'Boris Johnson: the Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10' by Andrew Gimson (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
We all know the hair. Yet what goes on in the head beneath it? Not Trump this time, but Boris: the Machiavellian buffoon, the Jack-in-the-Box, the party-goer, Brexiteer and subversive. Political journalist, Andrew Gimson, has a second bite of the cherry (his first was a biography of Boris published in 2006 and updated four times) with this lively analysis (and annalistic) bio of the man you either love or loathe.
Only two brief pages on Scotland, I'm afraid, but then the English Tories have always marginalised things 'up here', for all the rhetoric of levelling up (bring back Cromwell). Gimson's take on Boris is that he is – I almost said 'was' but he's the ultimate come-back kid – a Tory Democrat. Where toffs and working class fuse into a coalition of personal freedom, small state, low taxes, sceptical about middle-class neo-liberalism and yearnings of patriotism. At least Boris didn't call Sturgeon a mere grand-stander.
Perhaps, Gimson suggests, Boris didn't even know he was one. Protean and opportunistic, Boris seemed inclusive. Cannily surrounding himself with experts when Mayor of London and rising with the froth of popularity, a bloke to the common and a Bismarck to his political peers, he captured the moment and confused sentiment of Brexit, rose from the dead when Covid hit us all, and slid ungraciously out of Downing Street when the lies about Partygate went beyond prevarication.
Gimson's new bio takes Boris up to the fall from power. We all know what came after – the Trussian car crash and the rise of Sunak – enough ironically to make more than a few want Boris back again. Dinna fash, my friends: he'll be back soon enough. Pericles his hero, Churchill and Cincinnatus to the rescue as the UK seems in intensive care.
In this sense, then, Gimson brings us up to date. Tom Bower's Boris Johnson: the Gambler
(W H Allen, 2020) is a more thorough biography of Boris: it covers the whole life (broken childhood, pushy outsider at Eton, journalist on the Telegraph
, muscle-testing as MP, Mayor against Livingstone, eccentric foreign secretary, maverick under May, intriguer with Gove and then against him, and popular with the ladies. Bower leaves off when Covid hits.
Gimson takes the journey to what seems the end of the road for Boris: serial liar and performance artist. Perceptively, Gimson compares him to Disraeli (for being an impressario) and Palmerston (for being able to bounce back to the top when people though he was dead in the water). His Boris is as much a rebel, a satirist and a debunker as a political creature – able to anticipate the mood of the time, relate to people who like their politics to be black-and-white, good at self-deprecation however simulated, and brilliant at winning friends and influencing people.
Gimson sees the ambivalence of his appeal, career and character. He allows us to read what Boris says in his speeches – they are cunningly argued with their specious logic and emotional appeals to patriotism and to the fears and dreams of his audience. Gimson tries to be objective about how Boris was adored by the grassroots but only tolerated by fellow parliamentarians (many of whom chose to rise with the yeast of partisan intrigue).
Gimson tells a good story: jostling for the top job, the role of Svengali Dominic Cummings, scorn for Michel Barnier, crass errors over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Sue Gray and Lord Lebedev. He brings out the ambiguity of Boris: there is a tender vulnerable side, as we see when he talks of his mother Charlotte; a Casanova side when Jennifer Arcuri pops up. Perhaps, he says, 'nobody's perfect'. This unfortunately turns any critic of Boris into a moralist, something that Keir Starmer is always in danger of turning into (and we are ourselves).
Boris, like Trump, seems to inspire either love or hate. This makes any political biography a challenge to both write and read. Gimson's book moves at a fast pace, catching the mood and detail of the later years of the Johnson era in a series of short snappy annalistic chapters with catchy titles. It is a book full of sharp insights, persuasive historical analogies, alert to what the future might bring, sensing that such a future will rapidly change the book into a mere historical record.
Gimson seems clear that Johnson will live to fight another day. We shall see. He leaves it to the reader to speculate on the future. Perhaps a Tory collapse (but then what have Labour got to offer?), perhaps a phoenix-like reunification of political will between the constituent members of the UK, perhaps (unless the protocol is sorted) a united island of Ireland, perhaps even rejoining the EU (sentiment is building).
Sunak might manage it. Tories have always aspired to retain the reputation for sound management of the economy. And yet in politics there is a powerful ground-swell yearning for the heart, not just the head. Boris knew and knows that, and, like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, knows how to play on popular and populist sentiment like a harp. That merry tribe of England-centric Tories will need a chap like Boris sometime in the future, because that's what politics is really about. Right-wing ideology needs packaging and how better than in the hands of an impresario.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland