Early in 2019, a few months after he resigned as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and I had lunch in a family-run Italian restaurant close to the old Spectator offices in Bloomsbury.
I arrived a bit early and was shown to a table perhaps 20 paces from the door. Ten minutes later Boris bounced into view, slightly flushed from his cycle ride but exuberant as ever.
That extraordinary star quality was immediately apparent. At almost every table between us, diners stood wanting to shake his hand, slap him on the back or pose for selfies — all of which he happily played along with.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visiting Huddersfield Train Station, West Yorkshire, as he answers questions regarding HS2 Leeds link
Despite the short distance between us, it took him a good five minutes to cover it. The whole place, previously rather quiet, was buzzing with excitement.
When we ordered, he asked whether the sea bass was fresh or had been frozen. The waiter was momentarily nonplussed.
A minute later, the owner came over. He said the fish on the menu had indeed been frozen, but added that he had bought two fresh bass that morning, for himself and his wife.
‘One of them, I will cook for you myself,’ he said. Boris worried slightly about what the poor man’s wife was going to eat but managed to overcome his reservations. ‘Superb!’ he said.
Over the next couple of hours, we covered a lot of ground; his exasperation with the hung Parliament, Theresa May’s weakness, the Brexit quagmire.
He hadn’t yet launched his leadership bid, but Mrs May was obviously in his sights and he was anticipating going into the next election as leader.
It was equally clear that to win a decent Commons majority, Boris would have to persuade millions of traditional Labour voters that he was their man.
The Brexit rift meant most of inner-London was dead to him but the Eurosceptic constituencies behind the northern Red Wall offered huge potential.
These places had voted Labour by reflex — for generations in some cases — but with Jeremy Corbyn and a largely metropolitan clique now in charge, the dial was shifting.
Although the HS2 project has been scaled down, some £96billion will still be spent on the new Integrated Rail Plan, overhauling Inter-City links across the North and Midlands. This is a colossal amount of money and should not be sneered at
They saw the Corbynistas as ‘loony Left’ obsessed with issues of identity, unpatriotic and out of touch with the everyday concerns of ordinary families.
However, the question was, could they bring themselves to vote Tory, the party their parents and grandparents had dismissed, in Nye Bevan’s notorious words, as ‘lower than vermin’.
Of course, we now know the answer. I can’t remember whether Boris was already talking about ‘levelling up’ but there was no doubting his enthusiasm for what he saw as his one- nation mission.
Or, I believe, his sincerity. That lunch came back to me this week, as a series of blunders, U-turns and policy shifts saw the Prime Minister’s credibility seriously undermined — especially it seems among Red Wall supporters.
The torrent of sleaze allegations which followed the Owen Paterson debacle, the second jobs farrago, an apparently unstoppable flood of cross-Channel migrants and now the axing of the promised high-speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds, as well as the eastern leg of HS2 all enraged his new MPs in the North.
There is much talk of a party schism between older MPs of the Tory shires and the mainly younger 2019 Red Wall intake, especially over second jobs.
While many of the former have become used to supplementing their MPs’ pay with outside earnings, the latter mostly believe taking their Commons salary means they should devote all their time to the job in hand.
Other divisions are also opening up, especially over economic and fiscal policy.
The new intake are generally more tolerant of higher spending, even if that means higher taxes. This is, of course, anathema to traditional Conservatives.
So the legacy of the 2019 landslide is a Parliamentary party which, while strong in numbers, is dangerously divided in outlook and purpose.
Unless Boris can square this circle his prospects in 2024 could be grim.
Sir Keir Starmer may be dull, uninspiring and another member of the North London gang. But he is not Jeremy Corbyn — and that is a huge asset.
If the Tories descend into internecine warfare, it is by no means impossible that the Labour leader could win and form a government.
Jill Mortimer won the Hartlepool by-election earlier this year, becoming the first Tory MP elected by the constituency since it was created in 1974
So yes, the PM must carry through his promise of uniting and levelling up the country.
But he must also do the same for his party. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have known and liked Boris Johnson for nearly 30 years, from the time we both worked on The Daily Telegraph.
I don’t claim any special relationship, but we played a bit of tennis and cricket as well as working together back in those days and our paths have crossed a few times since.
God knows, he has his flaws. Rackety doesn’t begin to describe aspects of his private life. He has a habit of thinking everything can be distilled into a joke, and he occasionally speaks before fully engaging his brain.
But he has the alchemic ability to make people forgive his foibles, through his great charm, wit and intelligence.
Voters have factored in his faults and have taken to him, warts and all. Up to now.
There are those who will never forgive him for Brexit and want to see him destroyed. Just listen to the BBC if you need proof.
But for all the noise they make, the Boris-haters are not in the majority.
They caricature him as a buffoon. They are wrong.
Boris Johnson on a visit to the Network Rail Queens Road Compound in Manchester last month
Although he projects a blustering, Woosterish persona, those who dismiss him as a fool make a serious misjudgment. However, he is no longer a journalist, whose column is written one week and generally forgotten by the next.
He is in charge now and has to behave accordingly.
I am also, by the way, a Red Waller — by breeding at least. Who knew we would ever become so fashionable? Born and brought up in a working class Middlesbrough family, I had no real concept of any other class until I left home.
My father served his time at Dorman Long steelworks, where the Sydney Harbour Bridge and countless other great structures of Empire were built.
After the war (he joined the Fleet Air Arm soon after his 18th birthday in 1943), he worked at Smith’s Dock and latterly in the vast petrochemical plant at ICI Wilton.
He was briefly an official in the Amalgamated Engineering Union and voted Labour as a matter of faith. But like many working class northerners, he was socially conservative.
He worked hard to buy his own house, was aspirational for his children and had a strong sense of pride in being British.
It is this innate conservatism that Boris Johnson tapped into with such success in 2019.
The industrial North is not a single entity, of course.
But there are strong uniting factors, the main one being decades of relative neglect.
The strikes and industrial decline of the 1970s were followed by the inevitable but deeply scarring Thatcher reforms and a chronic lack of subsequent investment.
Northern Tory MPs are looking to Boris for change and are understandably dismayed that he stands accused once more of over-promising and under-delivering.
Labour’s taunt that his levelling up agenda has fallen at the first hurdle resonates with their constituents.
However, they must also recognise some of the things he has achieved. In tandem with the impressive Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, he has brought new industry, employment and hope to a once deprived area.
Some Whitehall functions are being moved north, notably the new economic campus in Darlington, where hundreds of Treasury officials will work.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (centre) visiting the Bradford Wholesale market with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (right) and Metro Mayor Tracy Brabin (left)
There has already been considerable expansion of green jobs in the North, with more to follow. New money has also been found to revivify struggling High Streets.
And although the HS2 project has been scaled down, some £96billion will still be spent on the new Integrated Rail Plan, overhauling Inter-City links across the North and Midlands. This is a colossal amount of money and should not be sneered at.
Red Wall members should also remember they owe their positions in Parliament almost entirely to the PM, without whom most couldn’t have hoped to be elected.
They are now Tory MPs and must work with him to achieve their aims, not against him. For his part, Boris has to do better. The recent pain inflicted on the party was entirely avoidable.
The Owen Paterson affair, which began it all, should never have happened.
Mr Paterson broke the rules by engaging in paid lobbying while an MP and a 30-day Commons suspension was recommended after an investigation by the standards commissioner.
If he had served his penance quietly, the whole thing would have been quickly forgotten.
Instead, the PM sprang to his defence (probably without reading the report into his misdemeanours) and whipped the party to support him.
He also tried to destabilise the standards commissioner who ruled against him.
However well intentioned, this was a wretched decision which backfired spectacularly and caused his party no end of damage — all self-inflicted.
Another confession. I was present at, and had a supporting role in organising, the now infamous Garrick Club dinner for old Daily Telegraph hacks, at which the plot to save Mr Paterson was allegedly sealed.
Boris was there, but if he was hatching a conspiracy of any kind, he hid it exceptionally well.
There were 32 people present and he spent most of the time bounding around the tables reacquainting himself with old colleagues, pausing only briefly to make an entertaining but uncontroversial speech.
To clear up a number of other misrepresentations, it has been widely described as an all-male affair. It wasn’t. There were a number (admittedly small) of women there, one of whom gave a brilliant address.
Former Telegraph editor and public Paterson apologist Charles Moore is said to have hosted it. He didn’t.
Boris Johnson with his wife Carrie at the Conservative Party Conference in 2019. He is alleged to have made cruel remarks about her at the Garrick Club dinner
Most shockingly, Boris is said to have made cruel and disparaging remarks about his wife Carrie, which many allegedly heard and were ‘astonished’ by.
I was sitting six feet away from him and it’s news to me, as it was to several other attendees I have asked about it.
I understand the source of the story claims the remarks were heard by 30 people, suggesting it must have been said during his speech.
This being the age of the iPhone, the speech was recorded by one of the diners as a memento. Carrie isn’t even mentioned.
The evening has been characterised by some media outlets as some unreconstructed, port-swilling, Stilton-guzzling, boys’ club extravaganza.
In fact, it was simply a reunion of old friends.
The menu was chosen largely for its cheapness, and the wine was the Garrick equivalent of house red. No caviar, no cote de boeuf, no Stilton — or indeed any other cheese.
It’s unfortunate that, because Boris was always an outsider, now he’s PM he has few political allies or counsellors in Westminster.
He initially staffed No. 10 with people from his time as London mayor and in the Vote Leave campaign.
Most have gone, leaving him perilously short of hands to retrieve the ball when he drops it — or, ideally, before.
The row over who paid for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat is a prime example of Boris’s sometimes stunning lack of attention to detail.
Detail matters. Probity and financial integrity matter. And so does keeping your promises.
The PM has a long-standing love of grand projects — even if the chance of them ever coming to fruition is negligible.
An island airport in the Thames estuary, a tunnel from Stranraer in western Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland, even a roundabout under the Isle of Man.
Imaginative projects, but all hopelessly quixotic.
Two years ago, Boris acknowledged that the Red Wall constituencies had merely ‘lent’ him their votes.
If he wants to make that arrangement more permanent, he must earn their continued trust.
He is certainly capable of doing it, but it will take hard work and sharp focus.
Of course he needs vision, but levelling up is not just about flights of fancy or high-blown rhetoric.
It requires targeted, sometimes incremental improvements to connectivity, economic prospects, training, education and quality of life.
Illegal immigration, too, must be tackled as a matter of extreme urgency.
Taking back control of our borders was a key issue during the referendum debate — particularly in the North.
For all the recent setbacks, the PM still has political capital in the bank.
He has delivered Brexit, won a landslide and presided over the vaccine miracle which is slowly beating the worst health crisis we have seen in a century.
And let’s not forget, he routed Corbynism.
The Tories may have made some bad decisions during the pandemic, but just imagine if Mr Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had been in charge!
Worryingly though, there is a dangerous sense of drift around the Government right now and Labour is making hay without really having to try.
Boris is a remarkable politician and a proven winner.
And for all the hysteria, he is by no means holed below the water line.
But to use his own words, he needs to prenez un grip, if he is to stop those borrowed Red Wall votes being repossessed.
The words of former New York governor Mario Cuomo come to mind. ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.’