His allies, opponents and conscientious objectors alike were amazed to see a joke-free, stern-faced fellow masquerading as Johnson at the podium the other day declaring his credentials for the vacant post of unmandated (by the people) prime minister.
It clearly wasn’t the real Johnson: the short, neat hair, uncrumpled shirt collar and tidy tie-knot were tell-tale signs that an imposter was in the room. And I bet that behind that podium, not even a shirt tail was hanging out of his trousers.
It’s as if his minders, manicurists and manipulators, (all of whom would have been ridiculed by Johnson the political journo) had forgotten the reason why we got to this unlikely point at all: all of Johnson’s foibles, failings and fiascos were, are, and always will be, his unique selling proposition.
Take those away and you’ve got just another boring politician.
The advantage of boring politicians, of course, is that they are generally reliable, sensible, and unlikely to throw a lighted match anywhere near a puddle of petrol.
Mr Johnson, joyously, is the reverse, but thankfully with the added bonus that he can be counted on, most of the time, to forget the matches.
The attraction of the ungroomed Johnson has always been the unexpected, the impromptu, the muddle, the mayhem, the shambolic: what you saw was what you got. On the podium the other day, we saw what we won’t get – the smooth, the measured, the imitation of the grown-up. Nobody can keep that up for long.
So why try to repackage a product which is already a household favourite? It’s like tampering at your peril with the secret recipe of a much-loved fizzy drink.
Because it turns out the Johnson product is unsafe.
That’s the only conclusion from the reluctance of his campaign team to expose this lively, invigorating public performer and debater to a television shake-down with the rest of the pack now vying to seize the prime ministerial crown.
Or at least vying to be the second-to-last man standing when that crown is handed – who would have thought it? – to Alexander Boris Pfeffel Johnson.
I did think it, and did say it, a long time ago, at first playfully, but increasingly seriously - this chap is going to be Prime Minister some day, one day, somehow, because everything goes his way: even when things go wrong, they go right.
I should have put money on it, back in 2003, when it was obvious that Boris’s unbroken track record for breaking the rules and emerging from scrapes intact was transferring seamlessly from the journalistic Johnson to the shambolic political version.
That’s the Johnson magic – even when things seem to go pear-shaped, career-wise, they turn out fine.
And by the time he was sniffing at a political career, that magic was well-established: the chap now known universally by his second name, was, by the early 2000s, becoming the celebrity darling of people who didn’t know any of his names; he was that funny posh blond bloke off the telly and everybody loved him, even if some were laughing at him rather than with him.
Boris Johnson had - and still has - impeccable, usually accidental, timing. Even when he loses, it just sets up a future triumph: how could political commentators have written his political obituary, as some did, the day after Michael Gove stabbed him in the back in 2016? Hadn’t they spotted the Johnson magic, that absolutely certain self-belief, with much historical justification, that whatever can go wrong probably will, but it won’t stop the rollercoaster. And if it does, he’ll just climb aboard another one.
Even people who don’t like him like him, if you see what I mean, just for brightening up the dullest of days.
Or at least they did, until, for his own ends, he spread the Johnson magic dust over Brexit, and created a divided world of Boris backers and Johnson jeerers.
To be clear: Boris Johnson did not invent “Euroscepticism”: he did not march into Brussels as a young journalist and suddenly discover a world of malign Eurocracy which the entire Brussels press corps had missed or was prepared to overlook. Indeed, one of his predecessors on the Daily Telegraph, Alan Osborne, had made a mark much earlier writing very regular (true) stories about Margaret Thatcher’s battle to get “my money back” from Brussels.
No, the bent bananas, curved cucumbers, Euro MPs’ expenses, private jets from Brussels to Luxembourg for a pampered Commission president, fish and farm policy excesses, the crazy notion of running a European Parliament based in three different capitals……all this and much were, I’m afraid, common currency – alongside a more positive daily diet of the doings – and triumphs from time to time - of the institutions.
What Boris brought to the party was his considerable writing flair, a vivid imagination, and, crucially, an editor’s generosity with space on the news pages and encouragement for extensive Brussels-bashing. Ironically, that same editor subsequently threatened to emigrate to South America if Johnson made PM. So we are where we are, and Mr Johnson is where virtually no-one thought he would ever be, mainly because he is now deemed by many to be someone who, even if they can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, probably knows someone who can.
It could still all go wrong – but so much already has, without much effect on an impressive, erratic, Marx Brothers comedy capers kind of career which has rarely, if ever, faltered.
It’s not only been haphazard of course: Brexit, of course, was a shrewd, clinical calculation, which took an awful lot of effort on his part, involving much hard work debunking post-war European unity while invoking a Dad’s Army lexicon worthy of the pompous Captain Mainwaring.
By coincidence, just as his elder brother’s minders were cleaning up his act for a last push over the top into the Tory leadership, a newspaper printed younger brother Jo Johnson’s review of a book analysing Britain’s second world war legacy.
It begins: “Much of Britain’s self-image and approach to the rest of Europe is rooted in enduring myths built up around the second world war………”
Did he have Boris in mind…?