Britain for the rest of the century, is too ambitious to forgo the opportunity to fulfil his dream and become a historic legend.

In the concluding page of his Churchill biography, he praised the wartime Prime Minister, writing: ‘He alone made the difference.’

Being remembered for making a difference is the dream of all politicians.

© Tom Bower

Extracts from Boris Johnson The Gambler, by Tom Bower, published by WH Allen, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, on Thursday.

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