Boris applied to become a Conservative candidate in June 1993. His application was in the first instance to be an MEP rather than an MP — following in the footsteps of his father, Stanley.
I was the Party vice-chairman at the time and responsible for the candidate selection process.
In the interview and pre-meeting at Tory HQ, my only advice to Boris was to take the process deadly seriously and remember that the judges included hard-working local party members who needed to be wooed with care.
Andrew Mitchell, Conservative Party politician arriving at Downing Street, London, on his bike
This was for them their moment of power. As we settled into the parliamentary selection board (PSB), it rapidly became clear that Boris was controversial. Richard Simmonds was the senior MEP assessor at the selection board.
He had already complained that I had renewed Boris’ father Stanley Johnson’s ticket to be a Conservative candidate even though Stanley had resigned as an MEP.
Simmonds had inherited Stanley’s Isle of Wight and Hampshire East seat in the European Parliament in 1984 and regarded him as unreliable.
Richard made it clear at the outset that Boris would join the Conservative Party’s list of candidates ‘over my dead body’.
Throughout the 24-hour process, Boris behaved impeccably. The external assessor deputed to monitor his performance was Ned Dawnay, a Norfolk landowner who had played a key part in the privatisation of British Airways and whom I had known from our City days.
During the group session, where each candidate chose a subject on which to opine to fellow contenders, Boris chose the subject of bananas, with particular reference to EU lunacies, about which he had written copiously, amusingly and inaccurately as a Daily Telegraph journalist — much to the irritation of Prime Minister John Major, against whom his mischievous humour was directed.
From time to time, Boris would suggest that the PM was supporting a Commission proposal that only straight bananas and cucumbers could be sold to the citizens of the European Union.
Just before the final session, Richard Simmonds informed me that the MEPs intended to block Boris’s application and hoped that I would agree. If I did not, he said, the MEPs intended to have the matter addressed by ‘higher authority’.
I suggested he put his reservations to the meeting of the assessors that afternoon.
‘Andrew, I am afraid you need to go and see John Major. He is very concerned that you put Boris on the candidates list. Apparently Boris has enraged him by writing rude copy from Brussels. He takes these things personally’
I opened the meeting to decide on the prospective candidates by saying that we would discuss Boris’s application last. We went through the other 47 relatively quickly, but in the event nearly half the meeting was spent discussing the pros and cons of putting Boris on the list.
Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted.
Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less-than-honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him onto the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.
The voluntary party assessors were divided, though the MP Richard Ottaway was clear that Boris’s application should definitely proceed.
I secured agreement by majority at the meeting that Boris would be included on the list, but it was clear that the matter was far from over.
That evening I called Boris and told him that it would be helpful if he would agree in the first instance only to seek selection for a seat that was unlikely to be won by the Tories.
This accorded with his current plans as he had set them out to me at our earlier meeting, and he readily agreed. I then called Basil Feldman, who chaired the Party’s candidates advisory committee, to alert him to the fact that there was a significant difference of opinion over one of our PSB applicants.
Meanwhile, Richard Simmonds phoned the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and asked for an urgent meeting. At the meeting, he made clear that he spoke for all the MEPs who had been present at the selection board and said that they were adamant that Boris’s candidature should not proceed.
Subsequently, Douglas Hurd called Party chairman Norman Fowler to alert him to the strong MEP reaction — a reaction which Douglas made clear he more or less supported.
Norman, however, was having none of it and said it was a matter for the Party’s normal procedures. Norman said he would not intervene and that he would stand by my decision. That decision was subsequently approved by Basil Feldman’s committee.
That was not the end of the affair, however. After a Commons vote the following Tuesday, Norman waved me over to the corner of the Members’ Lobby.
‘Andrew, I am afraid you need to go and see John Major. He is very concerned that you put Boris on the candidates list. Apparently Boris has enraged him by writing rude copy from Brussels. He takes these things personally.’
I told Norman that I did not think I could continue as his vice- chairman if the decision was reversed, as it would destroy any authority that I had in this area of our party’s activities if I was over-ruled from on high.
Not for the last time I found myself working for a superb boss: Norman made clear that he had backed my decision to admit Boris.
The following evening, I went to see the Prime Minister in his office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. It was the first time I’d seen him on his own since he had been elected and I had been part of his leadership team back in 1990.
The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming. What the f*** do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?’
I explained that he satisfied all the criteria for membership, had duly passed through the system and been selected, and that it was not my job to make windows into people’s ideological souls but to decide if they were suitable to be commended to constituency parties as selectable.
To start discriminating in this way would undermine the list and could lead to constituency associations losing confidence in the way the central party list was put together. I also mentioned that I had extracted an agreement from Boris that he would not seek to stand in a winnable European constituency.
I left the Prime Minister irritated and not much mollified but disinclined to intervene further.
Some weeks later, I was working at the Conservative Central Office and reviewing the list of applications for a plum Conservative European seat where the sitting MEP had announced his retirement.
There, halfway down the lengthy list of applicants, was Boris Johnson’s name. There had clearly been some confusion given our earlier discussion (and, importantly, my conversation with John Major).
I rang Boris and said I was sure there had been an inadvertent error as his name was down to seek selection for a strongly Tory European seat.
There was a considerable amount of harrumphing at his end of the phone, followed by him agreeing to withdraw his application.
Subsequently, he was translated onto both parliamentary lists and fought for the seat of Clwyd in Wales, where he duly — and unsurprisingly — lost to the Labour candidate in the 1997 general election.
While Boris was contesting Clwyd, I was fighting for my political life in my constituency of Gedling, and after ten years in the Commons I was unceremoniously despatched in the Blair landslide.
I picked myself up and was lucky enough to find myself selected as Sutton Coldfield candidate for the 2001 election.
I had bumped into Boris on and off during the 1990s and we had both ended up living in Islington. Our wives became friends.
Shortly after my good fortune in Sutton Coldfield, Boris invited me round for a chat. His eye had alighted on the vacancy in Henley occasioned by the retirement of Michael Heseltine, possibly concluding that if another tall, hirsute blond were to take over the plum Oxfordshire seat, few people would notice.
Boris questioned me closely about money. ‘What does one get paid?’ I told him. His eyes widened.
‘Goodness, I can’t possibly live on that. I’ve a family to feed.’
In 2001, Boris became MP for Henley; and I became MP for Sutton Coldfield. From time to time, we would cycle back to Islington, puffing up the hill, and every now and then Boris would be recognised by a passing pedestrian or we would both come perilously close to being mown down by a lorry.
Extracted from Beyond A Fringe by Andrew Mitchell, to be published by Biteback on October 12 at £20. Copyright © Andrew Mitchell 2021. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Offer valid until 16.10.21, free UK delivery on orders over £20.Cameron's forecast about our future PM
In 2012, just after I had taken over as Chief Whip, I recall a conversation with David Cameron about Boris