Lead book review

Tom Bower pulls his punches with his life of Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister may have lost his bounce –but perhaps that’s no bad thing, says Lynn Barber

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

Boris Johnson: The Gambler Tom Bower

W.H. Allen, pp.578, 20

Tom Bower explains in his acknowledgements that this is not an authorised biography and he did not seek Boris Johnson’s co-operation. Instead, he followed his usual biographical method of interviewing well over 100 people who knew Boris, some named, some not. Obvious sources are his mother Charlotte, his sister Rachel, his first wife Allegra, his long-serving mistress Petronella Wyatt, but not his second wife Marina, nor his current fiancée Carrie Symonds.

He also explains, rather coyly:

Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home. Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined the Daily Telegraph in l988… Their long relationship is one of colleagues rather than friends. She played no part in researching or writing this book.

Maybe not — but as editor of London’s Evening Standard, Wadley played a major part in Boris’s ascent. The crucial year was 2007. Boris had always said at Oxford that he planned to be in the cabinet by the age of 35; but 35 had come and gone and, at 43, his rocket-like ascent seemed to have sputtered. For a few years he combined editing The Spectator with being MP for Henley, but he was quickly bored by the House of Commons and widely disliked by his colleagues — David Cameron regarded him as ‘useless’.

On the other hand, he was a national celebrity and guaranteed crowd-puller, largely thanks to Have I Got News For You. And in 2007 the London Mayoral elections were coming up. Cameron took little interest in them because he thought a Tory could never win; but Veronica Wadley did. She couldn’t face the thought of Ken Livingstone winning a third term. She cornered Boris at a party and suggested he might stand. He dithered as usual, but she told Cameron that Boris was the only Tory candidate the Evening Standard would back — and the paper in those days had enormous influence. So she rooted for Boris as Mayor, and eventually Boris won. He has recently rewarded her by appointing her to the Lords as Baroness Fleet.

Perhaps that is why, unusually for a Tom Bower book, I had a slight sense of punches being pulled. He must know all the dirt on Boris, but I’m not sure he delivers it. When the Mail on Sunday headlined its expensive serialisation with ‘Boris’s Dad Broke his Mum’s Nose’, I thought: ‘Is that the best you can do?’ There have long been rumours that Stanley Johnson hit his first wife Charlotte, and Bower has finally got Charlotte to confirm them — ‘He hit me many times, over many years’ — but it’s hardly an indictment of Boris. If anything, it makes you feel sorry for him. (Stanley has been reported subsequently as disputing the claims of violence, maintaining there was only ever one incident, which he says he regrets.)

Boris obviously had a horrible, chaotic childhood, dominated by his monstrously egotistical father. Stanley dumped the family at Nethercote, his parents’ rundown farm on Exmoor, without a car, while he hared round the world on various pretexts having affairs. When Boris was ten, Charlotte had a serious mental breakdown and was hospitalised for eight months, to little sympathy from Stanley. ‘Depression wasn’t allowed in Stanley’s book.’ She finally divorced him in l978, because ‘he was inaccessible, not to say completely unfaithful’. Rachel says: ‘That was the end of family life. We learnt very quickly, very early, not to have emotional needs.’

Thus Boris became, as Bower frequently asserts, a loner, who is secretive by nature and compartmentalises his life. He has no close male friends and can only confide his deepest feelings to his wives or girlfriends. For 25 years his rock and anchor was his wife Marina, but he could never be faithful. When she found out about his affair with Petronella Wyatt she threatened to leave him and he promised he would never see Petronella again — but of course he did, and other mistresses.

And lying to his wife made it easy to lie to other people. He lied to Conrad Black when he said he would not stand for parliament while he was editing The Spectator (but he already had his applications out); he lied to Michael Howard about whether he was having an affair with Petronella (‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’); and of course he lied to the nation about how we would save £350 million a week by leaving the EU. His lies are far too numerous to list, but it means that anyone who takes Boris’s word for anything is a fool. As Charles Moore observed, you always knew precisely where you stood with Boris because he always let you down.

Long ago, Conrad Black called him ‘a fox disguised as a teddy bear’, but the teddy bear has become a bit threadbare over the years. His bumbling manner — his untidiness, his unpunctuality, his inability to remember his wallet — is probably a smokescreen. He operates best in the context of muddle. When reporters heard that he’d had a great row with his girlfriend Carrie and hared round to his house, they never discovered the cause of it; but they came back with a photograph of the filthy interior of his car — illegally parked and densely strewn with newspapers, clothes, coffee cups and food debris — which shocked many readers far more than any row with his girlfriend.

All his friends lament that he ever split from Marina, and his children still haven’t forgiven him. His eldest daughter, Lara, only five years younger than Carrie, told a friend: ‘He’s a selfish bastard.’ Boris probably assumed that Marina would put up with his affair with Carrie, as she had put up with so many before, but she left him. Carrie just happened to be the reigning mistress when he moved into No. 10, but he still hasn’t married her, and Bower suggests, none too subtly, that he never will. They already sleep in separate beds, because the baby keeps him awake, and Bower talks about ‘his new personal life’. (Could he already have another mistress? How does he find the time?)

Anyway, unlike Marina, Carrie will not be much mourned. Bower says:

No one on the Tory party circuit could avoid Carrie, a woman who posted glamorous photos of herself on Instagram and encouraged gushing profiles of a gorgeous, clever, sexy and beautifully dressed political aficionado.

But some in party headquarters found her ‘manipulative, volatile and aggressive, especially towards women’. Jennifer Arcuri, a previous mistress, bitchily describes her as ‘just a Type A worker bee, riding a bicycle around the Westminster village’, though I suppose she would say that wouldn’t she?

Bower never quite states his own position on Boris, though he quotes zillions of his detractors. Max Hastings — perhaps regretting ever having launched Boris’s early success as a Brussels journalist — describes him as ‘a man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple’. Matthew Parris is even more scathing:

There’s a pattern to Boris’s life: it’s the casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal, and beneath the betrayal the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained.

We wait to see whether he will turn out to do anything useful as Prime Minister, but for now everything’s been blown off course by Covid. Bower devotes two very long and tedious chapters to the woeful mismanagement of Covid, but it is not clear that this was really Boris’s fault. He was slow to pay attention, and when he did he relied on ‘the science’, obviously not realising to what extent the science was fractured and contradictory. And having Covid himself was obviously a shaker. Everyone agrees he’s lost his bounce; nowadays he seems wavering and uncertain. But then perhaps a less confident, more thoughtful Boris is to be welcomed. Being prime minister is really not like being World King. This is a very well-researched biography, but for now it’s a story without an ending.

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