It was a masterclass in TV interviewing from Eddie Mair, occupying Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning chair on BBC1. (You can watch an excerpt from the interview here.)
With documentary-maker Michael Cockerell’s film, ‘Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise’, to be screened on Monday evening (BBC2, 9pm), Mair took the opportunity to put to the twice-elected Mayor of London the allegations he’s always previously been able to laugh off. There’s a good feature about it in the Daily Mail (sorry) here.
Usually interviewers indulge Boris; I could say complicitly, but perhaps it’s more charitable to say they just don’t know how to deal with his japesome, clowning wit. Yet Mair’s softly-spoken skewering seemed to un-nerve Boris. Asked about his past — those things he’s previously been able to shrug off as little more than Wodehousian scrapes — he floundered unconvincingly. Asked why he wouldn’t give a straight answer to the question, ‘Do you want to be Prime Minister?’ he glanced nervously to the wings, where doubtless his media advisers were watching on with horror.
The interview culminated with Eddie Mair, sotto voce, suggesting Boris’s past showed him to be “a nasty piece of work”. It’s a measure of Mair’s quiet-but-deadly approach that he made it sound eminently reasonable, not a slur. Boris blushed with guilt, not outrage.
For most of the 10 minutes — and perhaps for the first time ever — Boris looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than beneath the glare of the TV lights. This was his reckoning, and he looked winded, lumbering like a past-his-prime former heavyweight champion. Only at the very end did we glimpse again the rambunctious front Boris likes to project, but by then it was too late.
Tory MPs will have looked on and perhaps felt a gratitude for David Cameron they may not have felt in a year or more.