The flaws of Boris Johnson, Britain’s jokey PM, have been highlighted through the Brexit saga, and he has many haters. Fine material you might think for Tom Bower, the UK’s pre-eminent investigative muckraker, notorious for coruscating biographies of Richard Branson, Robert Maxwell and Jeremy Corbyn.
But funnily enough he hasn’t made that much of a splash with Boris Johnson The Gambler published in the midst of the UK’s Covid epidemic at the end of last year.
It’s not that Bower shuns the negative. He scrupulously documents the driving ambition, rhetorical evasion, monumental self-centeredness, serial infidelity and inability to buy a round.
But these traits are not entirely absent from many leading politicians. And Johnson managed to emerge through the pages as a ferociously intelligent and curiously likeable character, who pulls off these stunts more colourfully and successfully than most.
Indeed, Boris’s enemies tend to suffer in the comparison. Former PM, Theresa May is portrayed as an over-promoted machiavel; while the head of the Foreign Office, Simon Macdonald, comes across as unctuous and incompetent. The next-door neighbours who snitched to the press on Boris’s domestic rows appear as uptight ideologues, determined to expose “the ugly edifice of capitalist heteropatriachy’”.
The individual with the most right to be aggrieved must be Boris’s father, Stanley Johnson, drawn as a nastier and less successful prototype.
Bower seems at times trapped in a baffled admiration for his subject, but it allows more insight than an overpowering rant (like this one in the Guardian). And he shows skilful judgement in assessing Boris’s politics – and their consistency.
As many have pointed out, the overriding policy is Boris first. But beyond that he is a historically-recognisable free-trading liberal Conservative who came of age politically during Margaret Thatcher’s assaults on post-war socialist conformity.
And the evolution of Johnson’s approach to Europe is shown as more nuanced than is customarily suggested.
Boris grew up in Brussels, while his father was a European bureaucrat protecting the environment. He made a name there in the early 1990s commenting for the Daily Telegraph on the then- EEC’s federal ambitions, enraging his father’s former colleagues and their UK political allies.
Nonetheless, he was not instinctively hostile to the European project. As Bower writes:
“Boris believed in the idea of Europe – emotionally and intellectually – but as a committed libertarian was suspicious of the EU’s ambitions to interfere in people’s lives.”
He evidences Boris’s own words in 2003:
“I am not by any means a Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it”.
Boris ends up representing the submerged caste of fence sitters; torn between commitment to close social, political and economic relationships with Britain’s European neighbours and a principled opposition to creeping federalism.
Prime Minister David Cameron failed to convince these people that the EU could and would accommodate British policy diversity. So enough of them voted for Brexit to reframe the parameters of British – and perhaps European – politics.
In this episode, Bower suggests, Boris showed at least as much consistency as his political contemporaries, and somewhat better judgement.
And he comes closer than most in getting to the heart of the Boris phenomenon because he intuits that relentlessly negative media coverage can have the unintended effect of defining a politician’s brand, bringing out characteristics which voters like more than establishment commentators.
As well as the political, Bower explores the personal aspects of Boris’s edgy relationship with the establishment. A confirmed multi-culturalist who manages to be parodically British; an old Etonian (where his second name Boris proved more distinctive than Alexander) with Muslim, Jewish and Christian antecedents.
One can only guess at the contribution of this history to his political evolution. Might his views on the Afghanistan pull-out be influenced by knowledge of the murder of his pro-British great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, in Constantinople by Turkish nationalists in November 1922, shortly after the collapse of British power in the city?
Should this book find its way into the hands of a young Afghan refugee, it will suggest some strange and even inspiring possibilities for newcomers to England – or perhaps their children.