Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower review – the defining secret

The affairs, the lies, the shoddy handling of coronavirus … Johnson is let off the hook in this biography – it’s his father, Stanley, who emerges as the villain

Tom Bower made his name as a writer of acid-pen biographies and his latest is no exception. It’s a hatchet job. Except the hatchet is aimed not at the man whose name is on the cover, but rather at his father. The villain of the piece is Stanley Johnson.

Bower portrays him as an absent father and violent husband, who punched his wife so hard he broke her nose. Johnson Snr is faithless and a creep: in the parched summer of 1976, he told the family’s two au pairs that the water shortage made washing clothes impossible and therefore they would have to follow the lead set by him and his wife and walk around naked, which they duly did. Naturally, Stanley began sleeping with one of the two young women, in full knowledge of his children.

In Bower’s telling, Johnson Snr is a lifelong flake: dabbling in jobs, failing at most of them, then using his connections to find something else. He is a parasite, sponging off his in-laws and “a professional guest, always searching for a free bed”. He yearns for the spotlight, happy to trade off the fame of his son if that will get him attention. He takes no interest in his children’s upbringing, except to communicate a couple of life lessons: “If you’re working hard, don’t show it … show effortless superiority”; and “Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.”

All this is laid out in the opening chapters, inviting the reader to see the prime minister as the inevitably damaged product of a morally inadequate father. Bower suggests that Stanley’s mistreatment of Boris’s mother, Charlotte, is the defining secret of the Johnson family and the fact that Boris, as the oldest child, witnessed it is the key to understanding his character, including his rampant ambition. Charlotte, who eventually had a breakdown and was hospitalised, says of her son: “I have often thought that his being ‘world king’ was a wish to make himself unhurtable, invincible, somehow safe from the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months.” Apparently Boris Johnson’s long-suffering second wife, the human rights lawyer Marina Wheeler, took a similar view: “She unhesitatingly rebuked Stanley for her husband’s sins.”

It’s a reading – Boris as victim – which is helpful for Bower who, it soon becomes clear, wants to write a forgiving portrait of his subject. Tellingly, he is “Boris” throughout, a courtesy not extended to previous Bower subjects. (His biography of the last Labour prime minister spoke firmly of “Brown” rather than “Gordon”.)

Stanley Johnson.
In the spotlight … Stanley Johnson. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Repeatedly, he grants Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Sure, when he was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels, serving up comedy EU tales of bureaucrats dictating the right size of a condom or the correct curvature of a banana, his colleagues believed he was a charlatan and a liar, making stuff up, but Bower says they were “an undistinguished pack” and, after all, who remembers any of them? “History remembers Boris.” In a statement that neatly encapsulates the ethos of the post-truth era that Johnson’s spell in Brussels anticipated, Telegraph executive Jeremy Deedes insists his correspondent might have been “exaggerating but it was all too good to check. His reports were all correct in spirit if not in detail.”

Similarly, Bower concedes that Johnson once wrote of “grinning picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and, for good measure, digs out a line that Johnson’s critics missed: “Some dream of their teeth falling out as they are about to be executed with the scimitar by a beautiful black woman.” But none of this should be understood as evidence of racism, which for Bower would be “unusual” in a man married “to a half-Indian woman”. Johnson was surely “satirising neocolonialism”.

This same generosity marks Bower’s description, in two lengthy chapters, of Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. These pages are somewhat out of place in a biography – they are a perfectly competent summary of the news events of the last few months, but sit awkwardly in a portrait of a life – but they have one unifying theme: namely, it’s not Johnson’s fault. Bower adopts the Dominic Cummings position that Britain is run by unqualified and useless civil servants and bureaucrats and it’s they, not Johnson, who messed up. He is especially scathing about the government’s scientific advisers, who gave the PM duff advice. Some might suggest Johnson should have pushed them harder, asking the tough questions. “On what basis could a politician question the experts’ apparent unanimity?” asks Bower, suggesting that of recent prime ministers only the chemistry graduate, Margaret Thatcher, would have been in a position to do such a thing.

And yet, isn’t that what leadership is about? Bower’s recitation of the failures of, for example, Public Health England is certainly damning of that body, but surely the task of leaders is to get a grip when something is not working. Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, did that with the entire war effort, from the manufacture of armaments to military strategy. It would be hard to imagine Churchill pleading that he could do no more than follow the guidance of his subordinates.

For all Bower’s eagerness to put a kind gloss on Johnson’s actions, he doesn’t flinch from the man’s record. It’s all there: the affairs, the lies, the broken promises, the unpaid debts. There is yet more evidence that Johnson scarcely believes in anything. After an argument about education, his first wife realises with horror: “Oh God, he’s got … no ideals.” Oliver Letwin comes to see that Johnson was “politically light, there was no ideology”. And of course there are the wildly oscillating positions on Europe. Bower reminds us that Johnson, who headed a Vote Leave campaign that falsely warned that Turkey was poised to join the EU, had made a TV documentary in 2008 advocating Turkey’s accession to the EU. Even once he’d committed to Brexit, he argued that it made no sense for Britain to leave the single market – a position he would casually jettison once it suited him.

There are some new nuggets – I’d happily have read more about Johnson’s fisticuffs with George Osborne when the two men were in a lift together during a visit to China – and some useful insights. The onetime Telegraph diarist Quentin Letts is struck that Johnson never passed on any gossip: “He doesn’t notice people’s quirks and their embarrassments,” Letts observes, which Bower puts down to Johnson’s “narcissism”: he’s just not that interested in anyone other than himself.

The book also provides a perhaps inadvertent portrait of one corner of the British elite. Stanley Johnson’s sense of entitlement was fed by his ability repeatedly to fail upward, but he’s hardly alone in this story. The posh and privileged are constantly granted unmerited opportunities. When Johnson edits the Spectator, “applications for employment bereft of nepotism or patronage were automatically binned”. Marina kicks him out over his affair with Petronella Wyatt, daughter of Thatcher pal Lord Wyatt, so he lodges with an old Balliol friend, whose wife happens to be the daughter of former cabinet secretary, Robin Butler. It’s a small world.

This book makes a good stab at answering the question, “What makes Boris Johnson tick?” By the end, we have a sense of what void Johnson with his restless ambition is seeking to fill. As with his counterpart in the White House, we can point to the damage inflicted by a callous, demanding father as a partial explanation for the lies, the betrayals, the narcissism. But that leaves a larger question untouched, one less about the politician than about the people who vote for him. That question is not “Why does Johnson behave this way?” but rather, “Why do we put up with it?”

Boris Johnson: The Gambler is published by WH Allen (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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