Two years ago I attended a political dinner with Ken Livingstone, the former Labour mayor of London, and Peter Mandelson, the ex-business secretary. I was the only Conservative at the table. Mr Livingstone and Lord Mandelson were talking about Boris Johnson, then London mayor, saying how useless he was; what an idiot, what a joke.
The host quietly asked whether I was going to say anything. I demurred, explaining that if I, like Mr Livingstone, had been beaten twice in the capital’s mayoral contests, I would talk up my opponent. I would proclaim him a tough campaigner, brilliant at managing the media.
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, brought the incident to mind this week when he said that appointing Mr Johnson the senior duty minister while the prime minister was on holiday was “like putting the Chuckle Brothers in charge of Newsnight”.
Mr Farron is following a well-trodden path, a path littered with the careers of those who have laughed at and underestimated Britain’s foreign secretary. You might have thought these people would have learnt the lesson by now.
I started working with Mr Johnson almost a decade ago when we were both candidates in the 2008 London elections; he for mayor, I for the London Assembly.
He would not play well outside the Tory heartlands, I was told, shortly before witnessing him being mobbed by supportive crowds in London Labour strongholds such as Southwark and Hackney. His celebrity would not turn into votes, I was told, only to watch him beat the mighty London Labour machine. Once he was in office, the same people told me Mr Johnson would crash and burn, that he could not get a grip on such a complicated brief.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has taken the time to look beyond the showmanship of his eight years running London can see he has confounded the negative expectations. Despite a reputation as a loner, Mr Johnson built a strong team and trusted it to deliver his agenda.
A youth crime plan was devised that tackled educational underachievement and youth prison reform, resulting in a significant reduction in youth murders in his first term. When politicians of all hues were bashing bankers, Mr Johnson passionately championed the City of London and travelled the world to drum up investment. At a time when London needed a boost — Time magazine ran a piece entitled “London’s Sinking” — he became its star salesman.
He also brought the dysfunctional leadership of the Metropolitan Police under control, delivered the London 2012 Olympic Games, updated the London Underground, reformed the London Fire Brigade and began big transport projects such as Crossrail. City Hall cut taxes for Londoners.
I am not claiming the Conservatives’ eight years running London were without hiccup but Mr Johnson clearly proved his doubters wrong. The candidates in marginal seats he visited in the run-up to the 2015 general election feared he would not play well outside the capital. They were proved wrong.
The Remain campaigners expecting some gaffe would sink the Brexit campaign were also wrong. This is why I backed Mr Johnson for Conservative party leader and why I believe he will make an outstanding foreign secretary.
I am not surprised that he defies the lazy stereotypes. What surprises me is that there is still a queue of people waiting to make fools of themselves by trying to make a fool of him.
Perhaps his detractors should consider this quote by Sun Tzu. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat,” wrote the ancient Chinese military tactician. “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
The writer is the Conservative MP for Braintree and a former member of the London Assembly