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.”