Boris Johnson: The Gambler assessment – no blame, no disgrace | Politics books
THEOn the morning of his July 2019 election as Tory leader, Boris Johnson stepped off the stage at the QEII Center in London and walked up to the members of his family seated in the front row. There was a kiss for Sister Rachel and a warm look for Brother Jo, but Father Stanley’s handshake was rejected.
“In his moment of ultimate triumph, Boris declined his father’s congratulations – a secret reminder that Stanley had ignored his children when he was needed.”
Research suggests that a high proportion of executives have damaged childhood. Grief or illness, parenting divorce, crime or addiction are traits in the early life of many high-ranking politicians. The phenomenon has a name: the Phaeton complex.
Few leaders have suffered this complex more completely than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. This is the main and most original argument in this biography. Think of the many character flaws we associate with the Prime Minister: serial infidelity, narcissistic ambition, desperation for worship, reckless gambling, broken promises, and betrayed colleagues. The main source of everything, claims Tom Bower, is a traumatized childhood.
The son is the product of the father’s sins. Stanley Johnson was a moronic and self-obsessed father and an unfaithful and violent husband, according to this book. The young Boris was deeply marked by the deeply troubled marriage between his father and the artist Charlotte Wahl. In 1974, when her eldest son was 10 years old, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Maudsley Hospital in south London, a specialty mental health care unit. Bower quoted Charlotte as saying, “The doctors at Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He hit me. He hit me many times over many years. “She attributes her son’s childhood obsession with becoming” King of the World “to the desire” to make yourself invulnerable, invincible and somehow safe from the pain of your mother, who was gone for eight months “.
Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his first wife, and Marina Wheeler, his betrayed second wife, both believe that the son’s infidelity was a trait inherited from the father. Bower tells us that Marina believes “the symmetry of Boris and Stanley, the son as his father’s reflection, could never be broken”.
Boris Johnson in Eton in 1979. Photo: Ian Sumner / Rex / Shutterstock
Johnson Sr., himself the son of a stingy, wife-beaten, alcoholic and serial adulterer, denies the version of the events Charlotte recounts. There’s no denying that Stanley traveled extensively abroad to satisfy an unrequited longing for fame and fortune. Global overpopulation became one of its causes. He produced Life Without Birth, a polemic denouncing the lack of birth control. Bower doesn’t have a sense of humor, so he’s not making the obvious joke that Dad’s enthusiasm for curbing procreation was a trait that didn’t rub off the son.
While Stanley was on one of his adventures for a year, Charlotte and three young children had to fend for themselves in a shabby house in Exmoor, where trash was strewn around the house and the water from the lead pipes was polluted. When Stanley was around, he encouraged his kids to frantically compete by pitting them against each other. After Rachel hit Boris while playing table tennis, he kicked the garage door so hard that he broke his toe. Years later, when Jo became the political director of David Cameron at Number 10, Boris remarked, “A little piece of me is dying, but otherwise I’m pleased with his success.”
For Bower, a painful, chaotic, and shattered childhood explains Johnson’s ambition, exhibitionism, secrecy, unreliability, vulnerability, and resilience. “Boris tormented himself about his mother’s fate. Not only had he seen his mother regularly beaten, but also how his father openly denied the truth. He did not want to confide in others about his father’s violence and became a loner. In order to hide the misery and pain, he demanded attention. “The advantage of this biographical framework device is that it offers a seemingly logical explanation for the often horrific behavior of its subject as an adult. The mistake of assigning all the blame to Stanley is that it gives Boris a gold-plated alibi. We shouldn’t think too badly of him when he betrays a woman, invents inventions, or stumbles from debacle to disaster in a public health crisis. We should consider him the victim of that troubled childhood.
This is not the only way in which this book has been extremely generous on its subject. Bower made a name for himself as a biographer with impressively courageous exposés by business people such as Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and Mohamed Al Fayed. He titled Broken Vows for an attempted ax job with Tony Blair and Dangerous Hero for a fucking biography of Jeremy Corbyn. But the terrifying investigative author puts his ankles away and puts on children’s gloves for “Boris”, as he affectionately calls his subject in a text in which every other politician is referred to by his last name.
Johnson with father Stanley in Devon April 2005. Photo: David Hartley / Rex / Shutterstock
The many scandals, scratches, and lovers are here – they could hardly be ignored – but Bower puts a mitigating sheen on even the ugliest examples of Johnson’s behavior. All of these matters? He had been unable to develop trusting relationships with men because of his childhood, and so Johnson looked for soulmates among women, according to the author. You can come up with a simpler explanation. He likes to shag and doesn’t care who gets hurt by his selfishness. Marina finally couldn’t stand his infidelity and ended their marriage after Carrie Symonds became his lover. Bower comments lightly, “After Marina forgave his affairs with Petronella Wyatt, Anna Fazackerley and Helen Macintyre (plus child), Boris may have considered the consequences for Marina and her four children after his latest affair was exposed.” “Might have been thinking”? You can think of a more astute way of putting it. The kids who boycotted a family reunion at Checkers after Johnson became Prime Minister certainly can.
Bower, indulging in his priapic personal life, can usually be found in Johnson’s corner because of the many conflicts of his public life. Michael Howard, who fired Johnson from the Tory front bank for telling lies about his affair with Petronella Wyatt, is “boisterous and blinks.” In the battles for Brexit between Theresa May and Johnson, it is she rather than him who condemns Bower as “twofold” and “opportunistic”.
Bower is not investigating the prime minister’s need to surround himself with guys and goons
This is particularly evident when it comes to Brexit. Writing about the 2016 referendum, he admits that Johnson camped out of a bus with a false slogan, but refuses to call it phony, an accusation he raises a lot when talking about Johnson’s political rivals .
Few consider his disastrous time as foreign minister to be his finest hour. His countless gaffes and mistakes are excused, however, on the grounds that he was “doomed to failure” until May and then disappointed by the “stubborn mandarins of the Foreign Office”. The author accuses officials of foiling a Johnsonian gasp to buy an island in the Arctic Ocean from Norway and turn it into a spy base. Others may think it never happened because it was one of Johnson’s many fantasy projects.
The apologies will continue once he becomes Prime Minister. When his attempt to close Parliament in 2019 is ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, the villain of Bowers’ account is the Court’s President, Brenda Hale, “who seldom kept a secret of her contempt for Boris” and of “her determination To put down, “revived the government.” This suggests that the Tory leader had been confused by an outrageously biased woman, rather than being condemned by the unanimous verdict of all eleven highest judges in the country.
In two final chapters on the coronavirus crisis, Johnson disappears from the text for a long time while the author unleashes a litany of attacks on government scientific advisors, Public Health England, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Secretary. Some of that criticism may be valid, but the question remains: Who was the Prime Minister and what did he do when so many state institutions appeared to fail in the midst of the dire public health emergency in more than a century? Dominic Cummings’ illegal excursions during the lockdown are discussed compassionately and without analysis of the catastrophic impact on public confidence. Bower agrees with those of us who have long observed that the Cabinet has little talent but is very forgiving of the Prime Minister’s need to surround oneself with guys and goons.
Charles Moore, his former boss at the Daily Telegraph and briefly his nominee for the next chairman of the BBC, sometimes refers to Johnson as “the fat albino piglet”. A biography of this length has to get the slippery pig under control and answer the question: Who is the authentic Boris Johnson? Is it Mayor Johnson who, during his eight years as the capital’s political face, was largely tied to a liberal, cosmopolitan idea of Toryism? Is it Brexiter Johnson who fueled xenophobia to win the referendum? Is it the “Brexity Hezza” that he told the cabinet it would be after he won the 2019 election? I put this biography down with a better idea of the inner demons that drive the Prime Minister on, but little smarter about whether he has any beliefs other than the many for traffic offenses. Even an admiring biographer cannot find a serious answer to the claim that borisology is nothing more than his narrow-eyed, always flowing, always cynical calculations about what he thinks will serve his interests and satisfy his appetite overnight. Who is responsible for that? In the Bower version, it won’t be Boris.
• Andrew Rawnsley is the Observer’s Chief Political Commentator
• Boris Johnson: Tom Bower’s player is published by WH Allen (£ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply