Have we, as country, moved on from Boris Johnson? He has been prominent in our public life for decades as celebrity-journalist and then as a celebrity-politician. He has amused, entertained, enraged and appalled but his time in office has ended in disgrace (even if that is not how he sees it) and, for many, there must be a temptation to draw a veil over his political career. He could be dismissed as an unfortunate aberration of which we shall not speak again.
Such an approach would be a mistake. Whatever one might think of Johnson, he has been a figure of consequence. The British people would not have voted in 2016 to leave the European Union without him. The subsequent interminable Brexit years would have happened differently in his absence and, in particular, it is hard to see how anyone else could have replicated the result of the 2019 general election.
He is also an unusual character to have a first-rank career in British politics. He has weaknesses that, for most people, would prevent them reaching ministerial office. Indeed, he did not do so until he was in his fifties. Yet a combination of his strengths and circumstance took him to the top, even if his weaknesses meant he could not stay there. Understanding how someone like Johnson became prime minister is both interesting and important – if only to ensure it does not happen again.
It may also be somewhat premature to view Johnson as a purely historical figure. The government post-Johnson is in turmoil, what with the polls showing the Tories far behind Labour, and it is not inconceivable that the Conservative Party – with an unquenchable thirst for power – may conclude that its best electoral hope is to gamble that he can pull off a miracle. It has, of course, worked before.
This may not be a prospect that fills the typical (or even untypical) New Statesman reader with much joy but it cannot be dismissed. We can be confident that Johnson has not dismissed the possibility. In which case, perhaps we should view Johnson not just as a man with a past but a man with a future who we need to understand. Not just to understand him but also to comprehend his appeal.
This is the task that the journalist Andrew Gimson in Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10 attempts to undertake. The book covers the period from the end of the updated version of Gimson’s first biographical volume (the EU referendum) to Johnson’s resignation as prime minister. Presumably most of the book was written with the intention of publishing a biography of a serving prime minister. By the time it was completed, it was a biography of a former prime minister. Now, on publication, it is a biography of a candidate to be the next prime minister.
Gimson’s book is not an epic Robert Caro-esque investigation into how power is obtained and how it is used. Nor does it attempt to analyse the big policy matters of the period. Gimson professes self-deprecatingly that he struggles to remember the difference between the single market and the customs union. Nor is this the book to read if one wants to assess Johnson’s administrative performance when faced with the Covid crisis, which dominated the majority of his time in office.
Instead, Gimson states that his “modest hope” – and “modest” is written in jest – “is to try to work out what kind of person Johnson is, and what kind of a country would dream of making him its prime minister”.
He endeavours to do this over the course of 424 pages and 131 chapters, some no longer than a paragraph. Each chapter sets out an important event, a revealing anecdote, a memorable criticism of Johnson or an analysis of his character. The intention is not to create one great flowing narrative but a series of impressions of a complex and contradictory man.
Gimson’s tone is that of a witty and cynical dinner companion providing an insight into a famous friend. There are no shocking revelations and, while acknowledging his subject’s flaws, he is a little too protective. Gimson is a kind and generous man, other than in respect of a rival biographer of Johnson (Tom Bower “is a clumsy writer who understands nothing about the Conservative Party, but in some of his previous works he had at least been considered an efficient hatchet man”), and, for my taste, too generous to Johnson. Where there is doubt, Johnson always gets the benefit of it.
There is, also, a central argument that is both perceptive and infuriating. It is that Johnson is a freedom loving, anarchic, rude, patriotic, cheerful enthusiast who builds a strong rapport with his audience. In contrast, Johnson’s critics are “prigs”, “puritans”, “pious”, “censorious”, “high minded”, “solemn, self-important and self-satisfied” with their “joyless imprecations”, and they “look down on the rest of us”. Johnson is not an aberration but a popular and humorous rogue in the tradition of Lord Palmerston or Benjamin Disraeli. The tradition of the Tory Democrats – inspired by Disraeli – in which a section of the ruling class and the working class unite to “enrage and outwit the middle class prigs”, Gimson argues, was to the fore in the 2019 general election.
Uncomfortable though it is to admit, there is much in this. For all his flaws, Johnson has (or at least, had) an extraordinary ability to appeal to voters and Gimson correctly identifies and articulates the source of that popularity.
The problem is that the reverse side of these attributes is that, for all his ability to connect to his audience, to convey hope and optimism, Johnson lacked the technocratic abilities to be an effective minister, let alone prime minister. He could not understand complex policy choices or how to implement any decisions that he made. Brexit is his legacy, but it is not clear that he understood what he was doing and we will pay a high price for that over many years. The handling of Covid could charitably be described as mixed, and the impression Gimson’s brief account leaves is that the success of the vaccine task force, for example, had very little to do with Johnson. As for his tendency to disrespect rules, it has left many of our institutions weaker and our standards lower. Gimson is too indulgent of the damage Johnson has done.
In a curious and perhaps unintended way, Johnson’s attributes are reflected in this biography. It is entertaining and often funny. There are moments of great charm and empathy. But there is a reluctance to take matters seriously, an absence of interest in policy and its consequences, and a tolerance of bad behaviour. And what is really infuriating about both Johnson and this account is that, however valid these observations, one feels such a prig in making them.
Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £25
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[See also: The vision of Ralph Vaughan Williams]