Tory Party

Know Thine Enemy – Nat Rothschild, Jo Johnson & Osborne – Closing in on Downing Street

Nat Rothschild and best mate Jo Johnson Getting a grip on things. A general election throws up many opportunities.
MoS2 Template MasterThe Spectator Summer Party

April 26 2013; Boris and Jo: A sibling rivalry to eclipse the Milibands

Ever since one certain flamboyant blond became London Mayor, speculation has been incessant (and, of course, regularly fuelled by the man himself) that it wouldn’t be long before a Johnson moves into No 10 Downing Street. But few people expected that rather than Boris Johnson himself, his little-known younger brother, Jo, would get there first. Indeed, the 41-year-old’s appointment as the head of David Cameron’s policy unit took most people in Westminster by surprise.

The promotion of the old Etonian (‘Johnson Minimus’ in the posh school’s parlance), an MP for only three years, was the idea of Chancellor George Osborne. Apart from harnessing Jo’s strategic skills in a bid to make the Tories more popular, the move is seen as a mischievous ruse to rein in Boris, who makes no secret of the fact he wants to succeed Cameron as Tory leader. The thinking is that if his brother is part of Team Cameron, Boris won’t want to be seen as a critic.

This is a classic piece of Osborne devilry. As a colleague says: ‘He hopes that although Jo’s presence in Downing Street will wind up Boris, it will make it more difficult for him to criticize the Government.’ But it is a huge gamble that could easily backfire – not merely for political reasons but also because of the fact that family loyalty is a double-edged sword when it comes to the Johnson clan. For not only are they fiercely competitive with the rest of the world, they are fiercely competitive with each other. Indeed, cradle-reared competitiveness has been a hallmark of Johnson family life. So a great danger for Cameron and Osborne is that little Jo’s appointment will consume big brother Boris with jealousy and propel him to even more Machiavellian tactics to muscle his way in to No 10.

As Boris’s biographer Andrew Gimson says, the childhood of the two Johnson boys (and their sister Rachel and other brother Leo) was one of ‘cut-throat meal-time quizzes, fearsome ping-pong matches, height, weight and blondeness contests’. But equally, the family has a formidable clan loyalty – so some fear there is the risk that Jo might even help Boris achieve his once self-proclaimed ambition to be ‘world king’. As one friend of Jo’s says: ‘Cameron and Osborne may think his first loyalty will be to them but they may find to their cost that it is to the Johnson clan.’

Indeed, many Tory MPs believe that Jo is more likely than Boris to become Prime Minister. One backbencher says: ‘He’s is brighter than Boris, he’s nicer than Boris, he’s got less personal baggage than Boris. It could be David and Ed all over again.’ Although politically inexperienced, Jo is undoubtedly very clever, with a first-class degree in Modern History from Oxford as well as two further degrees from European universities. His friends love to point out that the fluent French speaker has more qualifications than Boris. Of course, as the youngest of the Johnson clan, he had a great deal of catching up to do in the wake of Boris, now 48, journalist Rachel, 47, and entrepreneur Leo, 45.

After three lucrative years as an investment banker with Deutsche Bank, he joined the Financial Times – working in Paris and South East Asia before editing the influential finance column, Lex (a previous incumbent being Nigel Lawson). He eventually turned to politics and was selected by the Tories to fight the seat of Orpington, which he won in 2010. His parliamentary career has been unremarkable, as he has risen from being an effective member of the Public Accounts Committee to junior whip.

Diffident to the point of shy, the only things he appears to have in common with Boris are his genes and blonde hair. No showman, he’ll never appear on TV’s Have I Got News For You or get himself stuck on a zipwire. He’s sanguine about living in the shadow of his celebrity brother, who has 685,000 followers on Twitter to his own 3,500.

Although Jo, like Boris, was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club (a drinking society known for its wanton acts of drunken vandalism, and numbering Oxford’s wealthiest undergraduates among its members), he has strong links with the Left through his marriage.

His wife is Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian’s trenchantly left-wing social affairs correspondent. Her father is the brilliant artist David Gentleman, best known for being the most prolific designer of stamps in the Post Office’s history and for his platform-length mural at the Charing Cross Tube station in London.

Amelia (who went to St Paul’s, one of Britain’s leading private schools) and Jo have two children and a conventionally happy marriage that is the antidote to Boris’s scandal-strewn love life. As one of Cameron’s so-called ‘modernisers’, Jo will use his role in the No 10 policy unit to give the PM’s image a sharper political edge and develop radical ideas for a government widely thought to have run out of intellectual steam.

Among his key interests are the benefits of Britain forging stronger economic and strategic links with India. Unlike Cameron, though, he believes that the Government should cancel its controversial £250million annual aid package to the country. Such views will clearly infuriate Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, who believe that the policy unit should serve the interests of the Coalition rather than just the Conservative Party.

Labour will undoubtedly try to exploit Jo Johnson’s links with Boris, as well as depicting him as utterly out of touch with the struggles and aspirations of ordinary voters. Only the eagle-eyed will have spotted Jo in embarrassing published photos of ‘The Buller’, wearing the members’ uniform of Georgian tailcoats.

He is standing proudly in a group which includes a young George Osborne. Labour will surely also highlight the fact that Cameron’s revamped policy unit team includes two more Old Etonians: Hereford MP Jesse Norman, who is also the former director of an investment bank, and bungling Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin.

For the non-partisan observer, however, the most intriguing tensions are not political but familial. The father of the Johnson clan, Stanley, is unrepentant about having created a competitive atmosphere among the four siblings and has described Boris as ‘the great prodigious tree in the rainforest, in the shade of which the smaller trees must either perish or struggle to find their own place in the sun’.

With typical self-promotion, sister Rachel reacted to Jo’s appointment with a tweet, saying that she’s waiting for ‘her telephone call from 10 Downing Street’. For his part, an irritated Boris (who is now not an MP, remember) is already being ribbed that his ‘little brother’ got to Downing Street first. The risk for him is that Jo will become accustomed to being in No 10.

If David Cameron loses the next election he will surely step down as Tory leader. Any ensuing battle between Johnson Maximus and Johnson Minimus would make the act of fratricide between the Milibands seem by comparison like an exercise in brotherly love.

Bullingdon Boy Jo

April 27 2013; Jo Johnson almost got thrown out of Oxford for leaking riot to Boris’s paper

When Boris Johnson’s younger brother Jo was given a plum 10 Downing Street job by David Cameron, the political commentators were agreed, Jo is a much more strait-laced figure than the London Mayor. But new revelations from his Oxford University days have shown a more risk-taking side to ‘Johnson Minimus’ – including a claim that he was threatened with expulsion from his college for selling a story to the national newspaper where Boris worked. He also showed flashes of his brother’s rakishness in a review of the university’s party scene which included a picture of amphetamine powder, complete with the caption: ‘The solution?’

Mr Cameron shocked Westminster last week by appointing 41-year-old Jo as head of his policy unit. The promotion prompted headlines about Jo becoming the ‘first Johnson into No 10’, with profile writers noting that although both men attended Eton and Oxford, only Jo – the more ‘sensible’ of the two – won a first-class degree. But according to a 1992 edition of the student newspaper Cherwell, Jo had more of a buccaneering image at the time.

In a piece written to mark Jo’s appointment as editor of Isis, a rival publication, Cherwell described Jo as a ‘Nat-ite’, a reference to his friendship with banker Nat Rothschild: Jo was famously pictured with Rothschild and George Osborne in a 1993 Bullingdon Club photograph unearthed by The Mail on Sunday.

The Cherwell article, written at the start of Jo’s second year as a Balliol history student, describes him as a ‘Rothschild crony’. It says: ‘His crowning glory was an article he penned for the Daily Torygraph over the summer about the New College Ball … a 100-word piece shuffled into the corner of the Peterborough column.’ According to Cherwell, Jo told the Telegraph that ‘class war loonies’ who had disrupted the rival ball were Balliol students, triggering a furious reaction.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R)

April 27 2013; A contest between my two boys? That sounds like tremendous fun! Says Father Stanley Johnson

Stanley Johnson got the news late because he spilled wine on his phone. Now a proud father celebrates his son Jo’s new job in No10. A Johnson in No 10! I did a sudden double-take when I saw the front-page headlines. Jo had telephoned me a couple of days earlier to say that some kind of move was under discussion, but I certainly hadn’t been expecting front-page news. The BBC had the story too.

My son’s appointment to head the Downing Street Policy Unit didn’t lead the news, but it was not far off. My mobile phone didn’t ring much that morning but that was only because I had spilt a glass of wine over it the night before. As the youngest of the Johnson clan, Jo had a great deal of catching up to do in the wake of Boris, now 48, journalist Rachel, 47, and entrepreneur Leo, 45.

At 11am when I had finally got a substitute from the helpful O2 shop in Camden Town (thank you Nigel Izuchi from Nigeria!), I had a stack of missed calls and voice mails. My first reaction was a purely personal one. I split up with my first wife, Charlotte – Jo’s mother – at the end of 1978 when he was seven. I have never sought to minimise the impact divorce has on a young family and I do not do so now.

It would be absurd to pretend that young children do not feel a cataclysmic shock when their parents go their separate ways. As a father, one has obviously a sense of pride when a child shines in his or her chosen career. In the case of my children, I say to myself: ‘I jolly well did let them down. But they seem to have come through anyway, thank God.’ I particularly feel that in the case of Jo, the youngest of my first four children.

Charlotte, a brilliant painter, had not been particularly well during Jo’s early years. I had perhaps done more ‘parenting’ in Jo’s case, than I had in the case of his older siblings Boris, Rachel and Leo. I can certainly remember quite often reading Jo to sleep in those early years in Brussels when I was working for the European Commission. (And I discovered the Fisher-Price tape-player. You could switch it on and leave it by the bed, while you answered the phone or poured yourself a drink!) When did Jo first begin to surprise me? When did I say to myself: ‘Wow, this kid has really got something’?

I can remember the moment very clearly. It was in July 1994 when he had just finished his last year at Oxford. I was living in Oxford at the time but Jo had already left, so he asked me if I would go to look at the exam results which would be posted on a certain day. I duly looked at the list of third class degrees first. Jo’s name didn’t appear. ‘That’s a relief,’ I said to myself, ‘at least he’s got a second.’ I looked at the seconds. No Jo. ‘Oh dear!’ I said to myself, ‘has he got a fourth?’ When finally I discovered Jo’s name among the firsts, I have to admit I did an Osborne. Not a total Osborne. But a definite puckering-up.

I never really knew Jo was seriously interested in politics until one night I got a text message saying he had been selected as the Conservative candidate for Orpington by one vote on the sixth ballot. And when, on Election night on May 6, 2010, the brilliant electors of Orpington tripled the Conservative majority to over 17,000, and Jo stepped forward on to the rostrum to thank them, I have to admit that I had another of those Osborne moments. I felt much the same this week when I saw those headlines.

It may be a bit odd for a father to take to the pages of a Sunday newspaper to congratulate his son on a spectacular achievement but what the hell! I raise my glass. Jo may have started late in the political stakes, but he has certainly come on fast. Jo Johnson worked for the Financial Times – once the europhiles’ favourite paper and attended a school for the children of eurocrats. As one of Cameron’s so-called ‘modernisers’, Jo Johnson, will use his role in the No 10 policy unit to give the PM’s image a sharper political edge.

The PM and Mr Johnson met today at Downing Street, but Jo’s appointment as the head of David Cameron’s policy unit took most people in Westminster by surprise. Over the last few days, some more fanciful commentators have been speculating about a possible Bo-jo v Jo-jo contest. Is that going to happen in some distant future? Frankly, I haven’t the faintest idea. But if it did, I am sure that – from a spectator point of view at least – it would be tremendous fun.

We Johnsons, as I keep on reading nowadays, are ‘famously competitive’. In my view, Jo, as an MP head of the policy unit with ministerial rank, has a chance to contribute to the major regeneration of Conservative fortunes which could, I believe, now be in prospect. Yes, we will lose seats in next week’s local elections but that was always on the cards, given how well we did last time.

More to the point is the fact the Conservatives, at this point in the electoral cycle, could be much further behind than they are. But what will it take to bring the party together into a coherent, unstoppable force between now and May 2015? The key thing will be actually to listen to the voice of the traditional Conservative voters.

I spent almost 20 years on European issues. It’s time to lance the boil one way or another. Bill Cash’s call for a referendum now – that is, before the next Election – makes a lot of sense. At the very least there is surely a strong case for getting the legislation providing for a referendum through Parliament before the next Election.

Jo may be a ‘European’. He grew up in Brussels, went to school there, and holds degrees from two European universities, as well as Oxford. But that doesn’t mean he’s a fanatic European. Jo, obtained a First from Oxford, is a fluent French speaker has more qualifications than Boris. I’ve canvassed with him in Orpington. I’ve spoken at the Orpington Ladies Lunch Club! It’s quite clear to me that traditional Conservative loyalists in Orpington and around the country are troubled, to put it mildly, at the current state of the relationships between Britain and Europe.

Jo is astute enough to see that finally making good on David Cameron’s ‘cast-iron guarantee’ of a referendum is politically wise as well as intellectually coherent. There are other things the new policy team might want to take another long, hard look at. Have we really got immigration under control? How many Conservative voters does planning Minister Nick Boles lose each day in his mad rush to concrete over the green fields? Why do we need all those new houses, if not because the previous government simply let immigration run riot?

Why, for that matter, do we need the HS2? Aren’t there other, far better things to spend £30 billion on … and counting? And, while I’m about it, what about the mad EU biofuel directive which is leading to the destruction of rain-forests all over the world? And Jo’s wife, Amelia Gentleman, is an award-winning reporter for The Guardian, so I doubt if she shares my opinion. But Jo has a cool head and a logical mind. He is trained to see beyond the breakfast table.

Much has been made of the Conservatives’ need to ‘reconnect’ with their roots. That, as far as I can understand, is one of the things Jo will have to promote in his new role. Does this all sound pretty serious? Does it sound too serious? In politics, as in real life, a good sense of humour can go a long way. So is Jo going to be funny enough? If you have any doubts, just click on to YouTube and watch Jo’s maiden speech in the House of Commons on June 27, 2010, a few weeks after the General Election and the formation of the Coalition Government.

Jo begins by saying: ‘Anyone hoping that I will enliven proceedings in the manner of one of my elder brothers is likely to be sadly disappointed.’ He goes on to read out a quote from Private Eye. ‘He could not be more different to Boris. It is as though the humour gene by-passed Jo altogether and he inherited only the ambition gene!’ I was in the chamber that day and I heard the loud laughs that greeted that remark.

But Jo turned the joke into a serious point, saying: ‘It is absolutely fair comment, but I don’t really apologise for the humourectomy, nor indeed for any hint of ambition that you might detect. ‘For these are serious times and politicians need to be ambitious when the country is in such a mess. ‘History will not forgive us if we flannel around in this house for the next five years and fail to pick the economy up off the floor where it is at the present.’ Watch this space!
Book launch party for Diary of The Lady

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