A plodding new biography paints the Prime Minister as a victim, and ducks any serious reckoning with his many flawsby Philip Collins / November 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
“He’s a shit. He’s utterly selfish. He’s destroyed the family.” This anonymous verdict on Boris Johnson is apparently delivered by someone in the Johnson clan. On the first page of Tom Bower’s plodding biography of the Prime Minister, the tone is already set. The scene is Chequers, August 2019, and the occasion is a party thrown by the new PM to celebrate the 79th birthday of his father, Stanley. Unfortunately, the mood is hardly festive. The PM’s estranged wife Marina and their four children have refused to come. It should be a moment of family triumph as the eldest son has realised his life’s ambition, but it sounds awkward, joyless and grim.
There is, sadly, plenty more in the same vein. As the pages turn, and they turn rather slowly, we discover that this is indeed the story of a shit, an utterly selfish man who has allegedly destroyed his family. But the real shit it appears is not Boris. It is, according to Bower, Stanley. The peculiar arrested development of the man-child Prime Minister is here excused at every turn. The treachery, the betrayals, the mendacity—it all seems to derive from the sins of the father. There is no good reason this book is called Boris Johnson: The Gambler. It should be called “Boris Johnson: The Victim.”
There is an unexpected symmetry here with a more richly written recent father-and-son reflection. Martin Amis’s Inside Story is a meditation on the men in Martin’s life: Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin and, of course, his father Kingsley. The relevant point of comparison might be Kingsley’s 1984 novel Stanley and the Women, which Martin called “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well organised.” These verdicts could easily apply to the protagonists here, all except the last, because not even the friends of Stanley or Boris would describe either as well organised.
Bower does present a pretty comprehensive litany of Boris Johnson’s treachery and tergiversation, to adopt the Prime Minister’s own idiom. And there is a lot of it. We go through Johnson’s sacking by the Times for making up a quotation and his repeated and blatant lies—the publication of which is a…