Tom Bower is a blunt instrument to divine someone as complex as Boris Johnson. Bower is a moralist — certainty is his favourite emotion — and he is principally a biographer of monsters: Robert Maxwell; Mohammed Al Fayed; even Klaus Barbie.
Where does Alexander Johnson (Al to his intimates, Boris is only his public name) fit in with them? The answer is awkwardly. In Bower’s biography of Johnson, subtitled The Gambler, Bower prefers narrative to insight, but he has one great scoop: the violence of Johnson’s father Stanley. I have always suspected that Stanley — a pseudo-intellectual, a wanderer and a bore — is the key to his son, and Bower confirms it: Stanley repeatedly beat his wife Charlotte, an artist, and she spent time in a mental hospital, blaming herself. The children were cast to the four winds: to the English public school system, where hurts are buried and myths self-made.
The story appears early in The Gambler and it throws Bower off his stride: too much and too soon. He cannot help but see his subject in the light of it, and it serves to infantalise Johnson, who is 56 now, and quite capable of amending himself. Bower spends the rest of The Gambler acting as a sort of excitable therapist, and cheerleader, to Johnson, with lengthy, un-sifted narratives and occasionally purple prose, as if a sexually shy man is trying to understand his opposite, who he both disapproves of and admires. He calls him “a glamour boy” and “a loner and a lover”. Lover is a strange word for what Johnson is to women: he has a trail of disappointed wives, abandoned mistresses and sullen, speechless children. Is it love, really — or is it hunger?
You will know everything beyond Stanley’s violence already: when he became prime minister, Johnson was already a myth — and who would be a myth? He was at Eton College, where Al the child retreated and Boris the invention rose; he was president of the Union at Oxford University. He was a journalist at the Times, fired for a pitifully obvious lie, an invented quote from his godfather. I would call this behaviour self-hating, though to Bower it is only “insubordinate” and “insolent”, which is a schoolmaster’s analysis. Then came success at the Telegraph for mocking Brussels; the editorship of the Spectator; adultery; Parliament; the Mayoralty; Brexit; a landslide; the sickness of Covid-19; and now uncertainty.
You know this thanks to the British media, who have followed Johnson since the Spectator years, seeking drama while praying he will fail. It is a very malicious tribute from journalism, and self-important: it is essentially jealousy and the queasy knowledge that, at last, we went too far. I have participated in many Johnson media scrums or “rolling goat fucks”. They are more exciting than policy round tables, and I write that with shame. Bower doesn’t emphasise this crucial element to Johnson’s rise: Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is a media invention, willed ironically into life and funny, until it wasn’t.
He has to be, because he barely has politics. Policy does not interest him, as Bower says; and the politics he does have — he is a liberal Remainer — are not the engine of his life. He is not a politician but a personality; he wanted to be World King long before he heard of the Treasury. The engine is, rather, a thrilling personal narrative, which is anti-intellectual, despite Johnson’s book-learning. Bower makes much of Johnson’s love of the ancient poets, and it is true that the pre-Christian world is distant enough for Johnson to attempt to hide there. It is also irresistible to an unserious age. I would go further and call the engine sickness: the sickness is the engine of his life.
That Johnson has Don Juan syndrome is almost too obvious to write but, still, Bower does not emphasise it, presenting us merely with a list of women and their disappointments, or personal failings. These tales, I am again ashamed to admit, are by far the most interesting passages in the book probably because in these matters Johnson has a cracked kind of agency: he does things to women, but politics feels like something that is done to him; his behaviour is reactive, enough to keep going onwards to the undiscovered country of self-acceptance, but not important in itself.
Don Juan syndrome is, simply put, a desire to seek, and to punish, the mother; the mother the child believes abandoned him. It explains the compulsion to seduce and betray which is the story of Johnson’s intimate life. Those who call Johnson a lover misunderstand him. He is a seeker: for him the wanting is better than the having. Don Juanism is a personal tragedy, it is true, but it is not tragic enough to destabilise an entire country. The Left is not wrong in its anger towards Johnson and his acolytes who, despite his desire to promote only inadequates, sense a vessel to exploit.
When the real history of Johnson’s rule is written there will be three villains at least beyond Stanley Johnson: the English public school system which supplies the Tory Party with inept leaders; the media, who collude in this and the raising of Johnson, for sport and profit; and the voters, who, with indifference or salaciousness, tolerate it.
Towards the end of Bower’s story, Johnson’s sickness and what counts for his politics thrillingly collide. For Johnson, the premiership is a woman, or at least it resembles a woman. It was something he only thought he wanted, though he would do anything to secure it. That is how a liberal Remainer on the left of the Tory party became the agent of Brexit: he is simply not strong enough to advance his imagined One Nation creed in the face of Brexit, Covid-19 and the objections of his own supporters.
Too much time has been spent willing Johnson to victory — to happiness — as if he, like the Fisher King, represents us: the politics of an earlier age, an awful thing to contemplate in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. So perhaps it is not Johnson who gambles, but us. Reading this over-sympathetic, slightly credulous book I yearn only for a future Johnson — penitent, aged and wise — to write his own story, but that is another feminine Johnson-themed fantasy of redemption, and there have too many of them already.