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Inside the mind of Boris Johnson

How Johnson’s writings reveal the desires and delusions of the boy who would be “world king”.

The man who was christened Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has been called a lot of other things as well. “Fanatically anti-intellectual”, in the assessment of his former Islington neighbour David Goodhart. “Ineffably duplicitous”, according to Conrad Black, Johnson’s boss during his eventful period as editor of the Spectator (1999-2005).

Johnson has been likened to Princess Diana (by Michael Gove), Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, a butterfly (by Ferdinand Mount, who acknowledged the “insult to lepidoptera”), the Dulux dog, a punk (by John Lydon), “the general who leads his troops to the sounds of the guns and then, within sight of the battlefield, abandons them” (by Michael Heseltine), Toad of Toad Hall, the Pied Piper, “the Doctor”, the Rector of Stiffkey and various PG Wodehouse characters. Such assessments go some way in characterising his behaviour. But perhaps the most trenchant charge levelled against Johnson is that he is a child, possibly as young as two years old (the journalist Dominic Lawson’s estimate) and certainly no older than six.

Like any child, Johnson hates rules while craving structure – a set of reflexes he has successfully rationalised as One Nation Conservatism with strong free-market sympathies and a libertarian streak. Personal freedoms, the sovereignty of self – concepts easily transposed to the political stage – are what he believes in.

The most reliable guide to Johnson’s character – to who he is, how he wants to be seen, the stuff he represses or denies – is his writing: the dozens of columns and interviews for the Spectator and the Telegraph collected in Lend Me Your Ears (2003); his EU-baiting history of Rome; a self-advancing history of London; a long satirical poem about “pushy” parents; and Seventy Two Virgins (2004), his comic novel about Westminster against the backdrop of a presidential visit. It’s clear that Johnson’s most recent book, The Churchill Factor (2014), was intended as a self-portrait. “In habits he superficially resembled a Bertie Wooster figure,” Johnson writes, “…in industry and output he is the polar opposite.” Or: “Far from being a dissolute Toby Belch, he showed – in his own way – remarkable personal discipline… the more exuberant sides of his personality contained an element of calculated exaggeration.” At points, the book’s relevance to Johnson’s own career is not retrospective but wishfully prophetic. “By the time Winston Churchill came to power in May 1940,” we read, “there were many people who were amazed, and many who were appalled – but also many who thought it was inevitable.”

And there’s also Churchill the writer and speaker – most notably, the fluent, tireless Telegraph journalist whose interventions were “the continuation of politics by other means” and whose income from writing “was vast by the standards of his day”, and the frontbench Conservative MP noted for an oratorical style that combined plainness and pomposity. Churchill once wrote a little guide called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” on the art of converting people to your point of view. In Johnson’s case, the mixed style originates not just in changing minds but in a desire to seem intelligent and impressive without seeming boring and serious – being just the right kind of very English show-off. If he mentions Homer or Horace, he’ll then be sure to use a phrase such as – a real favourite – “no one gives a monkey’s”.

The Churchill Factor also provides an unconscious self-portrait of Boris Johnson. In saluting Churchill’s achievements, Johnson provides little account of his character. There’s a telling moment towards the end when he takes a swipe at Anthony Storr’s psychoanalytic case study – a 1969 essay titled “Churchill: The Man” – which he recalls reading as a teenager. Reducing Storr’s dense 50-page argument to a single detail, Johnson claims to find a “circularity” in the claim that Churchill’s bravery originated in a desire to master his cowardice. Johnson asked: “Why did he decide to master his fear? Was he really a coward?”

In reality, Storr, a renowned psychoanalyst, admits to being at a loss to explain Churchill’s “remarkable courage”. Instead, the essay is devoted to studying the sources of Churchill’s ambition in what Storr calls fantasies of “infantile omnipotence”. It’s well-known that Johnson, from an early age, expressed the desire to become “world king”. The child who, like Churchill and Johnson, suffered parental neglect or early trauma possesses little inner conviction and self-esteem and is therefore drawn, in Storr’s words, “to seek the recognition and value which accrue from external achievement”.

It’s understandable that Johnson, writing a book not just commissioned by the Churchill estate but designed to reveal a flattering likeness between author and subject, chose not to build on the insights of “Churchill: The Man”. Storr explains that as an extrovert (“a person whose chief orientation is towards events and features of the external world”), Churchill showed “little interest in philosophy and none in religion”. The Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris has noted that Johnson “finds arguments in principle, in the abstract, or about ideology rather tiresome”. Storr also quotes Jung on the psychological subtype known as “intuitive” – someone “always present where possibilities exist”, with a “keen nose for things in the bud”, incapable of “conviction”, lacking consideration for others, and often dismissed as “a ruthless and immoral adventurer”. These are the properties in Churchill that Johnson was less inclined to dwell on than the fact he was an elegant orator, a fast writer of readable journalistic prose, a man undervalued by his more “focused” peers, and so on.

But rather than simply ignoring uncomfortable subject matter, Johnson goes out of his way to argue that Churchill’s depression, his “Black Dog” moods, have been “overdone”. This is protesting too much. Johnson recognises exactly what role a propensity to low moods, a fear of silence or introspection, plays in the lust for power. Parris has said that Johnson is “more easily depressed than he appears”, and Johnson’s former girlfriend, Petronella Wyatt, has written that “the key to Boris lies in his concealed and sometimes agonised personality. He is Wodehouse with tears.” (Churchill, Johnson writes, “blubs at the drop of a hat”.)

Johnson occasionally lets his guard down and forgets to protest. He suggests that Churchill’s tendency to write 2,000 words a day was a product of his “creative-depressive” temperament and helped to keep “the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay”. He’s taking his cue directly from Storr, who maintained that: “Churchill used his writing as a defence against the depression which invariably descended upon him when he was forced to be inactive.”

Johnson makes his characteristically slippery move of dismissing psychology, to keep the traditionalist reader on side, while simultaneously deploying psychological and even psychoanalytic terms. Again and again in his writing, he has speculated about the sources of conduct and attitudes. To “psychoanalyse” the Europhilia of Heseltine and others, he once wrote, is to uncover an “irrational” distaste for the United States. In the Churchill book, he wonders if Evelyn Waugh’s dislike of the prime minister had a basis in envy. He further suggests that the coldness and aloofness of Churchill’s parents was a major “contribution to civilisation”. This is Storr’s argument. All that’s missing are quotation marks and footnotes.

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Johnson cannot help but accept that, as Ferdinand Mount put it in a recent essay, Churchill was emotionally “starved into greatness”. If we adjust greatness to “desire for greatness” or “desire for power”, this has largely been Johnson’s own story. As we learn from Sonia Purnell’s biography Just Boris, Johnson’s father, Stanley, was avoidant and immature; the son of an alcoholic with an inability to, in his own words, understand human relationships; a philanderer and inveterate joker who lost his job at the World Bank over an April Fool’s Day joke. Boris Johnson’s mother, Charlotte, was intelligent, creative, under-supported and overburdened.

Johnson is the eldest of four (Rachel, Jo and Leo). Storr, in the Churchill essay, wrote that the “hard lesson that one is not the centre of the universe is more quickly learned in the rough and tumble of competition with brothers and sisters”. Johnson told Wyatt that he was forced to “fight for every scrap”.

When Johnson was ten, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and spent many months in a psychiatric hospital in London. Johnson and his siblings were living in Brussels, where their father worked for the European Commission. (I’ll leave it to Johnson to psychoanalyse his own Europhobia.)

Johnson’s experience of this horrifying incident, and more generally, his separation from Charlotte, has manifested itself in strange ways. There’s a bizarre, unexplored moment in Johnson’s 1990 telephone conversation with his old friend Darius Guppy (secretly recorded by a business associate of Guppy’s, it made headlines because Johnson was being asked to provide the address of a journalist whom Guppy was planning to beat up). In the call, Guppy admits that he would certainly be a psychopath if he did not have… and Johnson interjects: “A mother?” In an interview with PD James, Johnson wrote of her novel Devices and Desires that “the bit that gets me” is when a murder victim emits “a silent wordless scream of ‘Mummy! Mummy!’” On the first page of Seventy Two Virgins we’re told that Sigmund Freud would “have been thrilled” by the protagonist’s son. (“I am going to kill Daddy,” the boy says to his mother, “and then I am going to marry you.”)

Storr suggested that the child’s need for “total care”, if unfulfilled, may create “a sense of something missing and something longed for; and he may, in later life, try to create conditions in which his slightest whim is immediately attended to”. Johnson’s mother has said that her son’s ambition to become “world king” was “a wish to make himself unhurtable, invincible, somehow safe from the pains of life, the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months, the pains of your parents splitting up”. (Johnson still refers to his mother, who remarried in 1988, as Charlotte Johnson.) The familiar diagnosis is of “narcissism”. Without wishing to body-shame the (newly slimmed-down) former foreign secretary, it seems relevant that Storr associates this character type with “oral” greed, as well as with a more symbolic hunger for fame, adulation, success and power.

Storr recognised that mitigation for feelings of desertion or rejection may be found in a “sense of belonging to a privileged class”, which is easily applied to the gusto with which Johnson pursued membership of elite societies at Eton and Oxford. Another source of relief is disobedience and disrespect to authority, which Johnson has demonstrated in his dealings with house-masters, college tutors, European bureaucrats and three Conservative prime ministers. It’s a character type, Storr explains, that often displays a capacity to “identify with the underdog”. Matthew Parris has identified Johnson’s “passion for wronged individuals and the overlooked”, going as far as to say he “would have been a brave defender of Dreyfus”. If art is more revealing than punditry, it’s worth noting the conflict between the wide sympathies of Seventy Two Virgins, which features terrorists in a significant role, and Johnson’s remarks in columns on single mothers or the Global South.

But while neglected children “tend to treat all authority as hostile” and exhibit sympathy for other victims of hardship or deprivation, Storr writes, they also idealise their parents, as a defence against the idea of not being loved. Johnson dedicated Seventy Two Virgins to “the best of parents”.

Of course, the dedication was presented in Latin, “optimus parentibus”, and what Storr called Churchill’s “gift for words” has likewise been a comfort for Johnson, the occasion for a show of strength – his turn of phrase is often genuinely spry – and a source of “self-esteem”.

Storr asks of Churchill: “How did so egocentric a man inspire devotion in those who served him, whose immediate needs he seldom considered?” He decides that it is because “men who demand and need a great deal of attention from others are manifesting a kind of childlike helplessness, which evokes an appropriate response, however difficult they may be”. (Chris Patten said you can’t call Johnson “a liar” – “he simply doesn’t really understand the difference between fact and fiction… Boris is Boris.”)

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Of course, the important difference between Storr’s subject and the current front-runner for the Conservative Party leadership is that one saved the country whereas the other looks in danger of destroying it. Storr accounts for Churchill’s greatness by saying that in 1940 he coincided with a reality well-suited to his personal capacity for romantic fantasy and “became the hero he had always dreamed of being”. What England needed, Storr maintains, was precisely “not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader”. The fear in this case is that the equivalent scenario for Johnson – his “finest hour” – was probably the Brexit referendum. That was a moment when the populist bluster of a capricious man-child was able to make an impact. Managing the fallout, by contrast, calls for… who? Well, anyone but Boris.

Storr also noted the degree to which “the highly successful” are able to conceal their private torment from other people and themselves. A glimpse of torment comes in an essay Johnson, then a recent graduate, wrote for a book called The Oxford Myth, edited by his sister Rachel and published in 1988. It’s a piece that Johnson has dismissed, not unsuspiciously, as an exercise in “self-deprecation”. Topical parallels leap from the page. Johnson’s record of his second attempt to win a place on the Oxford Union, a period when the pages of his diary were “dark with tiny entries”, resembles his second attempt to become leader of the Tory party (“for weeks his team have been filling his diary with up to 16 phone calls and one-to-one meetings with MPs each day,” reported the Guardian recently).

But there are also revelations of a deeper kind. Johnson said that engaging in Oxford politics gives you “a load of self-knowledge” – in his case, presumably about quite how much he needed praise, flattery, attention and admiration. Johnson once told the broadcaster Michael Cockerell that failing to be elected to the Union on his first attempt had been “just what the doctor ordered”. But given that he ran again – and has since run to be an MP, mayor of London and Conservative Party leader – it appears that the patient felt otherwise. Winning, not failing, was what really salved the wound, however briefly. (He found the mot juste for his own condition when he characterised Bill Clinton’s “ego-sexo-psycho-drama”.)

At one point in the Oxford essay, Johnson recalls waking up every morning “to the shock that you are still a prisoner of your ambition”. Storr wrote that ambition, in its “demonic” form, drives “the subject to achieve more and more” while “never bringing contentment and peace, however great the achievement”. Decades later, Johnson remains as much a prisoner as ever. Along the way, he has convinced himself that, in becoming the closest that the Palace of Westminster offers to world king, he will finally achieve liberation when he is simply forcing 66 million people to join him in his cell. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news