The article that made Boris ‘hang my head in shame’

Boris Johnson has written more than his fair share of controversial stuff over the years. Whether it’s jibes at Islam, the Commonwealth or Barack Obama, general statements about blue collar men, working women and single mothers or, er, advice on handling female Spectator employees – ‘just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way’ – there’s always been something to annoy the left.

He, for his part, is largely unapologetic, claiming in the 2019 election debates that: ‘If you go through all my articles with a fine-tooth comb and pick out individual phrases, there’s no doubt that you can take out things that can be made to seem offensive.’ But even Boris has some regrets – as he revealed in an Independent article in 2002. Headed ‘my greatest mistake’, it was part of a series in which famous celebs detailed their errors and misdemeanors.

The-then Henley backbencher and Speccie editor claimed ‘my biggest cock-up’ was the infamous incident during his short-lived tenure as a Times graduate trainee when Johnson claimed Edward II and Piers Gaveston had cavorted in the remains of the former’s Rose Palace. The thrusting young hack was so enamoured with his thesis that he concocted a quote from historian Colin Lucas (his godfather). Unfortunately, as Johnson wrote, ‘some linkside don at a provincial university spotted that by the time the Rose Palace was built, Piers Gaveston would long have been murdered.’ Lucas complained and Johnson was fired.

That incident is infamous but a lesser-known one occurred earlier that same year. As part of the Times scheme, Johnson had to spend three months working at a regional paper. It was here that Johnson wrote one of the articles he, apparently, most regretted. He told the Independent:

My mistakes are too numerous to list in full, but one stands out that still makes me hang my head in shame. It was when I was working for the Wolverhampton Express and Star, and I wrote a piece about unemployment in Wolverhampton. It was the late 1980s, when unemployment was still pretty severe, and a lot of people were living in wretched conditions. I had discovered a lawnmower shop that needed sales assistants, but no one was applying for the job. I couldn’t understand it and wrote this irate comment piece about people scrounging benefits. I’d been in Wolverhampton only about a month, and it was unsurpassed right-wing drivel. I suppose it could be intellectually justified, but none the less it was condescending, and I felt afterwards like an Oxbridge graduate who had just arrived and was declaring everyone shirkers. I very much regret that.

The article in question has eluded discovery by countless Guardian journalists, eager to gather compilations of Johnson’s most embarrassing quotes. But now Mr S has obtained a copy of the offending article in question, published in the Express and Star on 22 February 1988 on page six of the paper. It seems pretty small beer compared to some of Boris’s other scribblings, but who is Steerpike to make windows into men’s souls?
Below is the piece in full…

The thousands of jobs that are just waiting to be done

As the economy picks up speed again, more jobs are now appearing on the market in the West Midlands. But with hundreds of thousands of men and women, still unemployed in the area, a disturbing predicament is becoming increasingly common: a great many of these jobs are just going begging. Tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled for months. Some of them are not even applied for. The latest figures from the regional Manpower Intelligence Unit show that of the 54,438 vacancies notified in JobCentres throughout the area, almost half of them, 26,679 remain unfilled at the end of a three-month period. According to Moira Kelly, of the JobCentre in Queen Street, Wolverhampton, there are a number of reasons for this paradoxical situation.

First and most important, she says, is the increasing buoyancy of the economy. ‘As firms are expanding, vacancy notification is increasing all the time, in JobCentres and in newspapers like the Express & Star. The final figures for the West Midlands will be released in March, but already in 1987-99 there has been an 18.4 per cent increase in vacancies on 86-87. But despite the more than 20,000 people unemployed in the Wolverhampton area alone, employers are finding it surprisingly difficult to find the new workforce they need. To a great extent the bosses are frustrated because the unemployed who come to them for jobs are short of essential skills. Many skills, such as those required in steel manufacture, have become outdated with the decline of traditional heavy industry.

So one of the government’s biggest battles is to teach the unemployed about the new technology. ‘The most vital task is to re-educate people in the use of up-to-date machinery’ says Moira Kelly. ‘There are a number of skill centres in the area to train the unemployed in the use of new technology, such as computer-numerically controlled machines.’ But the impetus for these crucial retraining programmes cannot come from the government alone. Moira Kelly states that men and women on her books have shown ‘a very positive response’ to the training courses. But are the unskilled taking the steps they could to equip themselves for the new technology jobs? Again, there is evidence that a great many opportunities are being missed.

Mike Potts is the recruitment co-ordinator for three business courses at Bilston College, Wulfrun College and Wolverhampton Polytechnic. The courses, which are specifically designed to retrain people in the use of new technology, are free. He says ‘We have been advertising these courses for three weeks through the Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce and I am amazed that not a single person has come forward. The courses are due to start next week and we can take about 50 people.’ Even jobs requiring hardly any skill qualifications can get passed over.

Graham Payne has been advertising for three weeks for someone with basic mechanical knowledge to take a managerial post. ‘I run some lawn mower and washing machine centres in Walsall and Sutton Coldfield. I now intend to open a branch in Wolverhampton and need someone aged 25 or over to run the shop. The wage would be negotiable, but it would be about £150 per week’ said Mr Payne. ‘With all the unemployment in this town, I cannot believe that no-one has come forward to offer their services. One 60 year-old man did apply but then he didn’t turn up for the interview!” Moira Kelly stresses that many applicants can be rejected because of failure of communication between the JobCentre and the prospective employer about exactly what qualities he is looking for. ‘You would be surprised how many times all the people we send along get turned down because we have not been told that they need a driving licence’ she says. But many disappointed employers, like Mr Payne, do not even have occasion to turn anyone down. The most recent figures show that, of the 1,685 managerial prospects advertised in the West Midlands over a three-month period, only 403 were filled.

In professions such as unskilled construction and unskilled machine operation, the success rate was little higher. One senior Wolverhampton social worker is convinced that many people are shirking employment because of the greater rewards of unemployment and other state benefits. When Moira Kelly insists that, in her experiences people do want jobs, she recognises that one of the first tasks facing the Department of Employment is not just the creation of more jobs. As more jobs appear on the market, the Department must ensure that the new opportunities are not allowed to drain away. ‘The talent is there to fill these jobs, and we must make sure it does.’

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