As a victim of his own pingdemic, Boris Johnson was unable to join our small party of journalists, gathered on Monday to celebrate the 80th birthday of our revered former colleague, Simon Scott Plummer.
I’m not sure that he would have been able to come anyway, what with affairs of state pressing down on him from all sides.
But out of the goodness of his heart (a phrase not commonly applied to the Prime Minister, though I stand firmly by it), he did take the trouble to sit down and write a touching and very funny tribute to Simon, which was read out at the party.
I won’t quote it here, since it was full of office in-jokes, which only those of us who worked alongside Boris and Simon would fully understand.
But my point is that here was the busiest man in the country — with a pandemic on his plate, on top of all the usual cares of a head of government — still making the time to perform a small act of human kindness to an old workmate.
As he surely realised, it’s one helluva thing to receive a message of friendship and praise from a Prime Minister on one’s 80th birthday — and that holds true, even if the PM in question is just good old Boris, who in the old days had something of a reputation as the office clown.
I’ll bet that Simon was extremely chuffed, as I certainly would have been were I in his shoes.
Indeed, Boris’s message put me in mind of Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary thoughtfulness to my mother on the day that my father died.
As I’ve recounted here before, the Iron Lady was at a G7 summit in Toronto on that sad day, sorting out the woes of the world with the likes of Ronald Reagan of the U.S., Helmut Kohl of Germany, Francois Mitterrand of France, Jacques Delors of the European Commission and the then Japanese Prime Minister, Noboru Takeshita.
As a victim of his own pingdemic, Boris Johnson was unable to join our small party of journalists, gathered on Monday to celebrate the 80th birthday of our revered former colleague, Simon Scott Plummer
Yet before she went to bed that night, she sat down and hand-wrote a deeply moving, five-page letter to my mother — whom she had met only very occasionally — extolling my father’s genius and offering her sympathy and prayers.
It was delivered to our London flat the following morning in the diplomatic bag.
This was a huge consolation to my mother in her sudden widowhood.
We all knew, in our family and among his friends and colleagues, that my blind father was a great man. But to have it confirmed by the Prime Minister, in her own hand on the day of his death, was more comforting than I can express.
Her tribute showed that his life, as a profound Tory thinker and a strong influence on what came to be known as Thatcherism, really amounted to something in this world. It was to be celebrated to the skies, just as his early death at 67 was to be mourned.
It was not even as if my father, who had helped Mrs T with some of her speeches, was much of a celebrity. The bulk of his work as a journalist was written anonymously, and he exercised his political influence behind the scenes.
There were no votes to be had from writing so kindly to my mother. It was an act of goodness and fellow-feeling, pure and simple — one of a great many she performed on the quiet to even the lowliest people around her.
I certainly mean no disrespect to Simon Scott Plummer when I say that he is not very famous either (hands up who has heard of him? I thought not).
Like my late father, he has never courted the limelight, writing most of his work unsigned.
He has other qualities in common with my father, too.
As anyone who has met him will testify, he is the perfect gentleman — unfailingly civil and generous to everyone, high and low — a man of great erudition, modesty and wisdom and a truly breathtaking range of knowledge in his specialist field (foreign affairs).
Indeed, I would say that in some respects Simon is the polar opposite of the current Prime Minister — that consummate showman with the rackety private life, boundless ambition and, as many of us often feel, only a tenuous grasp of detail.
But though his enemies may disagree, I reckon it reflects enormous credit on Boris that he recognises the worth of a character so different from his own. Inside that blustering, facetious, bad-boy exterior, there’s a good man struggling to get out.
Yes, I know cynics will chorus that of course Boris showed kindness to Simon, since he knew that a whole lot of journalists would be at that birthday party, and there was a fair chance that his good deed would end up in the Press.
To them, I can reply only that his conduct towards Simon was consistent with so many other stories I’ve heard about Boris — many of which were highly unlikely to be reported. That they’re pushing cynicism too far.
Take the day when, as Mayor of London, he was driving through the capital with David Cameron, who was then Prime Minister, and saw a woman collapsing by the side of the road. It was he who asked the driver to stop and leapt out to offer what help he could.
As a Special Branch minder called an ambulance, the woman came round from her faint — only to see the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London leaning solicitously over her. As my informant puts it: ‘She almost had a heart attack!’
Or take the night he took the Jubilee Line home after appearing on Question Time, broadcast from Stratford, only to be accosted by a passenger who was clearly the worse for wear. Let’s call him Rob.
Boris’s message to Simon put me in mind of Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary thoughtfulness to my mother on the day that my father died. As I’ve recounted here before, the Iron Lady was at a G7 summit in Toronto on that sad day, yet before she went to bed that night, she sat down and hand-wrote a deeply moving, five-page letter to my mother
‘Oi! Boris!’ said Rob. ‘Because of you, I’m about to get the sack! I’m always late for work because your bloody Jubilee Line never runs on time.’
Instead of fobbing him off, Boris borrowed his iPhone and recorded a video for his boss, saying: ‘I’m sitting here with Rob, who says you’re going to sack him because his train is always late.
‘Look, it’s true that we’ve been having trouble with the Jubilee Line, but I’m working hard to put it right. If I fail, you have my permission to sack Rob, but please give us both a chance!’ Pure goodness.
Of course, Boris himself is notorious for being late for meetings. But one of the reasons for this is that he seldom says no to bystanders’ requests for a selfie, and almost invariably stops for a chat.
As he confided to an aide: ‘It’s a small thing for me to do, but for them it could be the biggest thing that’s happened for ages.’
Or take his preference for lunching in the canteen during his days at the Foreign Office, while his grander mandarins dispersed to clubland.
As a secretary reported to a friend, she always felt perfectly at ease with him, knowing she could introduce him to anyone from a cleaner to a diplomat and he’d treat them all as his equal.
Now, I’m not saying for one moment that Boris’s gift for getting on with ordinary people necessarily qualifies him to be Prime Minister.
Indeed, I’ve often wished that he had other qualities in common with Margaret Thatcher, from her diligence and mastery of detail to her courage in risking unpopularity when she felt the public interest demanded it. Boris’s hunger to be loved can often be a real handicap.
But I do believe his life-enhancing connection with the public, from all walks of life, is the key to his resilient popularity.
And as for me, I don’t have a pandemic to handle, nor any tricky negotiations with the EU over Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Nor do I have to sort out the social care crisis or the housing shortage. Nor, come to that, do I have a new wife to keep sweet, or a baby yowling through the night.
On the contrary, since my semi-retirement I’ve spent six days a week in blissful idleness, with nothing more arduous to do than walk the dog. Yet I’m deeply ashamed to admit that when I was asked to write a few lines to celebrate Simon Scott Plummer’s 80th, I never quite got round to it.
Though it pains me to say it, Boris is a much better man than me.