“Boris Johnson – the gambler”, by Tom Bower. WH Allen £20.
Tom Bower is a prolific biographer renowned for his hatchet jobs, as we call them in the trade, on big political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair. Balance and nuance is not his style.
He has a keen eye for the biographical bottom line and knows that nothing sells books better than sex, lies and domestic violence. And there is no shortage of that here. Johnson, in one of his arch columns, might have called it the perambulations of a priapic Prime Minister.
Mind you, at the outset, it reads more like a biography of Johnson’s father, Stanley, than Boris himself. His dad is accused of being a shameless adulterer who spent most of his time on environmental missions abroad, returning only occasionally to beat Boris Johnson’s mother, Charlotte. “He was always hitting me”, Bower quotes her as saying. This is disputed by Mr Johnson who claims that he only hit is wife once
Ten-year-old Boris, Bower alleges, witnessed his mother receiving a broken nose. Upon this is built a pseudo-Freudian account of why he turned into a “loner” a showman and a serial philanderer. Johnson’s succession of adulterous affairs, from Spectator columnist, Petronella Wyatt, which led to an abortion, to art-dealer Helen Macintyre, with whom he had a child, are of course well known. “To say he has the morals of an alley cat would be to libel the feline species”, as the editor of the Tory-supporting Daily Mail, Lord Dacre, put it when Johnson became Conservative leader.
Bower alternately portrays Johnson as an enthusiastic emulator of his father’s sexual immorality and as a hapless victim of voracious man-eaters, like the “pole-dancing entrepreneur” Jennifer Arcuri. His four year affair, and financial entanglement, with this American tech self-publicist seems reckless as did his ending the affair.
When Ms Arcuri rang Boris last year to say that the media had discovered the relationship, Johnson reportedly handed the phone to an aide: “who spoke to her in Chinese and then cut the line”. She went straight to the tabloids. The book is littered with similar scandalous anecdotes about Boris Johnson’s love life, some of which may actually be true. Like the guard once posted outside his bedroom at Tory Party Conferences to keep women out.
He always returned to his rock, Marina, and their four children – until she finally divorced him out in 2018. She got the money, the house and the children. Boris ended up being the first Prime Minister in history to enter Number Ten with a girlfriend 24 years his junior. Bower suggests that “gushing” Carrie Symonds is another publicity seeker, “manipulative, volatile and aggressive”.
You wonder how he found the time for these complicated affairs. London mayor for eight years, led the 2016 Brexit campaign, became Foreign Secretary then Tory leader and Prime Minister. He renegotiated the EU Withdrawal Agent and won a near landslide in the 2019 general election. He must have had something more than just a wayward Johnson.
Indeed, sexual antics aside, this is a rather sympathetic political biography, unlike most in Bower’s oeuvre. He claims Boris Johnson is not a lying racist with a penchant for vanity projects and the attention span of a gnat. On the contrary, as London Mayor, he mastered the detail of the housing crisis, delivered the London Olympics on time and on budget and was genuinely responsible for the Boris bikes.
Bower examines in detail the accusations of racism. Johnson’s much-quoted remarks about “piccaninnies” with “water-melon smiles” were, according to Bower, a parody of the colonial image of subject races. He was satirising the behaviour of UN panjandrams who, Johnson observed, expected the same kind of guileless adulation from the locals as did Queen Victoria.
As for the Burqa making its wearers appear like “bank-robbers” or “letter-boxes”, this was in a Daily Telegraph column in 2018 which defended Muslim women’s right to wear the Burqa if they choose. He was echoing the criticisms of many Muslims who regard the Burqa as a symbol of patriarchy and oppression. Make of that what you will.
Boris Johnson’s use of language was certainly infelicitous – as he recognises himself. But he does not emerge as a racist by any reasonable meaning of the word. His wife is half Indian and his great grandfather was Muslim. When he was London Mayor he installed Munira Mirza as his cultural tzar, criticised UK government policy on asylum and called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. As PM, he installed more BAME cabinet ministers – Risi Sunak, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, James Cleverly, Alok Sharma and Kwasi Kwarteng– than all previous UK cabinets in history combined.
But what about Brexit? Wasn’t that a racist anti-immigration project and didn’t he lie about a wave of Turkish immigrants ready to “invade” the UK? Like the infamous £350m on the Brexit bus, Bower puts that down to the excesses of the Leave campaign, and its rumpled svengali Dominic Cummings. People will make their own minds up about that too. Cummings comes across as an uncouth and over-promoted egotist – but it was Johnson who chose him as his consiglieri and gate-keeper.
Whether you think Boris Johnson a wicked charlatan or a political genius, he has certainly delivered results. Becoming leader of the Conservative Party with an adulterous record like his own was in itself an achievement. Bower’s account of his manoevruings during the May premiership are fascinating, if only because Johnson seemed so unlikely to succeed her.
He was a gaffe-prone failure as Foreign Secretary. Bower claims that the Remain-supporting civil servants were determined to do him down, but he didn’t need a lot of assistance. Even his resignation speech, which should have been a rousing Philippic worthy of Cicero, was a parliamentary dud. His great gift has been to be in the right place at the right moment. Like all good generals, as Napoleon put it, he has luck.
Or at least he did. The tragedy of Johnson’s big adventure is that at the moment of his greatest triumph he was hit by the epidemiological equivalent of a meteor: Covid. Bower portrays Johnson today as a pathetic figure, exhausted by his illness and isolated in Number Ten. Unable to grasp the complexities of pandemic science, he swallowed the “herd immunity” policy of his scientific advisers, executed a succession of u-turns and lost public trust. Even his verbal dexterity has abandoned him.
There is an echo here of Greek tragedy. Johnson’s great hero is Pericles of Athens, of whom he has a bust on his Downing Street desk. The leader of the Athenian Golden Age had great success as a general, politician and democrat – until he died during an epidemic. Sic transit gloria.