The tree was heavy with baubles, the mulled wine flowed freely, and there was a primary school choir from Enfield singing about Jesus and Rudolph to get us in the party spirit. Copts and Baptists, Catholics and Anglicans — the lot of us were there, at No. 10’s annual party for us Christian God-botherers.
But I wasn’t there to gossip, plot and gripe with my mates; I was on a mission. Would I be able to work out what the Prime Minister really thought about religion? I have long found this a puzzle, not knowing what to make of the multitude of signals that he gives out. Earlier this year he described himself as a “very, very bad Christian”. Asked by Robert Peston whether he was now a Roman Catholic, after his marriage in a Roman Catholic cathedral, he declined to answer. “I don’t discuss these deep issues,” he blustered. Then, spotting an opportunity to have a swipe at the openly atheist Keir Starmer, he added a quote from Psalm 14: “the foolish man has said in his heart there is no God.” Peston played along and simply chuckled.
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There was lots of chuckling going on at No.10. Introduced by fellow Etonian, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris stood up and threw out some amusing anecdotes. He and Justin Welby go running together round Lambeth Palace gardens. Sometimes they run in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions. It was a metaphor for the relationship between church and state. He then thanked the Church for its Covid response, which delivered on “the clear teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ to ‘be a good neighbour’”. Oh, I thought. Now there is a phrase: “our Lord Jesus Christ”. “Our” is such a strong word of belonging. The evangelicals smiled. It is an “I am one of you” word. Or maybe it was just something he said — something people say.
The problem I have with Boris is that all that Etonian bluster and bullshit is so wall-to-wall you never get the feeling you are seeing the real thing, whatever that is. I long for a flicker of sincerity — something Mrs May did in spades at her Christmas parties — some sense of what he really thinks about things. Yes, what he really believes. But there is a kind of dandyish public-school raconteur for whom the admission of sincerity is some sort of failure, a sign that the great game has broken down, a depressing admission that charm can only go so far. So everything is deflection and misdirection, smiling and ducking, making other people laugh as a strategy of tactical evasion. And as with Peston, it works. Our laughter gives him time to make for the exit. Only then do you feel just a little short-changed.
Now this sort of dandyish bullshitter has to be very careful with religion. Because at some point religion demands precisely the kind of moral seriousness — sincerity of heart — that Boris despises, or is at a loss to know what to do with. Yes, I too avoid the man who will come up to me on Oxford Street, look me straight in the eye and ask me if I believe in Jesus. Everything inside me screams “none of your bloody business”. But this sort of evangelical directness has no time for the social conventions which we often hide behind, and which allow Boris Johnson to be the master of illusion.
But there is a story about Boris being put on the spot like this. And it is quite extraordinary.
Back in 2019, at the time of the September Equinox, a group of new-age religious pilgrims — Extinction Rebellion supporters — were walking the Ridgeway, part of an ancient trail from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia, a route well-known for its springs and holy places. Their plan was to travel barefoot and sing to the Great Spirit Mother as they went. They wanted their prayers to “open the hearts and minds of those in power”.
As they passed Chequers, the weekend retreat of the Prime Minister, they stopped off to visit a nearby farm shop. And — how extraordinary — there he was: Boris Johnson getting his groceries. Just Boris and the cashier in this tiny, enclosed space. And not knowing what to say, this group of women decided to stand around and just sing: “Listen to your heart, listen to your heart. Let love guide you.”
Now I find what happened next really hard to square with what I know of the Prime Minister. The way Tori Lewis, one of the women, describes the scene, Boris Johnson was strangely moved by the experience. “His mouth is just open, he has his hand on his heart, he has tears in his eyes.” Of course, Boris had no idea how to react to this cringey intrusion into his personal space. “I, err, don’t know what…” he apparently blurted out.
Tori goes on: “Annabel intuitively — she’s a beautiful mother — puts her hand on his shoulder and sees him like a little boy that he is and we keep singing.” Regaining his composure, Boris asks the group where they are from, makes polite conversation, and looks for the exit. “We are healing the world one heart at a time” they sing as he leaves.
If this wasn’t strange enough, one of the group then overheard him talking to his then-girlfriend, Carrie, who was waiting outside: “Where have they come from, it’s like they have emerged from the Earth?” he asked. “Yes” she replied, “and they have a message for you.” And he said, “listen to your heart”.
This, by the way, is the reason evangelical Christians used to get such good results in posh public schools. Here is a group of emotionally damaged children, who have suffered a kind of privileged abandonment, who have learnt to manage the absence of necessary motherly love — though this management is inevitably unstable and difficult to maintain. Suddenly, they are offered a kind of love — a “hand on the shoulder” — that is as emotionally direct and all-embracing as they might imagine motherly love to be. It is a religion of the heart, so to speak, for those whose hearts are a source of pain. Some retreat from this offer, appalled. Others embrace it with huge transformative joy, and it marks them for the rest of their lives. “Why do you need a God if you have a good mother?” my friend, the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, asked me the other day. It’s a very challenging question.
Justin Welby didn’t get converted at Eton. His conversion was at Cambridge, on the evening of 12 October 1975. There is often a single date, for evangelicals, because what happens is a kind of immediate breakthrough. A friend invited Welby to his rooms at Trinity College. Nearing midnight, Nicky Hills pressed Welby, “Jesus died on the cross for you, Justin”. At that moment, Welby says that the penny dropped and, as he later put it, “I asked Jesus to be the Lord of my life”. Were Welby on Adam Phillips’ couch, this experience would no doubt be brought into some sort of conversation about his highly dysfunctional parents — both alcoholics, his father turning out not to have been his father after all.
Boris had a dysfunctional home life, too. His mother and father divorced when he was 15. There are stories that his father was abusive towards her. But where Welby embraced the emotional hyper-sincerity of evangelical Christianity, Boris rejects it with every fibre of his being, terrified that it is the one thing that can bring down the “pyramid of piffle” on which the whole Boris act is founded.
In effect, Boris is a polytheist: he worships a great many gods. That’s what allows him to be all things to all people. Yes, he refers to “our Lord Jesus Christ” in front of the Christians, but he’d flirt in the same way with other gods too — as promiscuous with divinity as he is elsewhere in his life.
Boris has a lot in common with his schoolmate, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I can see why they got on. They have similar demons. But they react to them in totally opposite ways, running in different directions.