She may be Boris’s sister, but Rachel Johnson is about to hit the hustings in her own right, on the opposite side of the Brexit divide. Nigel Farndale meets her at the home of the most famous family in British politics

When I meet Rachel Johnson at her cottage on Exmoor I get the impression I’m being shown that she is not, in fact, “superposh”, contrary to what the Morning Star claimed recently under the front-page headline: “Two-Agas Johnson to stand for Change UK”. The socialist newspaper suggested that the recruitment of Boris’s sister showed the new party to be a “flimsy Establishment rebranding exercise”.

This perceived poshness may have been something she played on in the past – her mischievous, three-year editorship of The Lady comes to mind, as documented by a Channel 4 film crew that followed her during her first few months – but it is less useful when you have six million voters to win over to the Remain cause in the EU elections, especially in the South West, which predominantly voted Leave in the referendum.

Her second home – she and her husband, Ivo Dawnay, a director of the National Trust, also have a place in Notting Hill – is down a dirt track somewhere “simply miles from the nearest lemon”, as the cleric and wit Sydney Smith would have said. While it is true that the place was built in the 17th century and has big, sooty inglenook fireplaces, old books in glass-fronted cabinets, meat hooks on the ceiling upon which flat caps are arrayed, an old tapestry and, hang on, is that a Lowry? – “Turned out to be a copy,” Johnson says as we walk past the painting. “Long story” – it very much has the feel of a lived-in country cottage, one where it is OK to wear wellies indoors, as she is doing today.

Her (country) Aga is playing up, so she pops a couple of teacakes in the toaster and puts the kettle on. She then stokes the fire in a sitting room with family portraits and terracotta-red washed walls and says, “Apart from writing occasional pieces about my hair or how I exercise to keep my bum in shape, I don’t have any paid work at the moment because I’ve had to resign from Sky News [where she presented a panel discussion programme] now that I’m an MEP candidate. Nothing seems remotely normal.”

Indeed. Like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sister Annunziata, who quit the Tories to stand as a candidate for the Brexit Party, Johnson’s standing as a Remainer while her brother is the face of Leave adds to the feeling that we are all onlookers in a Shakespearean psychodrama.

She sighs. “Yes, I completely acknowledge that 85 per cent of all interest in whatever I do is because of who my brother is, and while it grates for both of us, I suspect it’s more annoying for him. In your paper the other day Quentin Letts described me as ‘sister of Boris’ rather than ‘the author of seven books’ or ‘former editor of The Lady’ or ‘presenter and broadcaster’. I suppose we all have to accept sometimes the labels that life hands out.”

Though she clearly finds questions about her brother tiresome, she is polite and friendly and so humours me when I ask about their relationship. What did he say when she told him she was standing for Change UK? “He wished me good luck.” Another sigh. “I think in a way it is bizarrely good for the brand, if you think of the Johnsons as a brand, which I don’t, because I think there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of thinking. I think we are a microcosm of every family and party in the country, deeply divided by Brexit.”

Johnson family debates haven’t turned nasty, however. “Not at all. I have two brothers who voted Leave, the other being Max, who is a half-brother. But Jo and I are very aligned on the subject, though we differ on Theresa May’s deal [which she thinks is essentially fine but over which Jo resigned as transport minister last November]. I look at the backstop as an insurance policy that may not be needed, therefore we can crack on. Jo is more concerned with the sovereignty issue. For some reason I am not motivated by macho notions of sovereignty. Couldn’t interest me less. For me it’s all about the economy.”

She adds that she doesn’t disrespect or resent anyone who voted Brexit. “But I think it is possibly not the right thing for the country, which is why, when they announced the European elections were going to be fought, I thought it was time I stopped sniping from the sidelines and did something.”

She throws another log on the fire and prods at it thoughtfully as she talks. “We are a generally nice, moderate, conservative with a small ‘c’ country, and what is happening is out of character. I was horrified by the scenes from that recent Brexit rally at Newport. I think we’ve gone back to the “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” mood of the Thirties, chanting and being angry. What are they angry about? That is the thing that has brought me out of my feather-bedded, Notting Hill, tennis-playing life. I don’t want to be mooching around in my seventies and think I did f*** all to make a stand about what I considered a terrible wrong direction.”

The fire isn’t responding to her prodding so she reaches for a set of bellows with a rip in its side. Huff, huff, huff. “Bloody useless,” she says. “Do you think I should just throw them on the fire?”

You suspect she might prove something of challenge to her Change UK handlers, given what she now goes on to say. “Change UK is a terrible name. They want to focus-group everything and they have a leadership team of about 11 people. If I were running it we would have one leader and a different name and we would have done a deal with all the other Remain parties, then we would be able to give the Brexit Party a fight.”

When I ask if she has any experience of political campaigning, her face assumes an expression of faux indignation. “Only from my brothers and father! I’ve done lots with them, leafleting and knocking up. I mean, I’m only the fourth most famous politician in the Johnson family. Probably fifth. When Cameron got his coalition in 2010, at 4am I was sitting at the count with Jo. It was his entry into parliament and we were all glued to our phones, and I tweeted, ‘It’s all gone tits up, call for Boris!’ He is the great pied piper for the Tories. They don’t deploy him at their peril. I reminded Cameron of that last week.”

How did he take it? “He looked wistful and said, ‘Looking back, the days of coalition seem halcyon, because they were days of stability and strength.’”

Has she given much thought to what the job of an MEP will entail if she gets it? “I genuinely don’t think I will be elected. The South West is not Remain heartland. But, yes, I know what it involves. I’m the daughter of an MEP and I once worked in the European parliament. Very good canteen.”

Pay good? “Haven’t checked.”

Johnson is not camera shy, having done Have I Got News for You and Question Time and, last year, Celebrity Big Brother. She was on with Ann Widdecombe, who is standing as the Brexit Party candidate in the South West. “I lost to her then,” Johnson jokes, “so I’m bound to lose to her again.”

But this job will put her in a different kind of spotlight, one where she is scrutinised as never before. Her Twitter account – she has 50,000 followers – might be pored over for past indiscretions, for example, not to mention trolled. How thick is her skin?

“Oh, I don’t mind all that. There are people who sit on Twitter waiting to say, ‘Oh she didn’t get the brains of the family,’ or, ‘She’s got a jaw like …’” She trails off. “Very sexist, trolling stuff.”

She has, I say, a reputation for being … “Oh God!” she interrupts, pulling a mock nervous face. I was going to say for being an extrovert.

“Oh, that. Yes, I am bouncy. I have a terrible fear of having one of those timid, girlie lives that women used to have before they were liberated and I almost feel it my duty to take every opportunity there is and – God this sounds so po – but it’s only in the last 60 years or so that women have had the opportunities I’ve had and I think there is almost a need to be seen to do things badly. It’s OK to fail. There is so much pressure on women to be perfect. Perfect house, perfect children, clean and Marie Kondo tidy. ‘Oh, Rachel, she’s always getting sacked. What a flake.’ Really important message, actually, rather than, ‘She does everything brilliantly, I couldn’t possibly try.’ So I feel [my failures] are almost a public service.”

Perhaps her reputation for being posh has something to do with this slightly clipped way she has of speaking, her words enunciated crisply yet warmly in a low register punctuated by a breathy laugh. It’s endearing, but I’m slightly taken aback by the way she seems determined to list all her past failures to me. It seems to be taking middle-class self-deprecation into the realm of masochism.

“‘Over the years I’ve been sacked from The Sunday Telegraph, sacked from The Sunday Times, kicked upstairs at The Lady and sacked by the Mail on Sunday, even before the new editor met me. In 2017 I joined the Lib Dems just in time for them to flatline in the polls and I even managed to finish Big Brother off. I’m the format finisher. The rat that jumps on the sinking ship.” She laughs. “And now I’m jumping on another sinking ship with Change UK. We hope it’s not sinking but it’s not riding the ocean waves in the way Chuka [Umunna], Heidi [Allen] and Anna [Soubry] thought it would. They thought there would be millions of voters in the centre ground who were politically homeless and the new party would take the best of left and right. I think it will be a slow build. A reverse Macron.”

Not only was her decision to enter politics not to do with her being sacked as a columnist on the Mail on Sunday last autumn, but it also, she insists, had nothing to do with her having more time on her hands now that her three children are post-university age.

When I ask if she is not only afraid of being bored but afraid of being boring, she says, “Not fear, terror.” As well as being larky and energetic, she seems an open and impulsive person, but also insecure about her intellect, even though she got a 2:1 in classics from Oxford. Comparisons are often made between her and Boris – as well as sharing the same hair colouring they have a similarly lively sense of humour (and he also got a 2:1 in classics from Oxford). Their defining characteristics, it has often been noted, are that they are competitive and crave attention, perhaps as a consequence of feeling its lack during their childhoods in Brussels, when, aged 11 and 12, they would have to make their own way back to boarding school in England via train and ferry.

But contrasts with her younger brother, Jo, are also illuminating. He got a first at Oxford and claims to have no sense of humour whatsoever. Can we read into her proposed change of career direction that, at 53, Rachel Johnson wants to be taken more seriously, become more like Jo than Boris?

She frowns. What do I mean? I mean, she has done some pretty frivolous things in the past. “Go on, tell me what they are.”

Appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. “Oh, I thought that was very serious.” Taking her top off on Sky to illustrate an item about Dr Victoria Bateman, who appears naked in interviews as a protest? “But I didn’t.” (She had a skin-coloured “bralet thing” underneath.) “Like a lot of people, I want to be taken more seriously, but I guess that will mean having to take myself more seriously. Less of the eye-catching manoeuvres.”

She’s written comic novels in the past, one of which won the Bad Sex award, but what about a serious literary one? “I just don’t think I’m good enough. I probably will try eventually, but you really have to have something to say. Maybe I do need to do more serious things so that I have something serious to write. In a way, life has been too easy.”

It’s a telling comment, one that may explain her constant need to self-deprecate. At one point, I press the wrong button on my tape recorder and get playback and she says she doesn’t like the sound of her own voice. It makes me think of something else she told me, that before she goes on Question Time or Have I Got News for You she sleeps badly for a week. Egotism is, of course, not incompatible with self-doubt and vulnerability, for as she also tells me, she cries fairly easily. When was the last time? “I cried when Notre Dame was burning. I think I would have laid down my life to save it. I think it would have been a noble sacrifice.”

Although she seems able and willing to shrug off misfortune in her public life, she does make a distinction with things going wrong in her private life. “Nothing in work can hurt me compared with …” She trails off again. “There is no comparison between work pain and private pain. You might feel humiliated for a couple of days when you are sacked, but … Well, I’ve had in my life family health problems and things going wrong.”

She is referring to a time when one of her children was critically ill, but also to her husband, who had a liver transplant, and her mother, Charlotte, an artist, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease aged 40. In the past Rachel, as her only daughter, looked after her mother the most out of her siblings, but now Charlotte has a full-time carer.

“I’m very enmeshed with my mother emotionally,” she says, “because she had been dealt such a bad hand. She also had serious mental health problems from the age of 16 and I don’t think you are ever cured of these. She sees her ex-husband, Stanley, climbing Kilimanjaro twice in his seventies, whereas she is reduced in oldish age to …” She glances out of the window. “She is not getting any better and it hurts to see her.”

I ask if Parkinson’s can be genetic. “We were offered the chance to find out and I might at some point. Two of her siblings have Parkinson’s as well.”

Looking death in the face with her husband changed her attitude to life, too. “He hates it when I say it was strain for me when he was on the transplant register, because it was far worse for him. But I felt I had to protect very small children and I had a very ill husband and I don’t think he has been in my shoes there, and I haven’t been in his shoes, but we got through it.”

No material for a serious novel? Really?

Photographs of the Johnsons as blond-haired children in Brussels show they looked like Midwich cuckoos. At the time she was one of only two girls in an all-boy’s prep school (she was later expelled from another boarding school for drinking and smoking and generally being ill-behaved), and some of the other parents considered the Johnson clan too eccentric to allow their children to play with.

A breathy laugh. “You don’t know 1 per cent of how eccentric. I think it is hard for people to marry into this family. Ivo calls this farm Jonnybunkport [after Kennebunkport, a summer haven for the Bush family in Maine], because at one point my aunt lived in the cottage, I lived here and my father’s place is nearby. And Boris, Jo, Leo, Max and Julia [her half-sister] have got the converted barns.” She stands up. “I’m going to show you. Come on.”

The farm cottages, stables and barns, which have only had electricity since 1993, are indeed like a Johnson commune. She stops off to check whether a washing machine in one of the outbuildings has finished its cycle and curses when she sees it hasn’t washed some sheets properly. Her battered old Land Rover, meanwhile, which she needs for campaigning at the weekend, isn’t co-operating either; its battery is wired up to a charger.

Her grandfather was a hill farmer here on 500 acres, and her grandmother made butter and cream in the dairy. She shows me around the dairy, converted to a house that her father and her stepmother live in when they are here.

“We used to have our meals in here as children,” she says. “I cannot tell you how primitive my childhood was. People think I’m this rich, posh person and, as you can see, I’m just not.”

Hers was certainly a peripatetic childhood, in Washington, New York and Brussels, the family moving some 32 times. “But this farm was the centre of it. We’ve always had it to come back to.”

We walk down to the River Exe and she shows me where she and her brothers used to swim as children. “We dammed it up there. I’m looking forward to being a grandmother. It will be lovely when my kids bring their children here. I wish they’d bloody hurry up. That would be the fifth generation.”

She laughs and points at a bend in the river. “This is where my father suggested to the au pair girls in the hot summer of 1976 that they could take their clothes off and wash them, to save them having to wash them in the house.”

House guests at the time recalled that there seemed to be a high turnover of au pairs and that they would walk around the house in the buff. One friend who stayed, Oliver Walston, dropped Stanley a thank-you note afterwards saying, “Thanks for the mammaries.”

Stanley seems to have been untroubled by bourgeois convention. He wrote racy novels and was a philanderer, like his oldest son, which, along with his divisive, prince-across-the-water role in the Brexit crisis, seems to be one of the reasons Boris gets flak in the press these days.

When I ask Rachel if she feels protective towards her brother, she says, “Very. It hurts. It’s horrible. I don’t like it at all. I feel it terribly unfair, these ad hominem attacks by grown men who should know better. His personal life is irrelevant. The way they are so angry with him.” But I suspect she hopes that, despite their differences over Brexit, her brother’s time is yet to come. “He plots things so much better than other politicians,” she says. “He is so many chess moves ahead.”

We have strayed back on to the subject of Boris, but it occurs to me that while we may not be able to understand her without acknowledging her relationship with him, that may work the other way around, too. When I suggest that she and her family are “cursed with being fascinating”, she exclaims, “That’s it! You’ve explained it. I cannot understand why whatever I do [she whispers] seems to make headlines. It must be something a tiny bit other than Boris.” She laughs and ruffles that distinctive blond fringe of hers that often seems to stray into her sightline. “Maybe it’s the hair. It’s become my look. I’d appear sad without it.”


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.