'Arrogant in the extreme': The story of Boris Johnson's first general election victory in 2001

James Morris
Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
Boris Johnson at the Henley election count in 2001 (PA)

“This is a disaster for the integrity of modern politics. If we were seeking an individual who demonstrates zero political insight in any major policy issues, then congratulations are in order.”

It could be a Jeremy Corbyn attack line against Boris Johnson from the 2019 general election campaign.

But it’s actually the reaction of Mike McInnes, a senior local Tory, to Mr Johnson’s selection as Henley’s parliamentary candidate in July 2000.

Ahead of next week’s general election, Yahoo News UK travelled to his first constituency - an ultra-safe seat in the Tory heartlands of Oxfordshire - where the blond-mopped then-editor of The Spectator, also known for his appearances on Have I Got News For You, was parachuted in as the candidate to replace retiring MP Michael Heseltine.

A Henley Standard report of Boris Johnson acquainting himself with his future constituency (Henley Standard/Henley Library)

His political opponents at the time do not have fond recollections of the man who went on to become prime minister.

Mr McInnes told the local Henley Standard newspaper that “arrogant in the extreme” Mr Johnson, who was then living in London, blustered in with no knowledge about the constituency.

“I cannot see him supporting some old lady who is having problems with her housing benefit,” he complained. “Are people going to feel comfortable going to him?”

At Mr Johnson’s presentation, the questioning at Benson Village Hall was so hostile that he retired to a pub with then-wife Marina and confided: “It’s all over. I’m out for the count. I was bowled a couple of short balls but it was perfectly good-natured stuff.”

'Boris beats the count': How the Henley Standard reported Mr Johnson's selection as Tory candidate in July 2000 (Henley Standard/Henley Library)

To his surprise - and the dismay of some Tories - he was called back to the hall and chosen ahead of barrister David Platt and solicitor Jill Andrew.

Once Tony Blair called the election in 2001, Mr Johnson’s lack of affinity with Henley was again clear, as Catherine Bearder, his Liberal Democrat rival in that campaign, can testify.

Ms Bearder, now an MEP in Brussels, told Yahoo News UK this week: “He knew nothing about Henley. Never did. At one campaign event, he was in Watlington but referred to it as Wallingford, which is outside the constituency.

A report on Boris Johnson campaigning against the Euro in Henley in 2000 (Henley Standard/Henley Library)

“We didn’t see much of him, though I followed him around wherever he went. He called us Lib Dems ‘annoying wasps’.”

Mr Johnson’s recognisable blond hair did leave a mark with voters.

Ms Bearder recalled: “One constituent told me: ‘That man who came last week, he looked as if he cut his hair with a knife and fork.’”

In the 2019 campaign, Mr Johnson has been accused of ducking scrutiny with his refusal to attend Channel 4’s climate change debate and not subjecting himself to an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil.

His no-shows were also a theme in Henley in 2001, when he didn’t attend a hustings about Europe.

South East England MEP Catherine Bearder, pictured in 2016, finished second to Mr Johnson in Henley in the 2001 election (Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment)

John Moran, the debate chair, threatened to put a teddy bear in his place, telling the Standard: “We’ll look for a very large and friendly Boris-the-Bear teddy bear, as close a resemblance as we can find, to which the audience and the media can address questions.”

Mr Johnson, who said he had a “strong sceptical position” against the EU, retorted: “I have a speaking arrangement that night and they know perfectly well I can’t make it. They’re welcome to make a stunt out of it, but it’s all a bit fatuous when they know I can’t be there.”

In the event, Mr Johnson was elected as Henley’s MP with a comfortable 8,455 majority - though this was smaller than Mr Heseltine’s 11,167 in 1997.

He had only been MP for a matter of minutes when, in the face of the Tories’ trouncing by Labour nationally, people were beginning to talk about him as a future Tory leader.

Of this, Mr Johnson told the Standard: “Seeing as there is no earthly chance of it happening, I feel very sorry for those who put money on me at 50-1. I understand I moved out to 100-1 and the latest I hear it’s going to zero.

Boris Johnson, sat next to then-wife Marina, yawns at the Henley election count in 2001 (PA)

“Maybe they’ve done well - they might have to wait a very long time, though.”

Ms Bearder, who came second with 12,008 votes to Mr Johnson’s 20,466, offered a withering verdict of his subsequent seven-year spell as MP.

“He was affable - just the same as he is now. But he knew he was going to be elected. In Henley, you can put a blue rosette on a donkey and it will get elected. And that’s what happened in 2001: they put a blue rosette on a buffoon and he got elected.

“I wouldn’t say he wanted to be prime minister. He clearly just wanted to be an MP. As soon as London [mayor] came up, he was off out.

Boris Johnson, with then-wife Marina, at the Henley election count in 2001 (PA)

“He’s not a constituency MP, that’s for certain. He’s the typical public school-educated MP who has no feeling for the local community.”

And her view of Boris Johnson the prime minister? 

“I am horrified. I see it in Brussels and it’s eye-wateringly embarrassing what he’s doing with the country.

“We are a laughing stock.”

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