This article appeared in the December issue of Total Politics
Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity
Aurum Press, £20
Sonia Purnell’s book is exactly what it says, in title and subtitle. It charts the life so far of the political celebrity that is Boris Johnson, inevitably much of it concentrated on his personal life, with no foible spared.
The book is not a conventional political biography. It does not attempt to enlighten the reader on Johnson’s actual political credo, how it was developed or what events might have shaped it. We are informed that on entering Eton, the Provost informed the Scholars they were future leaders of the world. Johnson, at some stage in his school career, accepts that they are being groomed to rule over others, and towards the end of his time at Eton, he has become “conscious of Tory feelings”. There is no rationale given or analysis made, and this is where the biography is at its weakest.
There is, however, a thorough analysis of the personality as perceived by the author. Nick Robinson, now BBC political editor, then university contemporary, is quoted as saying: “I had not the faintest idea that Johnson was a Conservative”, which illustrates the author’s belief that her subject often takes views and espouses causes just to further his own ends, sometimes just out of sheer perversity. This is a constant theme. One example cited is that Johnson’s written euroscepticism doesn’t chime with reality. In another, Purnell recounts that during Johnson’s attempt to win the presidency of the Oxford Union, he calls his loyal campaigners his “stooges”. The biographer uses this as evidence that Johnson merely follows the family trait of “enlisting loyal followers whenever needed”, but then describes his legendary lack of preparation and the failure of many to see him as anything but a “politico comedian”.
Johnson’s return from journalism in Brussels – losing one wife and gaining another on the way – “to pursue his dream of a political career” is the first intimation that there has been any serious thought given to a political career, post Oxford student politics.
The last hundred pages of the book are the real political meat: the new boy in the House, 2001-05 skirmishes, apologies and re-election. During the 2005 general election, his role was “kept out of the picture” for fear that his contribution would be less than helpful. The section on the 2005 leadership gives good pointers on Johnson’s real beliefs as to who should be the leader, and on his future relationship with Cameron. There are plaudits for his conduct in his role as opposition higher education spokesman, suggesting real policy thought – although this was all too often marred when the presentation did not achieve what was intended. The ascent to the mayoralty and its initial trials and tribulations are well covered, although the concentration on Johnson’s supposed preoccupation with money worries might appears a little ungracious. The chapter entitled The Politics of Power analyses the achievements of the London mayor’s first four years, but concentrates rather heavily on the run-ins with the Met rather than some of the successes in policing. Equally, too little credit is given for substantial restructuring of Transport for London and investment in the infrastructure. Nonetheless, there is a fascinating assessment of how Johnson’s celebrity personality has coloured the mayoralty.
Purnell’s book is sketchy on serious politics, but strong on the man, his character and how personal attributes affect his political thinking and modus operandi. There is the memorable quote that Johnson’s beliefs are ”very liberal on the way people should lead their lives”, and the reader is made aware that Purnell thinks that is just as well. And, she doesn’t duck the big question: yes, he obviously wants to be PM, but she has caught the current gossip about which seat he is targeting for his return. House of Commons, beware: the Johnson era, phase two, is on its way and ‘Boris Johnson, prime minister’ is still the intended epitaph.
Stephen Hammond is the Conservative MP for Wimbledon