Life sharing a Commons office with Boris Johnson and what I learned about his private life – former MP Patrick Mercer

WELL, now we know that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be the next Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will contest the Tory leadership.

Over the next few weeks 
these two gentlemen will be subjected to 16 formal hustings and endless media scrutiny while the Tory faithful make up their minds.

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But, by July 22, the result should be known, although
it’s not yet clear whether this
will be announced before Parliament goes on its summer hols.

Patrick Mercer is the former Comservative MP for Newark.

Not, of course, that there’s any hurry: the national crisis brought on us by the Conservative Party must not be allowed to spoil long deliberations over lunch in the golf club.

I don’t know if you found the slate of candidates as curious as I did?

Three were Brexiteers from the start, but the rest had suddenly seen the way the wind was blowing and trimmed their sails accordingly – except one.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt during this week's BBC leadership debate.

He, of course, was Rory Stewart, a token Remainer around whom others of that persuasion and the media swarmed, talking him up as a credible alternative, their ‘insurgent’ candidate.

But his brief popularity was just a sop to the ‘progressives’, a jokey protest with only one person really thinking that he stood a chance – Stewart himself. Now he’ll only be remembered as the ‘Boaty McWokeface’ of this contest.

My man, Dominic Raab, was too stern, too icy to win the chance he, I believe, deserved. Sajid Javid was not as modern 
as he billed himself whilst Michael Gove still reeked of treachery.

So that leaves Hunt and Johnson to wrestle over the top job, with the latter the strong favourite.

International Development Secretary Rory Stewart shook up the Tory leadership campaign.

Now, I knew Hunt only slightly in Parliament but I found him courteous, bright and hard working.

He was, however, very much the machine politician – smooth, cautious and ambitious, a template Tory.

It’s vital to remember, though, that he started this odyssey by voting to Remain and was part of the cabinet which designed a hopeless withdrawal plan.

Now, should he win, he’s committed to taking us out of an institution in which he wanted to continue, exactly the same bind Theresa May found herself in – and look how well that turned out.

So, that should leave me tepidly pleased with the more likely victor, but let me make some observations.

First, it took Boris Johnson some time to make up his mind about whether he was for or against Brexit.

Certainly, his flag wagging was important to the result almost three years ago, but I couldn’t help but feel that his position smelt of opportunism rather than conviction. The months and years ahead are going to be tough and – without conviction – he may buckle as his predecessor has done.

Next, I worry about Mr Johnson’s trouble-strewn past and his judgment. He and I were elected on the same day and shared an office for a while and, during that time, I saw a gifted, funny and likeable man who could keep several balls in the air with great skill.

There was also no doubt 
about his ambition, but with 
that in mind I wondered why 
he was so reckless with his private life.

Every dot and comma of his past and present is now going to be held to the light, and I fear that he may prove to be vulnerable.

Also, this anecdote worries me.

Mr Johnson and I were due to talk in the same debate soon after we had arrived in Westminster.

As ill luck would have it, he was called to speak last, his time was limited to only a few minutes and as he stood up a ripple of laughter came from the Labour benches opposite. Now, it wasn’t hostile laughter, it was simply an audience reacting to a comedian, but it threw my colleague
and his speech rambled incoherently.

A few, brief moments later Boris Johnson sat down and as the Minister rose to summarise the debate and uttered the standard form of words “... thank-you, Mr Speaker, it’s a pleasure 
to follow the Honourable Member for Henley”.

They then added the snide rejoinder: “At least, I think I followed him!”

This caused a reaction from Mr Johnson that I still find disturbing as the normally jolly Member for Henley turned into a snarling beast, up on his hind legs again, hurling very audible Anglo Saxon at the Minister until the Speaker told him to sit. It was a fascinating and worrying snapshot, I think, of the real man.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that Prime Minister Johnson can rescue us from the slough of despond into which David Cameron and then Theresa May have thrust us. One thing is certain, though: our next premier will be tested to destruction.

Patrick Mercer is the former Conservative MP for Newark.