How Britain fell out of love with Boris
The story of a shy extrovert, an unprincipled believer, a depressive funster
This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Does every Johnson get a Boswell, an erudite, likeable fellow dedicated to telling their life story? Samuel got the original Boswell, and Lyndon got Robert Caro (four volumes in and still going). Boris has Andrew Gimson, whose 2006 biography, updated four times since, has become the standard reference text.
He’s now released a new tome on our ex-prime minister. Rather than a day-by-day account of the clown-car-on-fire that was Johnson’s time at the top, this is a series of essays on different aspects of the man and his life.
It’s in the style of Craig Brown’s histories of the Beatles and Princess Margaret, and it works because the facts are sufficiently well-known that they require no rehashing. The chapters are small and delightfully moreish.
Johnson is a difficult subject: a shy extrovert, an unprincipled believer, a depressive funster. He is at once the most gifted politician the country has seen in years and the most useless. He delivered, as he never tires of reminding people, the best result the Conservatives have seen in decades, but was forced from office less than three years later, having dragged his party’s poll ratings through the floor.
The danger is to fall into either slavish fandom or blind hatred
These contradictions are a challenge for everyone who writes about him. The danger is to fall into either slavish fandom or blind hatred. Gimson is sympathetic, but he knows his subject’s many failings, and one senses that they pain him, possibly more than they pain Johnson himself.
The micro-essay format works well as a way of dealing with these contradictions. Gimson, the author of a very readable anthology of prime ministers, has the historical knowledge to explain where Johnson sits in Tory tradition. He can also understand why others loathe the man. After all, for the best part of two decades, he has been trying to persuade the haters that they ought to take Johnson seriously.
In this he has managed to be proved both right and wrong. The case for Johnson was always that none of that stuff — this said gesturing airily to the bulging cupboard marked “obvious huge character flaws” — mattered because the public loved him. They did, and they proved it at the ballot box. But it turned out that Johnson’s character did matter.
It was his character that led him to break his own laws, his character that saw him value loyalty over competence, his character that meant he was unable to get on with the tedious business of running the country. When the public understood his character, they stopped loving him.
“I don’t think he’s a very good prime minister,” one of his aides tells Gimson in 2021, before adding: “I feel it’s unfair to be cross with him for not being something he never was.” To which all we can reply is: up to a point. It would be unfair to criticise Johnson for not being a good prime minister if he were, say, editor of the Spectator. However, as he was the prime minister, it seems fair and, indeed, necessary, to criticise him for being quite bad at it.
The book is immensely enjoyable and full of insight into the Conservative party and the reasons why it is the way it is. It is also pleasingly free of breathless accounts of crunch meetings that changed the course of history. Unusually for a work of instant British political history, it contains almost no menus. (It is an old trick of political hacks to describe the food on the table at a meal as a way to cover up your ignorance of what was said whilst it was being eaten.)
But like its subject, it was also frustrating. Several times, I found myself muttering that things had been a bit more complicated than that. Even to mention this is to open oneself up to Gimson’s criticism of not having understood the genius of Johnson, who could glide past the boring stuff and lift the nation’s spirits.
Most boring of all was Brexit, and Gimson’s promise early in the book not to spend too long on it feels like a mercy. The trouble is that to avoid getting into the weeds, he broadly accepts the Johnson narrative that the issue is resolved. He presents Johnson as having triumphantly negotiated a deal and skates over the reality (just as the prime minister did at the time) that he had agreed to a border in the Irish Sea and lied about it.
This tendency to offer history as Johnson remembers it is understandable in a sympathetic biography, but it means moments go unexamined. Johnson’s denunciation of Theresa May’s Brexit deal gets a page, and his subsequent decision to vote for it half a sentence. We are told that, if we only knew and understood Johnson better, we might agree with him more.
It must be a secret greatness, all the greater for being hidden
The resignation from his government of his own brother, who presumably knows him well, is given a paragraph. The chapter on Johnson’s second wife Marina seems sad and baffled that she finally left, although to most of us her departure was not the mysterious moment of the marriage.
It’s tempting for journalists to assume that because someone has reached a great office, they must have greatness about them. If we cannot tell what it might be, it must be a secret greatness that is all the greater for being hidden from those who call themselves wise. There was a lot of this with Donald Trump after 2016 and a fair amount about Boris after 2019. There must be more to them than meets the eye.
Or not. Both Trump and Johnson, who seemed on the surface to be dishonest and unsuited to high office were, when you dug right down, dishonest and unsuited to high office. There was no secret master plan. They should have been taken neither seriously nor literally. Trump would not, despite Johnson’s claim, have been able to get a better Brexit deal, any more than Johnson turned out to be able to get one. Gimson observes that MPs liked Johnson when he was promising them things, but stopped liking him when they realised these promises were never going to be kept. Imagine.
A constant theme running through the book is that the “moralists” and “feral beasts” of the press were out to get him. We are told he was “under sustained attack from the opposition and the media”. From the what and the who? The Labour party has not, of late, been known for its terrifying offensive operations.
As for the media, Johnson has for years enjoyed such uncritical and supportive coverage that it would be no surprise to learn that he holds compromising photos on almost every editor in Fleet Street. When the end was finally in sight, some newsrooms appeared to be in the grip of nervous breakdowns, their front pages long anguished howls of outrage that anyone should expect a prime minister to tell the truth or obey the law. The idea that Johnson was pushed out because Jonathan Freedland and Matthew Parris wrote disobliging columns is simply silly.
And this is where Gimson, who isn’t silly, ultimately lands. “Johnson could not manage the machinery of government, or sustain others who could manage it for him,” he concludes. “People felt they did not know where they stood with him and found he might at any moment change his mind, so could not, in the end, be trusted.” It is all the more damning a conclusion for having been so determinedly resisted in the preceding pages.
If only, one cannot help but think, there had been some clue that he was like this.
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