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Just Boris: the Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity

Just Boris: the Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity
Sonia Purnell
Aurum Press, 400pp, £20

It is clear from Sonia Purnell's account that Boris Johnson has achieved little of substance in his first term as Mayor of London and wasted a great deal of time and public money trying. It is also clear that he will probably win a second term anyway next year. The apparent contradiction hardly needs explaining, coming as it does towards the end of Purnell's biography, Just Boris. By the later chapters, the reader is well accustomed to the subject's alchemical capacity to turn failure into political fortune.

Purnell, a journalist, came to know Johnson as a colleague in the Brussels bureau of the Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s, where she witnessed at first hand the exceptional craft that later propelled him to celebrity status. The rise is quick and turbulent enough that it is tempting to credit sheer luck, and she sometimes invokes that most unscientific of causes. But to cite luck unquestioningly would be to indulge the myth of bumbling ineptitude that Johnson has cultivated as a cover for voracious ambition.

This is not to imply that the clownish persona is entirely artifice. Johnson, judging by this thorough study, is every bit as disorganised and careless off screen as his TV performances on Have I Got News For You or Newsnight suggest. Yet the disorderliness is also a political device to disarm opponents and deflect blame. Many of Johnson's apparently off-the-cuff remarks are crafted in advance and his stumbling delivery timed to perfection. Purnell cites an occasion, from his time as a Tory opposition frontbench spokesman, when two journalists were given the same rambling spiel in separate phone calls. There is an astute line from the US journalist Michael Wolff who, having interviewed a dishevelled and semi-clad Johnson at home, observed that he "invites underestimation".

The great mystery that seems to have provoked Purnell's investigations is whether there is a defined goal lurking in the mayor's undoubtedly brilliant mind, or whether his ambitions are more like his speaking style - grandiosely vague. In that context, the book's title is double-edged. Just Boris implies a compliment, in that Johnson is one of very few politicians who can be identified instantly by first name alone. But the badge of exceptionality also hints at limitation. Here is a profusion of talents unable to escape the gravitational field of a giant, childish ego: Boris, and nothing more.

Johnson certainly envisaged great things for himself from an early age. As a child, he imagined being "world king". He was precocious at school but also, to begin with, timid and diligent. (He briefly attended the same state-run primary school in north London as the Miliband brothers.) At that stage, he was still Alexander or "Al". His full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, hinting three-quarters of the way through at a claim to descent from Continental aristocracy.

The eruption of ebullience that became "Boris" happened at Eton. He was despatched to the elite academy partly to escape the family home, where his parents' marriage was unravelling. His mother suffered a depressive breakdown. His father, habitually absent and serially unfaithful, was incapable of parenting alone, if at all. This must have been a traumatic time, and Purnell hints at how it shaped and coloured the Boris mask. She doesn't labour the psychological speculation, however, partly because the Johnson family is tight-lipped on the subject. His sister, Rachel, is quoted - through secondary sources - describing the clan as "Sicilian" in its commitment to blood loyalty and its appetite for vengeance.

But Purnell does permit herself acid asides on the question of why, given the pain Johnson's father's philandering caused his mother, he went on to demonstrate chronic trouser indiscipline in his own adult life. His affairs are such common knowledge that his image has been used to advertise an illicit encounter website for married people. What, the author wonders in passing, does he imagine this does to his children and wife?

It seems unlikely he gives it much thought, because to do so might leave him marginally less room for more urgent and irresistible contemplation of himself. Selfish isn't the word. His relationship with his ego defies the modern lexicon, evoking something closer to the afflictions of classical heroes. The sense of entitlement and disregard for others is Homeric in breadth, suffusing every aspect of his being, encompassing betrayal in print of loyal friends, wanton deception of political masters and reluctance to buy lunch or repay debts.

Perhaps Johnson's love of ancient Greek and Latin literature stems from seeing in those pages his only possible peers, while all around are mortals and minions. There is something about his manner that aspires to Caesar and ends up closer to Nero.

That a man is personally unreliable and sexually promiscuous does not prove that he is politically inconsistent, although Johnson is all three. If he has a creed, it is a kind of far-right, libertarian hostility to any kind of constraint on personal freedom, coupled with a secret cosmopolitan distaste for shire Tory stuffiness. He built his career at the Telegraph peddling semi-fictional scare stories about European affronts to British liberty (inventing almost single-handed a now-commonplace journalistic idiom), but he prefers the company of urbane, pro-European Conservatives to fanatical sceptics. Crudely speaking, Johnson seems to believe in little other than the likeliness of his being right and the entitlement that this gives him to a public platform. His greatest talent by far is his ability to persuade others, including millions of voters, to agree.

The weakness in Purnell's book is that she does not capture the charisma that makes people oblivious to the unpleasantness that leaps out of any dispassionate account of Johnson's behaviour. The chemical thrall is obviously powerful and yet Just Boris, sharply narrated and diligently researched, fails to transmit its essence in print, and so leaves unsolved the mystery of how he gets away with it again and again. The author also leaves unanswered the question of whether her subject has his eyes on a prize bigger than the London mayoralty.

It seems unlikely that Johnson is relaxed that David Cameron, a junior contemporary at Eton whom he judges, like everyone else, intellectually inferior, has become Prime Minister before him. He thinks he is destined for greatness and no doubt imagines himself equal to the biggest job in politics. Anyone reading this book will be compelled to disagree.

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B