Propping up the bar at the Oxford Union in his formal debating wear, Boris Johnson was surrounded by acolytes, all hanging off his every word. And no wonder. It was clear to any of us who watched him in action as president of the Union that Trinity Term in 1986 that he’d be destined for greatness. Boris was unfazed by anything, standing shoulder to shoulder with greats like Michael Heseltine in the Union chamber and impressing everyone. He was extraordinarily confident, even then, and I’d sit there and sketch him while he held forth. He was charismatic and ambitious, and we all thought he’d be prime minister one day.
It’s only surprising – to both him and us – that it’s taken him this long to be on the brink, and that David Cameron, two years below him at Oxford, beat him to it.
I was at Pembroke College from 1984 to 1988, starting a year after Boris. I’d been at school with his sister Rachel, so I quickly fell into the same upper-class party set.
Boris was best friends with fellow Old Etonians Darius Guppy and Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer.
I remember going to a party thrown by Charles, at a flat in the centre of Oxford. It was quite unlike any other student party I’d been to – we drank champagne out of glasses, not mugs, and Boris was there holding court.
There was always competition between him and his friends to see who could be the most amusing – it was a real battle of wits.
He developed the same way of speaking he has now, very elaborate with lots of quotes and classical references. He was very theatrical. I’d chat to him but it was hard to have a really personal conversation. He was always joking, and would bound in saying things like, “Now, how the devil are you?” Boris studied Literae Humaniores at Balliol College. It was a friendly place, and he hung around with literary types who’ve gone on to be successful, like authors Robert Twigger and Lloyd Evans. Most of them, like Boris, ended up as journalists.
He was unusual, though, in that he managed to straddle several social groups, mixing with the Bohemian arty set, the Old Etonians and all the political hacks who hung around the Union trying to make a name for themselves.
What was amazing about him was the ease with which he managed to move between each group. He was a social chameleon, albeit one that dressed as a middle-aged man, even then.
His relationship with Allegra Mostyn-Owen helped him climb the social ladder at Oxford. They were the golden couple while I was there, always with each other.
They seemed like a married couple, much more mature than the rest of us. She was stunningly beautiful, so serene and kind, balancing out Boris’s more chaotic side.
There was no drama – they seemed totally wrapped up in each other and it was not a shock when they got married immediately after leaving Oxford, even though they were so young.
Boris wasn’t a womaniser back then – he only had eyes for Allegra, so his subsequent bad behaviour with women has come as a surprise. I can’t help thinking their break-up must have been incredibly damaging for both of them
As for Boris’s ambivalence over whether or not he’s taken cocaine, I’d say he was a drinker rather than a drug taker. There were drugs around when we were there, but mostly it was weed, and that wasn’t Boris’s style. Cocaine wasn’t prevalent and we were horrified when Olivia Channon, daughter of Paul Channon, the then trade and industry secretary, died from a heroin overdose.
It was shocking as we’d all been to her parties on the riverside at her college, St Hilda’s. That was definitely something that went on behind closed doors.
In the summer of 1986, Allegra asked me to share a flat with her the following autumn. But in the end I moved in with Rachel and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and really got drawn into the Johnsons’ whirlwind lifestyle. It was party after party, with Hugh cooking up mad things in the kitchen and spraying banana milkshake everywhere, and Rachel always on the phone chatting.
Like Boris, she was very well connected and while we were there, Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown got her to write a book about life at Oxford.
All the Johnsons would drop in, including Boris and younger brothers Jo and Leo. Even though their parents had divorced there was no rancour between the children or with their father Stanley, who also used to turn up. They were very close and would rib each other. They were fantastic correspondents, writing letters to each other all the time They were a golden family, literally and metaphorically, with their crazy mops of blond hair. But there’s a rebellious, unconventional streak. That inner rebel could make it hard for Boris if – when – he becomes prime minister. It’s what lies behind the outrageous statements and I think he’ll find it hard to be dictated to.
The biggest difference between Boris then and Boris now is that in those days he was universally liked. His eccentricities made him stand out from less charming political hacks, but now they make people worried he’s not PM material.
The spontaneity that made him a great orator at Oxford might not be the greatest asset when he comes to run the country.