Behind the scenes

Inside the relationship between Boris Johnson and David Cameron

PM announces review of predecessor’s lobbying for Greensill

Boris Johnson’s decision to order an independent inquiry into the Greensill scandal involving his predecessor David Cameron has “reignited” the pair’s long-standing rivalry, senior Conservatives have claimed.

The investigation, led by lawyer Nigel Boardman and overseen by the Cabinet Office, will probe Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf of the finance firm before it collapsed.

‘Intense rivalry’

Cameron and Johnson first met at Eton College and then crossed paths again as members of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club. And they both became Tory MPs in 2001, after winning constituencies in Oxfordshire - Johnson in Henley and Cameron in Witney - before later taking the party’s helm.

Their intertwining careers have been “characterised by intense rivalry, but also a paradoxical co-dependence in which they have relied on each other to achieve their political ambitions”, according to Johnson’s biographer Tom Bower in an article for the Daily Mail.

The newspaper’s Stephen Glover has previously claimed that when Cameron became leader of the Tories in 2005, Johnson was “shocked to his foundations that the man whom he claimed to have outshone at Eton and Oxford could have leapt over him”.

Bower paints a similar picture. After being left out of former schoolmate’s shadow cabinet, Johnson reportedly told a fellow MP: “I dimly remember Cameron [at Eton] as a tiny chap known as Cameron minor.”

‘The crunch’

Johnson has always believed that he is “cleverer, more original, more popular, more entitled to occupy the pinnacle of power in this country than the (in his view) undistinguished but super-privileged son of Berkshire who beat him to the top”, according to biographer Sonia Purnell, who worked alongside the now PM for The Daily Telegraph in Brussels in the 1990s.

In an article in The Independent in 2016, Purnell claimed that “Dave” having “scooped a First to Johnson’s 2:1” at Oxford was also a matter of “eternal disgust” to the latter.

Boris Johnson and David Cameron

Boris Johnson offers a passengers some blueberries on an underground train as David Cameron joins him on the 2014 London mayor campaign trail

Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images

During his reign as PM, Cameron “long had to tolerate - at least in public - the disloyal antics” of Johnson, who was London’s mayor at the time, “because his popularity made him untouchable”, she continues. 

But their feud “came to the crunch” in February 2016, when Johnson endorsed Vote Leave. “Clearly, the scenario of Cameron's political demise following an Out vote in June, followed by his own swift and triumphant coronation as Tory leader and prime minister, was just too much to resist,” Purnell wrote at the time.

In May of that year, Cameron told Glamour magazine: “I’m still friends with Boris, just perhaps not such good friends.”

That they remained friends at all after Johnson’s Brexit campaign reflects the “unique” dynamic between the two men, wrote James Kirkup in The Telegraph months later.

“Boris and Dave are part of the group, the set. They share a world and a history,” Kirkup explained. Yes, their rivalry is real, but it “exists within the confines of a social network membership of which is lifelong for those who join it young enough”.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson

David Cameron and Boris Johnson cheer on athletes together at the London 2012 Olympic Games

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

‘Rivalry reignited’

Social ties aside, senior Conservatives are predicting that the “long-standing rivalry” between Johnson and Cameron will be “reignited” by the escalating dispute over Greensill.

An unnamed Tory MP told the Financial Times this week that “Boris is getting his vengeance on Dave”. Another former Conservative minister said: “Boris will love nothing more than throwing Dave under the bus.” 

Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham agrees that it is “it’s entirely plausible that Johnson might take some pleasure in Cameron’s difficulties” - but notes that the scandal is raising difficult questions for the PM too.

Several of his ministers are also facing scrutiny about whether they “responded appropriately to pressure from a lobbyist”, Wickham points out, which “seems slightly higher stakes than winding up some kid you went to school with”.

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