As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson stormed into Downing Street one day to speak to David Cameron about his town hall budget. He wanted a bumper payday for Londoners.
But Cameron, the prime minister for four years, was not sympathetic to his old Etonian. He believed, with some justification, that Boris’s mayor’s office was not being used to aid the government, but rather to promote his own Tory leadership skills.
After some stilted small talk in Study # 10, the Mayor noticed a sticky note on Cameron’s desk that he wanted to see. The Prime Minister refused. When Boris tried to take it, Cameron snatched it back and the argument continued across the study, as was testified by several astonished aides.
Both men were delighted to privately boast about receiving the piece of paper, thereby asserting their authority over the other.
The rivalry has taken a more serious turn in the past 48 hours after Boris, now clearly in control of politics, ordered an unprecedented investigation into Cameron’s lobbying for the collapsed Greensill Capital company.
The rivalry has taken a more serious turn in the past 48 hours after Boris, now clearly in control of politics, ordered an unprecedented investigation into Cameron’s lobbying for the collapsed Greensill Capital company
Team Boris insists the investigation was not inspired by a desire to harm Cameron. But Cameron’s allies, who are to be said to be rapidly decreasing in number, aren’t so sure.
“This could have dodged # 10, but instead Boris started the flames with the investigation,” said a former MP close to Cameron. “No10 says it’s all about transparency, but I think part of it is about Boris needling Dave.”
Others suggest a more Machiavellian motif. They believe the investigation was set up to divert attention from the £ 60,000 spent on the Downing Street apartment renovation project – which was paid for by a Tory donor but was not publicly stated by Boris. Cameron reportedly had hoped to make £ 60million stock options in Greenhill, despite denying it. Boris happily pointed out that by comparison, £ 60,000 spent on Downing Street is nothing.
Both sides have their supporters. Just yesterday, Kwasi Kwarteng, who has seen a rapid rise into the cabinet as Boris’s business secretary, told MPs that the type of loans Cameron was trying to get the government to grant were “very irresponsible”. Significantly, Kwarteng – another old Etonian – was mysteriously overlooked by Cameron for ministerial jobs.
The war of words between these supporters of Cameron and Boris is a replay of what has happened between the two men since they first crossed swords in school. They have been serious rivals for decades, constantly trying to outdo each other.
Boris was in Eton via Cameron for two years and he was the Academic Achiever and King’s Scholar. Smarter, more original and more popular than Cameron, he boasted that he wanted to be “King of the World”. “I faintly remember Cameron at Eton,” he later said, “a tiny guy known as the Cameron Minor.” (Younger brothers were named Minor by their surname, while older brothers were named Major).
But her fortune turned in Oxford. While Boris became president of the Oxford Union Debating Society, Cameron secured first place in philosophy, politics and economics, while Johnson received a 2-1 in Greats (Classics).
Boris scoffed that those who got firsts were “girly swots wasting their time in college” but privately he was embarrassed that he hadn’t got the same grade.
Both became MPs in 2001, and Cameron expanded his leadership in the House of Commons. Within two years he was in the shadow cabinet, while Boris never made it. He was the Tory leader until 2005 and noticeably did not give Boris a great job – which was seriously outraged.
Boris is already annoyed about how Cameron and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, invited himself to dinner in his London house in autumn 2007. The two younger men told Boris, a backbencher, that he would have to run for Mayor of London next year because he had no future as a senior shadow cabinet player. They told him he was not serious enough or hardworking.
David Cameron, who was second on the left as he sat with Boris Johnson at the Bullingdon Club in Oxford and sat on the far right
Little did Cameron know that the mayor’s job would be to make Boris defy political gravity to win twice in London, a city where Labor now dominates. “Suddenly Boris became king over the water,” said an ally of the current prime minister, referring to the mayor’s town hall across the Thames from Westminster. “Boris had an aura of the winner.” When it came to the general election in 2010 and it was Cameron’s turn to run the ballot, one of Boris’ most trusted media advisors, Guto Harri, said, “Shouldn’t you send Dave a text wishing him well?”
Boris said to him: “Why?” “Because you’re old friends.” After some persuasion, he sent the text but couldn’t resist the opportunity to turn the knife: “Good luck Dave, and don’t worry, if you get stuck I’ll be ready to fill the gap.”
Boris’ extraordinary ambition will have led him to loathe the fact that Cameron, aged 43, became the youngest Prime Minister in nearly 200 years in those 2010 elections.
That explains why, as mayor, he never missed a chance to outshine the prime minister. At the parade for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, he crowned his hugely successful summer by reducing Cameron to an uncomfortable spectator.
The crowd cheered, Cameron clapped awkwardly as Boris greeted our athletes for causing “fits of tears and joy” on the UK couches. Cameron complained bitterly about his showboating.
At Tory Party conferences, the mayor always received a top-notch talking point and was never disappointed. The standing ovations were often longer and louder than Cameron’s.
They pretended to be good friends, at least in public, and Cameron acknowledged that the mayor was smart, had confidence, and had charisma, a quality that is in short supply in Westminster. But when it came to the 2016 referendum, the pretext stopped.
After hesitating for weeks on the matter, Boris having returned to the Commons in the 2015 election and stepping down as mayor in the summer of 2016, he texted Cameron to say he supported Leave. Nine minutes later, he made his decision public.
The gloves were off. A few days later, in February 2016, Cameron mocked Boris in the House of Commons, who had launched an extraordinarily complicated idea of two EU referendums: the first to reject the scanty concessions Cameron had received in a deal from Brussels; the second to advocate a better EU package, which he said would be imminent because of the first rejection.
David Cameron in his home group Photos in Eton in 1984 (left) and Boris Johnson at school in 1979
Cameron’s remarks seemed to be directed at Boris, who had problems in his second marriage that would end in divorce: “Unfortunately I have known a number of couples who have filed for divorce, but I don’t know of any who have filed for divorce to renew their marriage vows. ‘
Boris called from the benches: “Garbage.”
Relations continued to deteriorate when Boris and Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove wrote an open letter accusing Cameron of corroding public confidence in immigration. There was a Trappist vow of silence from Cameron when Boris became Prime Minister, pending the decision to integrate the Department of International Affairs (DfID) into the Foreign Office.
He warned that doing so would lead to “less respect for the UK overseas”. In the House of Commons, Boris replied: “I deeply disagree with that.”
In a 2019 entry in Alan Duncan’s diaries and published in the Daily Mail, the former minister wrote, “Breakfast with David Cameron. He has a very clear opinion about Boris. “He ruined my bloody career.”
The Greensill review could do just as much damage.
Boris was pressured yesterday to “test” a rival through the review. He avoided the question. Cameron might have received a more colorful answer.