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‘Nobody really knows Johnson’: The Spectator editor on disagreement, younger readers and why the PM will survive



Fraser Nelson: ‘If you’re in my line of work you’re used to the headwinds, and you’re naive if you’re surprised by them.’Tobia Nava / CAMBRIDGE UNION

Fraser Nelson is no stranger to disagreement. Hours before we meet he was getting flak from Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, for an article attacking the government’s online safety bill.

Yet for a man who admits he’s hardened his heart to criticism, his manner is gentle, speaking in a soft Scottish accent that seldom hesitates over what to say. He knows what he believes.

Nelson, 48, edits The Spectator, the world’s oldest weekly magazine. But we begin by talking about the man who used to occupy his chair: the prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Johnson edited The Spectator from 1999 to 2005, but according to Nelson, nobody really knew him. Though a “brilliant editor”, he rarely came into the office. Instead, his talent lay in “picking the right people… his great skill was to inspire a team”.

As a result, Nelson hardly knew Johnson, but thinks his experience is pretty typical of others. “He’s a very secretive character,” he says. He draws a comparison with David Cameron, who during the Leveson inquiry was required to list all the journalists he knew. “Cameron had so many journalistic contacts that when it came to listing them, there were five he had to exclude because he knew them so well and couldn’t list the number of times he saw them.” Nelson says that Johnson on the other hand “presents a gregarious front, but he’s really a solitary figure. I wouldn’t claim to know him particularly well and I don’t really know anyone who would. Hand on heart”.

“He presents a gregarious front, but he’s really a solitary figure”

But what about his predecessor’s political prospects? Mired in ‘partygate’ and the cost of living crisis, Johnson’s days must be numbered, right? Not quite, Nelson replies. “If you look at the bookmakers right now and find out who’s most likely to win the next general election, the answer is Boris Johnson.” We spoke several days before the local elections (5/5), but Nelson wasn’t wrong. Conservatives have suffered losses but none so bad as to force Tory MPs to abandon their leader – for now at least.

“He will only resign if the Conservative party can find someone to replace him”, he says. “When May blew the 2017 election, it was obvious that the Tories were going to get rid of her and replace her with somebody else, but it wasn’t obvious who it was going to be. So they waited until there was a consensus, and that’s what they’re doing right now.”

Despite Nelson’s words of reassurance for Johnson’s supporters, his magazine has been no friend of the government’s, and he wants to make this clear. “During lockdown, we were the number one voice criticizing this nonsense the government was coming up with through their SAGE committee”, he says somewhat defensively. Johnson “spoke of freedom and liberty when he was editor. What’s he doing in office? He locking people down, he has laws against protests. It’s completely indefensible. We were only happy to quote his words from him back at him.

Nelson is keenly aware of people’s prejudices about the magazine, and he seems used to rebuffing them. Many see The Spectator as taking a side in the ‘culture war’, championing calls for free speech and condemning “woke” institutions. Some scorn has been poured over Cambridge’s own: Douglas Murray, a Spectator writer, slammed Stephen Toope’s tenure at Cambridge as an “unmitigated disaster”.

But Nelson dismisses this reputation for the magazine. “The Spectator is heterodox”, he says. “It is not a culture war fighting right-wing magazine. It’s always been about art, poetry, books, everything”. Indeed that “range of opinion” is what he says “marks us out in a market with these homogenizing forces.” He admits that there are often pieces he publishes that he disagrees with, but emphasizes the need to resist the urge to do otherwise – “this is not the weekly Fraser Nelson”.

“There is something about the beauty of print that can’t be replaced: you can’t curl up in the bath with an iPad”

The approach seems to be paying off. Sales have doubled, the print edition is at a record high – “you can’t curl up in the bath with an iPad”, he quips – and the magazine is now appealing to a new, unlikely demographic. “The ‘woke virus’ has been great for our sales because it gives young people, who can’t abide all this, an appetite to read material they’re not going to get elsewhere.” Dear reader, is this true?

However, Nelson is convinced that what he’s doing isn’t that radical. “Publications have always gone against the grain. In many ways their job is to scrutinize and ridicule the self-appointed high priests of political or cultural hierarchies – I would call it journalists doing their job.”

But does the fight ever get him down? Should he have asked the Union staff for more than one glass of red wine before taking on a potentially hostile audience of students? He doesn’t think so.

Though he admits with a twinkle in his eye that when his kids search his name they “find some random expletive”, he accepts that “if you’re in my line of work you’re used to the headwinds, and you’re naive if you’re surprised by them.” He ends by reciting a 19th century poem by Chartist Charles MacKay that he swears by: “you have no enemies, you say? You’ve never turned the wrong to right / You’ve been a coward in the fight.”

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