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Who is Boris Johnson?

Sholto Byrnes

Published 27 March 2008

When he announced that his great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave, was it just another "inverted pyramid of piffle" from Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson?

The garden in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, was always packed during the Spectator's summer parties. Former Tory cabinet ministers like Lord Gilmour might be spotted conversing with Sir Charles Wheeler, the veteran BBC correspondent. A smattering of Pakenhams, the literary clan headed by Lord Longford, perhaps; Telegraph editors past and present, such as Charles Moore and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne; novelists, painters, political commentators and, darting hither and thither, shirt untucked and tie askew, the magazine's then editor, Boris Johnson. The guests, a mix of influential Tories, raffish writers, a few stray aristocrats and several young women whose purpose appeared mainly decorative, may have been what one would expect at gatherings thrown by the cheerleading magazine of the right.

But what would not have been obvious to many was the extraordinary degree to which the host was connected to a large proportion of those who were supping his Ruinart champagne - and not merely by ties from journalism and politics, but by much deeper, long-standing ones of school, university, family and extended kinship. Nor could the newcomer have any idea that if history had taken a different turn a century ago, the Tory MP and former Spectator editor of today, whose Wodehousian circumlocutions seem the very quintessence of Englishness, might have found himself named not Boris Johnson but Iskander Ali.

Whether Boris's great-great-grandmother was indeed a Circassian slave is an unprovable matter of family legend. Her son's life, however, is better documented. Ali Kemal, Boris's great-grandfather, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. Soon after Atatürk's nationalists took power in 1922, Kemal, who had been one of their most vehement opponents, met a sticky end. He was kidnapped and taken to Izmit, where he was handed over to a mob who attacked him with sticks, stones and knives, then hanged him from a tree in the square.

Before all this, though, Kemal had fathered a son, Osman Ali, by his half-English first wife. Born in Bournemouth in 1909, the child was brought up by his grandmother, whose surname he took; so Osman Ali became Wilfred Johnson. (If this change of surname and religion had not taken place, then Alexander Johnson could have been Iskander - the Arabic version of Alexander - Ali.) The Johnsons' relations through Kemal's second wife, with whom they are in contact, include two past Turkish ambassadors, to Britain and to Norway. So when the member for Henley holds forth on Turkish accession to the EU, he has more insight than he is often given credit for.

Through his father's side Boris has not only Muslim ancestry but a connection to one of Britain's most prominent Jewish families. Boris's stepmother Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. This also provides a link to two politicians he was later to encounter in the House of Commons: Edward Sieff's son Adam, the urbane record executive, has the distinction of having been in a Seventies rock band, Jaded, that was promoted at different times by both Tony Blair and Chris Huhne.

Stanley is in the unusual position of both preceding and attempting to succeed his oldest son in public office. An early environmentalist and a Tory MEP from 1979-84, Johnson père stood for the Devon constituency of Teignbridge in the last election. Son and father campaigned together, forming a double act that failed to win Stanley the seat but produced some memorable bons mots. Discussing higher education with a small crowd, Boris dismissed "loony degrees in windsurfing from Bangor University". Added Stanley sagely: "They also surf, who only stand and wait."

Andrew Gimson, Boris's biographer, theorises that the almost caricature Englishness stems from Stanley's side of the family, that it is a front to conceal the very non-English paternal inheritance. Possibly more surprising, however, is that Boris's mother, Charlotte, has an impeccable left-wing pedigree. Her father, Sir James Fawcett, was a prominent barrister and a member of the European Commission of Human Rights. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality for women, is named after a 19th-century forebear, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and wife of the Radical MP Henry Fawcett.

Charlotte's parents were close friends with Lord and Lady Longford. Their daughter, the novelist Rachel Billington, is godmother to Boris, providing him with further unlikely socialist kith on top of the Fawcett kin. But through the Longfords come also ideological fellow-travellers: Billington's cousin, the writer Ferdinand Mount, is a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit at No 10, and his son Harry is a vigorously right-wing Telegraph columnist. These paths happily cross, as does Boris's with that of Orlando Fraser, son of Billington's sister Lady Antonia Fraser from her first marriage to the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. In 2005, Orlando himself tried to win a Devon constituency for the Conservatives, but did not prevail despite (or, dare one suggest, because of) support from Boris and Stanley. More distantly, Ferdy Mount's cousin Mary is the mother of a junior of Boris's at Eton and Oxford, the Tory leader David Cameron.

Johnson & Johnson

Boris almost derailed his career in journalism at the very beginning, when as a Times trainee he made up a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas. The quote was not only fictitious but also inaccurate, exposing Lucas to considerable academic ridicule. Lucas overcame his godson's thoughtful attempt to bring his name to a wider audience, and later became Master of Balliol and vice-chancellor of Oxford University; but his angry complaint at the time got Boris the sack.

Such incidents did not deter his younger siblings from entering the fourth estate. Regular Johnson bylines include those of his sister Rachel, a novelist and Sunday Times columnist whose husband, Ivo Dawnay, is communications director of the National Trust and a former foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph; and his brother Jo, recently appointed editor of the Financial Times Lex column and married to the award-winning foreign correspondent Amelia Gentleman.

At one point during Boris's editorship of the Spec, the Johnson surname appeared so often (his predecessor, Frank Johnson - no relation - was a regular columnist as well) that no one noticed when the diarist one week was a Leo Johnson. Surely, readers thought, it can't be another member of the family. But close inspection of the article, an account of Leo's bizarre pitch to a movie mogul, revealed a certain similarity of style:

"It is the mainstream, genre movie of Stanko the Bulgarian pastry chef who casts off the shackles of liberty, deflating the soufflé of capital and licking clean the spatula of injustice," said Leo to the mogul. Goldwyn spoke. "Let me tell you something. I have been in this business a long time. This is the worst story I have ever heard." It is believed to be Leo's sole foray into journalism.

The media connections do not end there, however. Sir Charles Wheeler is Boris's father-in-law through his second wife and the mother of his four children, Marina. The affair that Boris tried to deny with his line about an "inverted pyramid of piffle" was with another writer, the former Spectator deputy editor Petronella Wyatt, daughter of the News of the World's "Voice of Reason" columnist, the late Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt. And many of the writers whom Boris championed during his editorship of the Spec were friends from Oxford, including the Tory MP and former Times executive Michael Gove, the magazine's regular Africa correspondent Aidan Hartley, and its theatre critics Lloyd Evans and Toby Young.

Other friends from Oxford include the US pollster Frank Luntz; Earl Spencer; the fraudster Darius Guppy (who once telephoned Boris for the home address of a NoW journalist he wanted beaten up; although he did not supply it, Boris did not refuse the request, and the incident was to cause him no end of trouble); Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (who is married to Anne Applebaum, another former deputy editor of the Spectator); and the barrister Justin Rushbrooke, the son-in-law of the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, to whose house Boris escaped when Marina threw him out temporarily in 2004 after his escapades proved too much for her.

Many of the above were to be seen at the parties Boris held at the Spectator, and are familiar with each other's homes in north and west London. Broad networks in media and politics are not unusual. The extent of the ties that Boris can draw on, however, harks back to a different time: to that of the Salisburys and Balfours at the end of the 19th century, to the Bonham Carters and Asquiths in the early 20th century, or later, up until the fading of the grouse moor Tories in the Sixties, to that vast tree that encompassed the Churchill, Eden, Sandys and Marlborough families. Boris's network is less Establishment than that - there is a whiff of the demi-monde about all those literary types - but it is wider-reaching and more deep-rooted than that surrounding any Tory leader from Ted Heath to Michael Howard, and, unlike their circles, its foundation is class and family, not pure politics.

If anyone can confirm Boris's great-great-grandmother's origins, however, I'm sure he'd be grateful. The election's going to be close, and the ex-Circassian slave vote could be crucial.

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About the writer

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and the jazz critic of the Independent. Previously he was diary editor, chief interviewer and senior feature writer at both Independent titles. He is a judge for this year's Paul Hamlyn Foundation awards for composers.

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