Shortly after my review of Tom Bower’s biography of Jeremy Corbyn had been published, I bumped into a former aide to Tony Blair, who commiserated with me on the painful task of making one’s way through Bower’s uneven and error-marked prose. Still, they said, I should consider myself lucky: when Bower’s Blair book came out, they had to read it twice.
I have read The Gambler, Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson just once, but as I turned the pages, I had an uneasy sense of having read it at least twice before. Johnson has already been the subject of two excellent biographies: the sympathetic and intimate Boris by Andrew Gimson and the critical and lucid Just Boris by Sonia Purnell. There is little that is genuinely new or of interest in Bower’s account that has not been uncovered by Purnell or Gimson. That might be bearable if the resulting book was a pleasure to read, but Bower is no stylist, and his attempts at dramatic flourishes result in moments of accidental farce. Johnson’s first bid to become president of the Oxford Union, Bower tells us, “coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s new government being threatened by Marxist trade unionists, especially the miners, in a febrile political atmosphere”, leading us to believe that perhaps Johnson’s political ambitions will be thwarted by the Balliol College branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, or failing that by some posh Trots. Neither is forthcoming.
To tell the story, Bower relies heavily not on a posh Trotskyite, but on Johnson’s sister, Rachel. Bower quotes extensively, but without attribution, from a piece Johnson wrote for The Oxford Myth, a collection of essays edited by Rachel, writing that Johnson “later admitted” that his relationship with the “stooges” who helped him win was “founded on duplicity”. Reading Bower’s book, you would think that he had secured these confessions from Johnson himself, and indeed Bower goes so far as to criticise others, only two pages later, for taking The Oxford Myth as a “confession of dishonest politicking”. There is nothing in the chapter to alert you to the fact that these sections have been taken from an already-published book: other, that is, than the fact they are noticeably better written than the rest of The Gambler. And what Bower seems not to have understood is that the people that Johnson duped were not the electorate but the lesser candidates running on his ticket. It’s emblematic of the failings of Bower’s book, which brings to mind that old cliché: The Gambler is both good and original, but what is good is not original, and what is original is not good.
There is so much that is not good about The Gambler that it is difficult to know where to start, but it is perhaps best to begin where Bower does not: with his own relationship with Boris Johnson. As Bower reveals, in a typically pompous manner, “readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home”. He is certainly right, which makes one wonder why this disclosure takes place on the 527th page of a 528-page biography. To make matters worse, the disclosure is incomplete. Bower continues: “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined the Daily Telegraph in 1988. She became the newspaper’s deputy editor before serving for seven years as the editor of the London Evening Standard. Their long relationship is one of colleagues rather than friends. She played no part in researching or writing this book.” He neglects to mention that those seven years in question covered the entirety of Ken Livingstone’s second term as mayor, during which Wadley’s Standard was the loudest and most reliable part of Johnson’s supporters’ club; that from 2012 to 2016 she worked for Johnson while he was mayor of London; and that in the summer of this year Johnson appointed Wadley to the House of Lords.
This partial and belated disclosure leaves the reader with a choice. Either we take Bower at face value, and conclude that he embarked on this life of Johnson without once asking the woman with whom he lives for help in explaining a man she has known and worked with for more than three decades, which means we can’t trust his judgement. Or we can conclude that Bower’s disclosure note is not just tardy and incomplete but wholly false, which means that we can’t trust him.
That question rears its head at multiple points during the book: are we witnessing a failure of journalism or a failure of character? Bower claims that antagonism between Sonia Purnell and Johnson forced Jeremy Deedes, the Telegraph’s chief executive, to visit Brussels in 1989 to get the bottom of the dispute. That would suggest great powers of prediction on the part of Deedes, as Purnell did not go to Brussels to work with Johnson until 1992. Is this a failure of fact-checking or a desire to belittle the author of a rival biography? Discussing Johnson’s near-death experience earlier this year, Bower writes of a scientist who described “Covid to MPs as ‘a very deceitful virus’ [and] likened Boris to an ‘invisible mugger’”. There are a number of problems here, not least that it was Johnson who made the “invisible mugger” comparison to describe the experience of fighting the virus. It’s unclear if Bower did not understand this or if he wanted to bolster his preferred narrative: that the story of the coronavirus crisis is of a Prime Minister failed by those around him, rather than of a Prime Minister out of his depth.
Bower made his name as the author of “hatchet jobs” of Robert Maxwell, Richard Branson and Conrad Black, and has since added politicians to his list of subjects, with books on Gordon Brown, Corbyn, Blair and now Johnson. But a hatchet job requires a level of precision that Bower lacks: his style is more that of a drink driver. Almost everybody Bower writes about is given a disparaging descriptor that calls doubt on their abilities or their motives. Amber Rudd is a “perfidious lightweight”, civil servants are “lazy and incompetent”.
This approach has two downsides. The first is that it is wearying: one almost expects Bower to start weaving in invectives against Johnson’s local corner shop. The second problem is that the overall effect is incoherent. He writes of an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg in which Johnson “reeled defensively, unable to articulate a focused message of even limited success”, which, he claims, had the effect of “making it easier for the final edit to be chopped up to suit the BBC’s agenda”. If Johnson’s answers were defensive, inarticulate and unfocused, no editing was required: if he was the victim of a put-up job, then his answers are immaterial.
Bower spends far too much time making declarative statements about matters he cannot possibly know about. His chief contribution to the sum of knowledge about Boris Johnson lies in allegations about Johnson’s father, Stanley, here depicted as a philanderer and an abusive husband who frequently hit Johnson’s mother Charlotte. It is Stanley who is cast as the architect of Johnson’s vices and shortcomings. “Stanley’s violence has forever haunted Boris,” Bower writes, describing a later conversation between Johnson and a girlfriend in which Johnson, talking of his parents’ split, said: “My father promised me that they wouldn’t divorce, and I could never forgive him for that.” “Divorce,” Bower asserts, is “code for Stanley’s rage towards Charlotte.” Bower is even less of a child psychologist than he is a prose stylist and it feels somewhat distasteful to read his speculations about the consequences of Stanley’s behaviour and what Johnson “meant” in referring to it.
The book includes one or two interesting tidbits about Johnson’s later life. For example, while Bower is not the first to report that Dominic Cummings urged Johnson and other Brexiteers to vote for Theresa May’s deal, he is to my knowledge the first to get the exact quote, that MPs would be “strategic idiots” if they didn’t vote for it.
The problem, though, is that these insights, as well as being thin, are hard to trust, even when they have the ring of truth. A book that suggests, whether through accident or malice, that one-liners deployed by Johnson were insults hurled at him, and that gets dates wrong, can’t persuasively lead us to make comforting conclusions about Johnson or the people around him. A book that discloses on its penultimate page a major conflict of interest cannot escape questions about judgement or impartiality. As with Bower’s study of Corbyn, reviewers have rushed to point out the errors and misconceptions in this book, only to conclude that perhaps there is something serious in there worth studying. But these imprecise and poorly written biographies can’t be elevated to something they’re not, simply because it suits some reviewers to throw stones of their own at Johnson and Corbyn. Bower’s less than candid admission about his relationship with one of Johnson’s allies should not have been the final words of this book, but it ought to be the final word on him.
WH Allen, 592pp, £20
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic