As Boris Johnson’s premiership recedes into the past, what are we to make of the former prime minister? Is he Pericles or Alcibiades? Given more time in office, would he have been like the far-sighted statesman who built the Parthenon and governed Athens at the height of its empire, or the glittering, impious commander who charmed his people, only to lead them to catastrophe against the Spartans ?
Doubtless we shall have an authorized version of the story in due course, when Johnson publishes his own account. And of course others will have their say, notably the House of Commons Privileges Committee and the Covid-19 public inquiry. Until then, however, we can enjoy this highly entertaining long sketch by Andrew Gimson.
A sketch it is, for all its length. By temperament Gimson is less James Boswell than John Aubrey. This is not a compendious work, but a collection of glimpses of character-revealing actions and events. The effect is not dissimilar to that of Craig Brown’s scintillating recent life of Princess Margaret (Ma’am Darling, 2017), a model Gimson acknowledges. Yet there is one important difference: Gimson plainly adores his subject, and, having published updates to his original biography of 2006 in 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2016, not without good cause. Given Johnson’s genius for publicity, there is no reason to think that this modest seam of gold cannot be mined by the author for many years to come. Yet Gimson’s human feeling far outruns commercial advantage. This confers great strengths on his book, and a few serious weaknesses.
Johnson has always divided opinion into three. His supporters love his drive, humanity and humour; his opponents think he is a rogue or a buffoon, sometimes both; and for many years there was a large group in between: those given to saying “Yes, but”, who found him amusing, humane and very likeable, even if they knew nothing about politics or objected to the Tories. His appeal was always more personal than political. Opponents struggled to lay a glove on him; people instinctively smiled at his latest antic. And, having won election, then re-election, as mayor of London – a distinctly labor city – he proved to be a warm, unifying and liberal-minded figure who wanted to talk about music and an amnesty for illegal immigrants as well as transport and policing.
All this changed with the Brexit referendum in 2016. Both sides fought dirty, from Vote Leave’s notorious “£350 million to fund the NHS” claim to the Cameron government’s willingness to put its finger on the political scales in ways designed to help Britain Stronger in Europe, although that ultimately backfired. Brexit supporters and opponents alike became radicalized by the intense ideological conflict, and the middle ground was all but evacuated. Having thrown his weight behind Vote Leave, Johnson became a national political figure in a way he had not quite been as mayor and, for the first time, widely hated as well as widely loved.
Boris Johnson: The rise and fall of a troublemaker at Number 10 picks up the story at this point. Over 130 or so episodes and 400-odd pages, Gimson takes the reader through the first abortive Johnson bid for the Tory leadership, the Theresa May administration, the disastrous (for the Tories) 2017 general election, the deadlock over Brexit in parliament, the A deposition of May and Johnson’s ascent to the premiership, the prorogation case, the 2019 election, Covid-19, the grave illness of the prime minister, lockdown, partygate, Ukraine, the Chris Pincher affair and Boris’s eventual downfall. Even to recite this momentous, melancholy catalog might be enough to make even the stoutest reader quail. What makes the book so engaging is its pace and liveliness, along with some extremely funny anecdotes. The one in which Johnson forces his entire team to rush upstairs and hide with him in their campaign HQ, a few yards from the Commons, so he does not to have to deal with a senior colleague knocking fruitlessly on the door in the quest for advancement is particularly amusing.
But lying beneath the narrative there is also an argument: that Johnson is the latest exponent of “Tory Democracy … an alliance between a section of the ruling class and the working class, in order to engage and outwit the middle-class prigs”. The political program of this alliance is “patriotism and practical measures to improve the lives of the workers”. Its tone is “low seriousness”. We learn that “a Tory Democrat’s instinct, both in politics and in journalism” – a telling pairing – “is to handle some grave theme in so light a manner that it does not weigh on the spirits of the audience”. By this means Gimson locates Johnson – and to some degree himself – in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli and both Randolph and Winston Churchill.
There is some truth to this analysis, but it requires the author to create a running opposition between “Boris”, with his joyous Merrie England paganism, and those Gimson sees as self-important prigs who do not get the man or the joke. These claims include Johnson’s former Daily Telegraph boss Max Hastings, who has gone to great lengths to disparage his erstwhile employee, and his former colleague Rory Stewart, who described Johnson in these pages as “the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister” (TLS, November 6, 2020). The weakness is this: that in framing this opposition, in poking fun and in his unwillingness to offend, Gimson pulls so many of his punches that he starts to become complicit with his subject.
Take the topic of Johnson’s vexed relationship with the truth. Gimson calls out some lies – indeed, he has a chapter entitled “Lies” – but this merely seems designed to tick boxes and exculpate the author. He comments that Johnson “has not the slightest concern for the facts”, but never goes on to consider in any real way what that means: for policy, public trust, the use of public money, the UK’s international reputation. It is fanciful to say, as Gimson does, that concern about apparent acts of self-serving deception should be allyed by the example of Talleyrand’s famous “reserve” about too much disclosure in international diplomacy. It is silly to claim that, just because facts are not like nuggets of gold lying around (in Claud Cockburn’s memorable phrase), because facts need context and narrative to be meaningful, this provides a justification for Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil during the 2019 general election. And it is flat-out disturbing to suggest, as Gimson does, that the way is thus open to a politician, or indeed any non-novelist, to “invent facts” so as “to illustrate a wider truth”.
Gimson’s sympathy with his subject also causes him to shy away from more searching potential criticisms. He rightly picks up on the parallel between Johnson and Disraeli, another great showman and orator. But he fails to look at what Disraeli actually achieved. He cites the Second Reform Act (1867), but neglects to mention the swathe of other reforms that Disraeli pushed through, from the decriminalization of trade unions to the provision of vastly improved protections and urban sanitation. Whatever one thinks about Brexit, Johnson showed some notable leadership during the pandemic, as well as in his more recent support for Ukraine. But, administratively and ly, there is no comparison to be made between his achievements, or even ambitions, and those of Disraeli.
Yet it could have been so different. Imagine, by contrast, a counterfactual narrative: that instead of sticking with his cabinet of favored Brexiteers, Johnson had taken the full measure of his huge majority in December 2019. He could have thanked his chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, for his service, retired him with honors and put in place a No 10 operation oriented not towards campaigning, but towards government. He could have brought in a far wider array of talents, looked beyond Brexit and dedicated his new administration to the painful, detailed work required to boost economic growth, lessen inequality and improve public services. Instead of seeking to centralize power in No 10 he could have worked through the existing constitutional machinery, empowering his Secretaries of State to make the fundamental reforms of a putatively two-term government – and held them to account if they fell short. A similar opportunity existed in September 2021, after the UK had emerged from lockdown. But once again Johnson remained in campaign mode, before Partygate broke and he lost the confidence of his party and the wider country.
I outlined all this in my public letter of no confidence (June 6, 2022), which Gimson describes as a denunciation – but this is a mistake, which again reflects the oppositional structure of his argument. My letter was focused on actions and policy, not character. It was written by a friend, with sadness, in the face of an impending tragedy.
One of the considerable merits of Andrew Gimson’s book is the attention it devotes to Johnson’s often extraordinary speeches. Among the best was his recent valediction to the Queen in the House of Commons. As he said: “She showed the world not just how to reign over a people; she showed the world how to give, how to love and how to serve.” The Queen’s death has thrown the values of the UK’s recent politics into high relief. She seems to have enjoyed Johnson’s company, as so many do. But it is hard to escape the thought that she stood for many values he rejected, and rejected many values he embraced.
Jesse Norman MPis a biographer of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. He served as financial secretary to the Treasury from 2019 to 2021
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