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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
How Boris said sorry to Liverpool
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

How do you apologise to an entire city?

One person at a time? Or do you visit selected civic dignitaries to say sorry in private.

Boris Johnson
Mr Johnson spent a day in Liverpool
Instead, Boris Johnson took to the airwaves, touring local radio and TV studios, explaining that he stood by the broad thrust of the Spectator's editorial, but adding he would like to apologise for the "hurt" it had caused.

Especially the stuff about Hillsborough, which was just plain wrong.

Even for a man with Boris' formidable, if off beam communication skills, it was a fearsome task.

Early start

The Tory press operation refused to put out details of his itinerary in advance.

But if the idea was to give the national media the slip and allow the Henley MP to speak to real Liverpudlians without an unseemly media scrum, it didn't work.

A cohort of Fleet Street's finest was on the 0545 out of Euston, expecting high comedy. And they weren't disappointed.

After initially kicking their heels outside BBC Radio Merseyside, word got round that Boris' secret media bus would be visiting the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts. (Or Paul McCartney's Fame School as it is known).

Ealing Comedy?

The hack pack scrambled for taxis.

What ensued was, by all accounts, something of a farce. Boris wanted to speak to the students, the hacks wanted a full-scale monstering.

Boris Johnson
Mr Johnson performing on TV
It was, as one Fleet Street wag put it, "like an Ealing Comedy".

So what did Liverpool make of Boris Johnson, the man who accused them of "wallowing" in victimhood?

The city is known for its sense of humour - and it knows a clown when it sees one.

Blanket coverage

"He's a dickhead, isn't he? If people see him in the street they'll punch his head in. He shouldn't have said it in the first place," said market trader John McDonagh.

The Liverpool Echo caught the mood on its front page, asking "Who is this clown?" next to the inevitable picture of Boris in a red nose.

Other people were pleased that he had made an attempt to apologise - but were puzzled by what he hoped to achieve.

His apology received blanket coverage on local TV and radio, but the people I spoke to were sceptical about whether he really meant it.

Boris was characteristically self-deprecating throughout, standing manfully by the broad thrust of the editorial.

Track suit

He told Radio Merseyside he wouldn't resign because he didn't want to give the press the satisfaction.

He didn't want to see headlines screaming "Disgraced Tory buffoon was finally hounded out of his job last night," he said

I am a squeezed lemon on this subject
Boris Johnson
"In fact, most people I have met in the street have been extremely nice," he said, but admitted he had not actually met anyone yet, apart from a mysterious "balding guy in a track suit", who accosted the Henley MP while on his morning run, shouting: "Never mind the bollocks, Boris".

He was clearly finding the whole thing a little draining.

After enduring an uncomfortable confrontation with Paul Bigley on a radio phone-in, he escaped into the car park, only to find himself face-to-face with Janet Dacombe, of a Hillsborough families group.

After a brief, awkward chat, Boris promised to call her later.

Police advice

"Are you trying to save your political career?" barked one journo.

"I haven't got a political career," blustered Boris, but the disarming Johnson charm was falling on stony ground.

"I am a squeezed lemon on this subject," he admitted before climbing into the back of a car, an open packet of headache tablets clearly visible on the seat next to him.

He claimed he had been advised by the police not to attempt a walkabout in the city.

But the media scrum - and the rotten weather - meant that was not really an option anyway.

Relatives from Hillsborough

He finally got to speak to some real, live Liverpudlians at the Albert Dock, with an impromptu chat with a group of health and social care students and their two teachers.

Liverpool students
Katie Newall has a look at the Spectator
The group was sceptical - "he's only here because Michael Howard told him to," said one student - but there was a genuine desire to hear what the MP had to say.

It wasn't so much the accusation that the city "wallowed in victimhood" that upset people, as the references to Hillsborough. Some of the students had relatives who died in the tragedy.

"What gives him the right to say that? He wouldn't go to New York and say something like that about 11 September," said Delroy Naif.

Flip of a coin?

Just read the article, Boris implored time and again. Luckily, BBC News Online had a copy on hand.

"It says we're victims, look," one said, "this is incredible".

But the clincher for the group of Liverpool Community College students came when they were told Boris' job was culture spokesman.

"Culture spokesman? That's ridiculous," said one.

"How did he get that job? Did they flip a coin?," said 17-year-old Katie Newell. "My two-year-old cousin could do better."

Boris Johnson visits the city of Liverpool

Profile: Boris Johnson
20 Oct 04 |  Politics
Boris sorry for Scouse stereotype
19 Oct 04 |  Politics
'Sorry' Johnson sent to Liverpool
16 Oct 04 |  Politics
Howard slams MP's Bigley article
15 Oct 04 |  Merseyside
Service marks Hillsborough deaths
15 Apr 04 |  Merseyside

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