Politics, blond ambition and how Boris’s brother escaped the Johnson gene

As his brother Jo joins Cameron’s inner circle, Leo Johnson tells Joy Lo Dico about being the unknown member of the clan and why his wife craves JFWs (that’s Johnson-free weekends)

A family affair: author Leo Johnson
A family affair: author Leo Johnson

Boris Johnson bestrides the stage of London, Rachel Johnson graces the nation’s newspapers and drinks parties, and young Jo has just got his shoe in the door of No 10. But there’s a fourth member of the ubiquitous clan: Leo. He has, until now, been the almost invisible Johnson. In a suit that fits, with neatly brushed mousy hair, Leo, 45, could pass as a civilian rather than one of Stanley Johnson’s blond and super-successful brood and he likes his low profile. In the recent Michael Cockerell documentary on Boris Johnson, Leo is one of the tennis four, notable for running away from the camera rather than towards the ball.

“Look, the last thing your readers want is another Johnson,” he says over tea in a café in Waterloo. But just to distinguish himself, he spells it out. “I’m the non-political one. I’m not blond. I’m not Tory. I’m born with the gene for self-publicity missing or at least defective. It comes on and off, and when it comes on, no one is interested.”

The Johnson gene for self-deprecation does not seem to have gone astray — and like his brothers Leo was also educated at Eton then Oxford. Despite Leo promoting his lack of remarkability, the TED ideas conferences are sufficiently interested to have him at their TEDx event in Newham on Saturday, where Leo will be talking about the future of cities.

His beat is sustainability, the buzzword used for getting business to be green and socially minded. He practises it as a partner at management consultant PwC and he’s preaching it in a book, Turnaround Challenge, out in September.

The patriarch of the Johnson family is Stanley, and each of his four children from his first marriage to Charlotte have picked up one of his many careers. Stanley was an MEP, then eldest child Boris took on his father’s interest in Europe, becoming Brussels correspondent for the Times. Rachel turned out the next generation of novels, and Jo, the youngest, achieved what Stanley failed at, becoming an MP, and is now head of the new Policy Unit in Downing Street.

Leo, who falls between Rachel and Jo by birth, initially worked, like his father, at the World Bank and then strayed to set up a “catastrophically loss-making” film company. “Its main project was Eating & Weeping, the story of Stanko the Bulgarian Pastry Chef, which was described by US film producer Sam Goldwyn Jr as ‘the worst story I have heard in 37 years in the business’.” He sloped off to Paris, “my dreams of being an auteur crushed,” and set up Sustainable Finance, which was a surprise success. PwC bought it in 2008, at a key moment in financial history: it was the week Lehman Brothers collapsed and capitalism checked its pulse.

The World Bank work also introduced Leo to his wife, Afghan-born Taies Nezam, with whom he has two daughters. “She works in post-conflict reconstruction — she’s very hardcore,” he says. “The real victims of the Johnsons, apart from the British public, are the in-laws, who are a much more serious and impressive group of people.” Jo’s wife Amelia Gentleman covers social affairs for the Guardian and Marina Wheeler is a barrister in public law. “They are locked in this collective psychosis. My wife has this concept which is the JFW — the Johnson Free Weekend — which is a special treat. ‘If you do this, I will make sure you get the JFW,’ I say to her.”

Leo also has Stanley’s interest in the environment but, unlike his father who dressed up as a turtle in the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation, Leo prefers the robes of capitalism.

How long till he pitches up in public office? “Deep down I think the amount of process involved in politics might be, in the words of Michael Gove, bonkerooney,” he says. “I hugely admire people for the local stuff and I love the Tories’ focus on people’s passion in individual enterprise and Labour’s call for the need for an entrepreneurial state and I love Clegg because he’s....”

Leo doesn’t really finish this sentence. But he’s a private sector man and a private man, and politics isn’t for him. When Jo decided to stand as MP for Orpington in 2010 Leo felt a little betrayed.

“Jo is very smart, very very smart,” he says, the first of a string of superlatives about his little brother. “He’s the tallest, he’s the blondest, he’s the cleverest. But, if I’m being honest with you, I felt he broke ranks. He and I had this deal, though it was never quite explicit, that we would live these lives of peace, normally, doing half-interesting things that we care about. And then he announced he was going to stand to become a Tory MP.” Mock horror crosses Leo’s face. “I went to this fundraising thing and he made a very moving speech which I found myself interrupting to announce I was going to start a fund to try and stop Jo Johnson becoming a Conservative MP. At which point, Bob Geldof, who was there, came up to me and said, ‘Ah, you’re the fookin’ Leftie in the family’.”

Does he think eldest brother Boris would make a good prime minister? “Maaarvellous,” he says. “I love him to bits. He’s really got ideas and cares about stuff that really matters.”

Leo’s book Turnaround Challenge, co-authored with Mick Blowfield — both are fellows at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, part of Oxford University — will be about how to get cities working from the ground up. He holds up Barcelona’s 12 “fab labs” as an example. Micro-factories which fabricate according to the needs of local businesses and institutions, one of which near a hospital 3D-prints hearing devices and prosthetic lathes and employs former factory workers locally. He also gets excited by Austin, Texas, which is introducing the latest smart power grids, whose heating systems communicate wirelessly with solar panels to make energy consumption efficient.

Boris has just called for more powers as Mayor of London to raise taxes to pay for new infrastructure. Leo, whose PwC super-green offices in More London are a minute from City Hall, does talk to his brother about sustainability, though doesn’t “advise”, but if the Mayor wanted an idea for new infrastructure, the smart grid is the one he’d like to see.

Leo illustrates what he does with a parable centred on the German economist EF Schumacher, who had moved to Britain to escape Nazi Germany but as an “enemy alien” was put to work on a farm during the Second World War.

“There’s nothing very much for an economist to do on a farm, so the farmer got him to count the cows,” Leo recounted. “Every morning he would go and count them — 32 cows. One morning Schumacher goes to the field, and there’s an old man leaning on a fence who says, ‘They are never going to thrive with you counting them’.”

One day there are only 31 cows. “He looks around and there in a ditch, legs up, is cow number 32, dead. Then Schumacher realises he was only counting the cows, he wasn’t feeling their hair, looking in their eyes, checking the fur on their tongue. He wasn’t engaging with them as individuals.” It’s Leo’s argument for connected cities where human contact as well as technologies make them thrive.

“We are all Schumacher’s cows,” booms Leo over the din of the café. “We all need people to check our eyes, to stroke us, to feel our hair.”