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Johnson and Corbyn: The real Star power in race for No 10

By Mark Andrews | Newport | Politics | Published:

Next week, we may find that our two major party leaders have one thing in common – us.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn both cut their teeth with the Midlands News Association - publishers of the Express & Star and Shropshire Star

Boris Johnson, the plummy-voiced bon viveur, the flamboyant free-marketeer with a penchant for Latin.

Jeremy Corbyn, the earnest socialist die-hard, whose main hobbies are said to be digging his allotment and photographing manhole covers.

At face value, it is hard to think of a time when the men dominating our two main political parties were more diametrically opposed.

But scratch behind the carefully cultivated public personas of the two men, and they have much more in common than either would admit.

Both grew up in well-to-do, upper middle-class families, both lived for a time in the West Midlands - Corbyn, in Newport and Johnson in Wolverhampton and Oswestry.

And both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn had brief careers as journalists with Midland News Association, the publisher of the Express & Star and Shropshire Star, helping shape their political beliefs.

After graduating from Oxford, with a 2:1 degree in Classics, the 23-year-old Johnson joined The Times in 1987 as part of a graduate training scheme.

His employer thought he would do well to learn about provincial journalism, and he was dispatched to learn his trade as a junior reporter in the West Midlands.

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Landlady

Born in New York, and educated at Eton, life in Wolverhampton would prove very different.

He lived in digs with a landlady called Brenda in Dimmock Street, Parkfields, next to an abattoir owned by then-Tory MP Christopher Gill.

While young Boris was cutting his teeth in journalism, Mr Gill, MP for Ludlow, and Wolverhampton MP Nick Budgen were beginning to make their presence felt as opponents of what would become the EU.

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“I was a mere toenail in the Express & Star,” said Johnson during an interview in 2014.

“I went around doing, you know, ‘toddler locked in loo’ and ‘cat stuck up tree’ stories. I did lots of UFO stories.

“They were so sweet. They always said ‘no Boris, no more UFOs’.”

Star columnist Peter Rhodes, remembers being told that he was in Wolverhampton to learn about ‘real life’.

He recalls: “He looked like a fish out of water in a very expensive pinstripe suit and was usually hanging around the newsdesk looking lost or bewildered.”

Despite rubbing shoulders at Oxford with David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove, Mr Johnson says writing about housing issues in the Express & Star convinced him he was a Tory.

'That’s when I migrated towards the Conservative way of thinking'

“These were people who were long-term unemployed. And I remember feeling sorry for them.

“Their lives weren’t getting any better. They were living in this house and there would be a baby or other pressures on them. And they would complain about the damp and the mould and the council wasn’t doing enough about it.

“I just felt, how much better would it be to try to get those people into work, get them off benefits, get them if possible to have a share in the value of their home or, if possible, to buy their home.

“That was when I started to think sometimes socialism, with the best possible intentions, can keep people in a rut. That’s when I migrated towards the Conservative way of thinking.”

Not that there was any shortage of home comforts at his digs in Dimmock Street, where he recalled landlady Brenda cooking up hugely extravagant meals.

“She was so wonderful, she used to make the most extraordinary meals in the evening,” he said.

“The Times covered her expenses. She was such as sweet soul. She basically decided that they’d given her far too much money, So she used to produce the most colossal evening meal you have ever seen. There would be lasagne and incredible dishes of cheese, butter and so on.”

Mr Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, cites an incident where he was grabbed by the lapels by an angry social worker called Bruce, who accused him of patronising people in the area.

But while Mr Johnson’s time in Wolverhampton may have been an eye opener to the young man, it was not his first taste of life in the West Midlands. The year before starting work at the Express & Star, the probably future prime minister married his first wife Allegra Mostyn-Owen at St Michael’s Church in West Felton, near Oswestry, and for a short time the couple lived in the Shropshire village.

Classic Boris Johnson

The way the couple met was classic Boris Johnson. While at Oxford, the sister of a school friend who was living in a neighbouring hall of residence, had invited Boris to party.

Boris, being Boris, managed to turn up on the wrong night clutching a bottle of wine. When he knocked on the door, he was greeted by the party host’s room-mate, Allegra, and the pair shared the bottle of wine. Boris quickly decided that Allegra was the girl he wanted to marry, but the union would not last.

Allegra, the only daughter of acclaimed Italian writer Gaia Servadio and multimillionaire landowner and art historian William Mostyn-Owen, arguably occupied a higher place in society than Boris.

The family owned Woodhouse, a country estate in West Felton, and by the time of their marriage Allegra had already appeared on the cover of society magazine Tatler.

Remembering their time at university, Allegra recalled: “He made me laugh. We had a very nice time together. We would leave each other notes several times a day. It’s always nice to get something in your pigeonhole, especially if they’ve got little rhyming couplets.”

The couple moved to London, but by the time he moved to Wolverhampton the cracks were starting to show. His landlady Brenda advised him: “Boris, you’ve got to treat her like porcelain.” But according to Gimson, Boris was “in too much of a hurry and too full of energy and ambition to treat his fine and delicate wife with the tenderness she needed”.

Boris went back to London, and managed to reconcile their differences – for a time. But when the couple moved to Brussels in 1989, after Boris became the Daily Telegraph’s Europe correspondent, the cracks resurfaced as Allegra became increasingly isolated.

Allegra said the couple split up a couple of times – once over an argument about education policy – and they drifted apart when Allegra began studying law in London, travelling to Brussels at weekends.

By the time they divorced in 1993, Boris had already begun an affair with his second wife Marina Wheeler.

An idyllic life

Mr Corbyn’s time in the West Midlands was much less dramatic. Born in Wiltshire, he was seven years old when he moved to Pave Lane near Newport.

Jeremy was the youngest of four sons of David Corbyn, an electrical engineer, and Naomi Loveday, a maths teacher.

Jeremy and his brothers lived an idyllic life at the seven-bedroom Yew Tree Manor, and says most of his views were shaped by his years in Shropshire.

Initially he attended the private Castle House prep school in Newport, but later moved on to Adams Grammar School in the town where his rebellious streak began to manifest itself.

It was here that he became involved with Wrekin Labour Party and the League Against Cruel Sports, and caused further ructions when he refused to join the school’s cadets force.

“I was in a minority in my school in being totally opposed to blood sports – and shooting, for that matter,” he said.

“I remember on Monday mornings at school, one of the teachers would start on about who had been shooting at the weekend. I said ‘that’s stupid, it’s cruel, it’s not sport’, and the same with hunting and all that. I was kind of in a minority of one, there were lots of arguments.”

These acts of teenage rebellion would set the scene for Corbyn’s political career.

Mock election

“Diane Abbott always says to me you learned everything you know in Shropshire, and unfortunately you have forgotten none of it,” he said in an interview.

But it was not all an unhappy experience. He also recalled enjoying history classes led by Mr Mottershaw, and participating in the school’s debating society. While at Adams’ Grammar he stood as the Labour candidate in a mock election at the school in 1966. He lost.

When Jeremy was growing up, David took a job working at GEC in Stafford, and was a founder member of the Blists Hill Museum at Coalbrookdale. Naomi taught maths in Stafford.

As he got older he worked on farms and in factories and warehouses and enjoyed a short stint as a journalist for the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser, a weekly sister paper to the Shropshire Star and Express & Star. It was here that he became involved in local politics.

“I was briefly its chief reporter covering everything from crime, education to religious affairs,” he recalled last year.

He campaigned for Labour in the general elections of 1966 and 1970.

“I remember when we won The Wrekin for Gerald Fowler, there were whoops and cheers,” he said. “It was an amazing result.”

Mr Corbyn said the experience of being involved in these campaigns was crucial to his career in politics.

“I learned a lot about people in that time. In the elections in 66 and 70 the levels of poverty in parts of Dawley – the housing conditions and living conditions people were in were shocking. But The Wrekin spreads out to areas like Newport, and there was a lot of rural poverty.”

Few would have envisaged in 2015 – when David Cameron secured the Conservatives a majority in the Commons – that four years later Britain’s two main parties would be led by mavericks like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

But for better or worse, the political landscape will almost certainly soon belong to two men whose philosophies were very much made in the Midlands.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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