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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Beth Abbit

Hanging out with Boris - face to face with a PM like no other on tour in Manchester

Even before he became Prime Minister, we were used to seeing Boris Johnson’s face on a regular basis. We’ve all seen the footage of him getting stuck on a zipline.

We’ve seen the posh, blustering Boris on telly. And the serious, head-bowed-in-regret Boris. We think we know him.

So no matter what your politics, it’s always going to be fascinating to meet the man in person. But nothing can prepare you for real life Boris - perhaps the most bizarre Boris of the lot.

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My first encounter with Mr Johnson came at North Manchester General Hospital back in September 2019 . Buoyant ahead of the Tory Party conference, he had been chatting to NHS staff with a promise of huge investment.

“Chaos, the weather,” said our photographer, as the PM sat down. “It’s not too bad. Could be worse,” Mr Johnson shot back, cheerily.

“I’ve got to go to the floods afterwards,” continued the snapper, for some reason.

“Really where are the floods?”

“In Oldham.”

I intervened. “Shall we get on?” Government aides usually only allow just three questions and I was keen to make sure mine weren’t all about the rain.

Boris Johnson during a visit to North Manchester General Hospital (PA)

“Come on, yes,” Mr Johnson said, switching to ‘serious’ mode. He answered my questions about NHS investment in optimistic tones. But - ever the journalist - he couldn’t help telling ME what the story was.

“The story here in North Manchester General Hospital is that you’ve got incredible staff, incredible doctors, incredible nurses doing cutting edge stuff. They are brilliant but the facilities aren’t good enough. It’s like asking a premiership footballer to play on a ploughed field.”

I next mentioned the 30,000 Mancunians who were that day preparing to march in protest of the Conservative government. “Are you trolling a city that voted 60% remain by hanging your Brexit banner on your conference today?”

Thousands march for the People's Assembly during the first day of the Conservative Party Conference in September 2019 (Manchester Evening News)

The serious face emerged again. “I don’t think so. I think most people, whether they voted leave or remain, want to get Brexit done. I think people are fed up of it and they want to move on.”

I’d been asked by the Newsdesk to make my final question light-hearted. How would the PM spend a day in Manchester?

“Ahh!” he said, with renewed enthusiasm. He would ‘wander down the canals and then probably go in one of the bars and hang out’.

I try again. Is he a music fan?

“Yes, but up to a point,” he blustered, obviously in his element. “I wouldn’t want to be interrogated too closely on…” he cleared his throat in faux nervousness. “Any of that stuff.

“Oasis! That’s Manchester isn’t it. It’s a long time ago now. Showing my age. What else? Look, don’t cross examine me too closely on the Manchester music scene because I’m gonna fail.”

Chatting to staff at North Manchester General (Getty Images)

It was the tried and tested method that Mr Johnson applied throughout his premiership. Accept defeat on the things that don’t matter. Never apologise for the things that do.

It was another two years before I met him again. This time at Macclesfield’s AstraZeneca campus.

By that point he had developed an almost militant insistence on elbow bumping everyone he met. Like some invisible big red button that he knew he shouldn’t press, he knew he wasn’t supposed to shake hands in the midst of a pandemic, but he’d be damned if he stopped touching strangers altogether.

Boris Johnson visits AstraZeneca on April 6, 2021 in Macclesfield, England (Getty Images)

He arrived late and bounded into the room, Tiggerish. “Great to meet you” he said, presenting his elbow to me. I paused. Stared down at his arm. He raised his elbow slightly and nodded. I obliged him. We sat down.

“Ah yes mask on,” he said, popping one over his face, even though we had all been told to wear one on site at all times. In line with the Bag-of-Washing chic the PM has cultivated so well, the mask immediately began slipping down his face.

“Ethan Davies, BBC local democracy reporting service,” said my colleague Ethan.

“Evelyn?” the PM asked.

“Ethan, yes.”

“Sorry, forgive me.”

As Ethan (Evelyn) says, Mr Johnson was chipper and personable that day. He recalls: “The question I got from friends and family was the obvious one — what was he actually like? ‘Erm, as you see him on telly, really, except he’s a lot shorter than you think,’ became my standard reply over time.

“And that is still my view — many people know Boris Johnson better than I, but if he’s always putting up the ‘bumbling-but-loveable-Boris’ facade, he’s a very good actor.”

Of course, he wasn’t always keen to appear bumbling. Back in September 2019, he was snapped walking alongside Metrolink tracks with his shoelace untied.

His staff weren’t happy about the pictures, which feature in the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Mail . After all, that scruffy image is carefully manicured.

M.E.N news editor Todd Fitzgerald found that out back in 2015. The then Mayor of London was on a whistle stop tour of Greater Manchester and was clearly eyeing up a bid to become Prime Minister.

“He was late - very late,” says Todd. “His car screeched around the corner and he was bundled onto the pavement into a crowd of carefully-selected Conservative types. One of his advisers ruffled his hair - so his tousled locks looked more... tousled. He then seemed to click into Boris mode.”

Tousled Boris handles black pudding on Bury Market in 2015 (Manchester Evening News)

‘Boris mode’ was again presented to M.E.N reporter Tom George, who met the PM during a visit to Bolton in December 2020.

As Tom recalls, Christmas was a week away and the UK would be plunged into another national lockdown within days. He found the PM sitting in a grey Portakabin. “He was clearly keen to appeal to the assembled group of reporters,” Tom says. “After another journalist introduced herself and the radio station she worked for, the PM adopted a comical voice as he repeated the station's name several times. ‘Ahhhhh glooooooooobal radio. Gluuuuubal’.”

Greater Manchester was under Tier 3 restrictions at the time, but Mr Johnson urged his advisers to allow journalists to remove their face masks. They refused.

When Tom asked whether the PM would apologise to the people of Greater Manchester after his government appeared to imply we could have done more to reduce infection rates, he was ‘clearly affronted’.

"I think they have done a fantastic job of getting the rates down," the PM said, glaring at Tom from across the desk. “I congratulate them on what they have done.”

It wasn’t quite the cheerful Boris we’d become accustomed to. Things went from bad to worse when Mr Johnson visited our region again a few months later - this time on a busy train from Manchester Oxford Road to Warrington Bank Quay. The government's new rail plan had already been slammed as a watered down vision of previous promises.

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The press were given strict instructions to wear a facemask before boarding, but were greeted with an elbow bump from the unmasked PM. “It was quite literally one rule for us and one rule for him,” reporter Stephen Topping says.

When asked about work promised to upgrade rail capacity, the Prime Minister ‘hadn't a clue’ “He started vaguely on topic then veered wildly off, frantically flicking through papers with a panicked urgency before an aide finally gave the answer on his behalf,” Stephen says.

Mr Johnson tries to give an answer on when the Castlefield corridor will be fixed to Stephen Topping (Manchester Evening News)

“I was startled by the whole encounter - but Boris was soon speaking with a bounce again as he gleefully told reporters how the plan would benefit Warrington.”

When Stephen met him a few months later, Sue Gray's initial findings on 'Partygate' had just been revealed. Reminded of the sacrifices and the 391 days Greater Manchester residents endured without being able to meet up with loved ones indoors, the PM apologised for 'any misjudgements I may have made'.”

An apology. Gosh.

It was certainly further than he went in his resignation speech. That struck a more defiant tone about his record, and blamed the 'herd' for driving him out of office. One thing's for sure - his replacement is unlikely to be as quite as colourful.

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