You might think you know Boris Johnson. Adam Fleming, the chief political correspondent at the BBC, certainly thought so. But it turns out there’s a lot that even avid politicos might not know about the man who has run the country for the past three years – and how he fought his way to that position.
Fleming’s eight-part series for BBC Sounds, entitled simply Boris, starts at the very beginning – the birth of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, in Sixties New York – and takes us to the present day. In each episode, a panel of guests are invited to recount their experiences of knowing, observing or working with Johnson: biographers, journalists, politicians, aides. They might rehash some well-worn ground – Johnson’s old school reports, perhaps, or maybe his fabricated quotes on the front page of the Times, or the two opposing columns he wrote to resolve his own internal battle over Brexit – but the net effect is a much fuller, more detailed picture of the man than headlines and soundbites usually provide.
What really comes across is the extent to which Johnson’s character has been integral to every role he has ever had. One guest who knew him when he worked in Brussels recalls his penchant for “blurring the line between information and entertainment” in the articles he filed about the more farcical elements of the EU. That sometimes creative relationship with the truth comes up again and again throughout Johnson’s career, culminating in the tangle of misleading statements on partygate and the Christopher Pincher affair that sparked his eventual downfall as PM. Similarly, his ability to make people laugh and feel at ease is a skill that has helped him all the way from the classroom at Eton to the hallway of No 10. Understanding that is crucial to making sense of how Johnson was able to achieve his childhood dream of becoming prime minister. The British political system, Fleming tells me, “works a lot on vibes”. And “vibes” are what Boris Johnson does best.
As for recent events, Fleming calls this series “the second draft of history”. At the time, journalists were reporting furiously on the daily goings-on at Downing Street, and in years to come historians will no doubt write countless books on the 2019 election, Johnson’s fight to get Brexit done, Britain’s response to the Covid pandemic, and the partygate scandal that eventually brought him down. This podcast series falls somewhere in between: a chance to pause for breath and take stock of where we are and how we got here, before a new prime minister takes over and the whole frenzy starts again.
BBC Radio 4’s “Boris” is available now on BBC Sounds.
[See also: How Boris Johnson comes back]