Guto Harri, who was former UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s director of communications, is keen to dispel one “ludicrous” notion about his old boss, who was forced out last year in a scandal over Covid-era parties at Downing Street.
“The idea is now established that Boris is some sort of lazy, incompetent, louche, drunken idiot. None of this is true,” insists Harri, as he cradles a cup of green tea in a London West End hotel.
Despite infamous pictures of him raising cans of beer at pandemic gatherings, Harri says Johnson “barely drinks”.
“I’ve known him decades and I have been drunk with him only once,” says the mischievous Welshman, who holds an irrepressible glint in his eye. That was the day after the 2010 general election when Johnson was mayor of London. He says they went to an Argentinian restaurant where they washed down “mountains” of steak tartare with Malbec wine.
“You can picture the scene,” says Harri, who ran Johnson’s communications in his first mayoral term before joining him at Downing Street in 2022 for the fractious final seven months of his premiership.
A former BBC political journalist, he has been close to Johnson since their days together at Oxford University. In recent weeks, Harri has lit up Westminster with a litany of colourful, behind-the-scenes accounts of their time together inside Number 10, through the release of a podcast series, Unprecedented, in conjunction with radio group Global.
The podcast’s revelations have included that Johnson last year “squared up” to King Charles, then still a prince, in a row over the royal’s criticism of government immigration policy. Harri has also claimed that Johnson called French president, Emmanuel Macron, a “c**t”, while the former prime minister also had to be talked out of sending a video directing the same slur at Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister whom Johnson blames for helping to bring him down.
Harri, an urbane, native Welsh speaker whose Gaeilgeoir father studied in Dublin, insists he is still “sympathetic” to his old boss, despite embarrassing Johnson by making public anecdotes that don’t always portray him in a flattering light.
“The podcast is trying to find the truth between two tribes – one that says Boris is a cartoon character and evil, the other that says he walks on water. Neither is true. I’m more sympathetic to him than most but I’m also trying to share objectively what really went on.”
How has his old friend Johnson, who is still the subject of public and political inquiries over his handling of aspects of the pandemic, reacted to Harri’s decision to spill the beans in Unprecedented?
“He wasn’t thrilled about me sharing the story about King Charles,” he says.
Harri joined Johnson’s Number 10 operation at the start of February 2022 and worked there until Johnson quit in September. During that time, Johnson’s government fine-tuned a plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda, a policy that the king, then still the Prince of Wales, is said to have privately derided as “appalling”. Harri says Johnson confronted him days later at a conference.
He says the story of Johnson “squaring up” to Charles, or his profane opinions of Macron, show only that he wouldn’t be “intimidated” by either royalty or another foreign leader.
“I think he appreciates that, as embarrassing as the headlines may be, that for brand Boris, it also shows he is uncowed and alive and well.”
Harri’s Irish links – his late father, Harri Pritchard Jones, studied psychiatry at Trinity College before moving to the Aran Islands and writing Welsh language novels set in Ireland – proved handy during his time as Johnson’s top communications aide during fractious Brexit negotiations.
He recalls accompanying Johnson on a trip to Belfast last year during talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol, where they met the leaders of the main political parties one-by-one in a “speed dating” session.
“The DUP were unbelievably polite but equally rigid and uncompromising. It is not going too far to say Sinn Féin were pretty abusive but, politically, very pragmatic. I’d like to think I shocked them when I said, ‘Go raibh míle maith agaibh,’ at the end of the conversation. It was the last thing they expected.”
Harri was also in the room for talks between Johnson and then-taoiseach, Micheál Martin. Relations between the two leaders soured when Johnson’s government proposed legislation to unilaterally override a deal with the European Union on trade arrangements and the Irish border. Harri defends Johnson’s aggressive approach, later ditched by Sunak to get the Windsor Framework deal.
“Sometimes you need to put a gun on the table to remind people how important it is that you resolve things through dialogue,” says Harri, who says Johnson privately blamed Martin for not making an effort to get the “intransigent” EU be more flexible in talks.
“I think Boris thought that the taoiseach could have been more helpful. If relations [with Ireland] deteriorated, it was a symptom of that,” says Harri.
Harri, an avid Remainer in the Brexit debate, says he finds it hard to reconcile the “ebullient, upbeat, optimistic, unifying Boris” that he worked with between 2008 and 2012 at City Hall with the prime minister who was aligned with the arch-Brexiteers of the Conservative Party’s right wing while in power.
He says Johnson made a mistake by keeping controversial Vote Leave architect Dominic Cummings on-board for too long as his adviser in Number 10. Harri says the former prime minister felt he had to bring in the “mad cleric” of Leave to ensure there was no “softening up” of Brexit, which was voted for by a majority of the population. Yet, Cummings’s divisiveness contributed to the turmoil in the Tories that precipitated the internal rancour that led to Johnson being forced out.
“He needed Cummings [to push Brexit through]. I think his regret is that he hung on to him beyond that. [If he had got rid of Cummings earlier] the story of Boris would have been very different and there would have been a happier ending. Part of that is he would still be in power today.”
Harri sees his old boss as an ideas man who wouldn’t necessarily be steeped in the “nitty gritty” of governing but who was always prepared to push back against the “machine” of the civil service and its inherent conservatism that might have frustrated his plans. Great politicians always do this, he suggests.
Johnson was eventually forced out after a series of front bench resignations, including Sunak’s, blitzed his authority while, at the same time, the scandal over Covid-era Downing Street parties damaged his standing with the British public.
“At the very end, the defenestration of a leader is brutal. You bleed out. Your authority bleeds out. It is shocking and disturbing and haunting. It turns colleague against colleague. There is a blame game and the man himself inevitably goes through all the stages of grief,” says Harri.
Some of Johnson’s old supporters harbour faint hopes he might return as prime minister or even as leader of the opposition if Sunak’s Conservatives bomb at the election next year. Harri is not so sure. The only chance, he suggests, is if Labour fails to win an overall majority and enters an “inherently unstable” coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which he believes would be fraught with tension.
“In those circumstances, I can see how Conservative Party might see Boris as the person to exploit those tensions, bring them to a head and finish off that coalition soon enough to still have the appetite to go back in. It’s the only way but it is a long, long shot in so many ways.”
He paints a picture of Johnson as a complex character, full of frailties, talent and “heroic” intentions. “The truth is always more subtle and interesting than the caricature,” says Harri, who seems wistful about the way the former prime minister was chased from power.
“We all have to think very hard about what we want from our politicians. Do we want angels who are whiter than white, the ultimate role models? Or, do we want people, whomever they may have offended or whatever is going on in their own household, who are going to do the job well and leave the country in a better state than they found it?”
Whether Johnson ever achieved those things remains open to debate. What is undeniable, though, is that he still towers over every other figure in British politics.