For a reason that passes this reviewer’s understanding Boris Johnson was last month re-elected as the Mayor of London. So far as I can see, Johnson has shown absolutely no competence or political substance to warrant him holding any political office whatsoever. His sole qualification seems to be to play the role of a bumptious and bumbling toff who is capable, on occasion, of amusing TV audiences. In this irreverent biography Sonia Purnell, a former journalist colleague of Johnson’s, pretty much agrees with that assessment.
Purnell traces Johnson’s early childhood and young adulthood through Brussels, Eton, and Oxford University where he was to become President of Oxford Union. It is, as the sojourns at Eton and Oxford suggest, the story of the privileged upbringing and an ingrained sense of entitlement which is alien to the vast majority of Britons (mainly because the doors opened by their status to Johnson et al are never opened for us). It is precisely these type of connections that enabled Johnson to become a major journalist (in reality he is more of an essayist) for the Spectator, where working from Brussels he set forth a flood of Eurosceptic pieces that energised the political right of the Conservative Party and, arguably, hastened the rise of New Labour at the UK polls.
However, it was not the ‘secret handshake’ of the establishment that catapulted Johnson to the political limelight (I refuse to refer to him by his first name!) but Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY), a weekly satirical television program and other associated ‘borisisms’.
It is on HIGNFY that Johnson inhabited two British staples: the lovable rogue and the village idiot. To this writer’s amazement it is a dual-identity that he has managed to uphold even after four years in power, and it is one that has served him well.
It is this mastery of his audience that has led Johnson to his second term as London Mayor and his position as a frontrunner as the next Conservative Party leader and, possibly, Prime Minister of the UK.
I do think there is more than a grain of truth in Purnell’s less than criticism than Boris using this dual identity to further his undoubted political ambitions by playing the ‘dumb blonde’ card:
Men generally want to show off how clever they are; clever women are rather good in my experience at fluttering their eyelashes a bit and going, “Oh well, I don’t really understand this” and then getting amazing stories [she is referring to journalism]. I think Boris [played] the dumb blond trick in the hope of getting something.
This is a refrain to which Purnell regularly returns, which perhaps explains why the Mayor’s PR head was so anxious that a serialisation of this book should not run in the national media that he threatened senior involvement from Downing Street.
This is a well researched biography that will be of interest to watchers of London and UK politics. However, for me it was far too concentrated on ‘Boris’ and often what read as personal attacks rather than his actual record in office but then, as the parliamentary journalist Quentin Letts explained in talking of his failure as a MP in parliamentary debates (quoted in the book), perhaps that’s the way Johnson likes it:
Boris isn’t angry. You’ve got to be angry: you’ve got to feel things as an MP, but there’s no soul, no church in him. No belief. Most people don’t just go into politics out of vanity, but maybe he has.
If Letts is right then the fact that he has (and that the British public have allowed him) succeeded is a damning indictment of us all, that is not a party-political point but one of democratic integrity. If. There’s not doubt that Purnell would be in agreement with Letts, however.