THEOn the morning of his election as Tory leader in July 2019, Boris Johnson came off the stage at the QEII Center in London and walked over to the front row members of his family. There was a kiss for sister Rachel, and a warm look for brother Jo, but the handshake Father Stanley offered was rejected.
In his moment of supreme triumph, Boris declined his father’s congratulations, a secret reminder that Stanley had ignored his children when needed.
Research suggests that many of the leaders had a damaged childhood. Grief or illness, parental divorce, delinquency or addiction are hallmarks in the early life of many senior politicians. The phenomenon has a name: the Phaeton complex.
Few leaders have undergone that complex more fully than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. That 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, a despair for admiration, reckless gambling, broken promises, and betrayed colleagues. The main source of all this, says Tom Bower, is a traumatized childhood.
The son is the product of the father’s sins. According to this book, Stanley Johnson was a weak and self-obsessed father and an unfaithful and abusive husband. The young Boris was permanently marked by the 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 specialist mental health ward. Bower quotes Charlotte as saying: The Maudsley doctors 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 a world king to a desire to make herself invulnerable, invincible, and somehow safe from your mother’s pain that goes away for eight months.
Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his first wife, and Marina Wheeler, his much-betrayed second wife, both think the son’s serial infidelity was a trait inherited from the father. Bower tells us that Marina believes that the symmetry of Boris and Stanley, the son as the mirror image of his father, can never be broken.
Johnson senior, himself the son of a stingy, wife, alcoholic, serial adulterer, disputes the version of the events narrated by Charlotte. There’s no denying that Stanley has traveled extensively abroad to satisfy an unrequited desire for fame and fortune. Global overpopulation became one of its causes. He produced Living without birth, a controversy that exposes the lack of contraception. Bower isn’t humorous, so he doesn’t make the obvious joke that father’s enthusiasm for curbing procreation was a trait that didn’t turn off on the son.
While Stanley was on vacation for a year, Charlotte had to fend for herself with three small children in a dilapidated house on Exmoor, where trash was scattered around the house and the water was polluted by lead pipes. When Stanley was around, he encouraged frenzied competitiveness in his children by pitting them against each other. After Rachel beat Boris at table tennis, he kicked the garage door so hard that it broke his toe. Years later, when Jo became head of David Camerons’ policy unit at number 10, Boris remarked: A little piece of me is dying, but otherwise I am delighted with his success.
For Bower, a painful, chaotic and fractured childhood explains Johnson’s ambition, exhibitionism, secrecy, unreliability, vulnerabilities and resilience. Boris was concerned about his mother’s fate. Not only had he seen his mother suffer from the regular beats, but he also saw his father blatantly deny the truth. Unwilling to confide in others about his father’s violence, he became a loner. To mask the misery and pain, he demanded attention. The advantage of this as a biographical framing device is that it provides a seemingly logical explanation for the often horrendous behavior of its subjects as adults. The mistake in assigning all blame to Stanley is that it gives Boris a gilded alibi. It suggests that we shouldn’t think too badly of him when he betrays a woman, makes up fabrications, or stumbles from debacle to disaster through a public health crisis. We should see him as the victim of that troubled childhood.
That’s not the only way this book is extraordinarily generous on its subject. Bower made a name for himself as a biographer with impressively courageous expositions of business figures such as Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and Mohamed Al Fayed. He gave the title Broken vows to an attempt at an ax job on Tony Blair and Dangerous hero on a fucking biography of Jeremy Corbyn. Still, the fearsome investigative author puts his knuckles and slide on children’s gloves away for Boris, as he fondly calls his subject in a text that mentions every other politician by last name.
The many scandals, scratches, and mistresses are here – they could hardly be ignored – but Bower applies a softening gloss to even the most ugly examples of Johnson’s behavior. All those things? Because of his youth, he was unable to develop trusting relationships with men, so Johnson sought soulmates among women, the author states. Perhaps a simpler explanation will come to your mind. He likes to fuck a lot and he doesn’t care who gets hurt by his selfishness. Finally, Marina could no longer accept his infidelity and ended their marriage after Carrie Symonds became his mistress. Bower lightly explains: After Marina forgave his affairs with Petronella Wyatt, Anna Fazackerley and Helen Macintyre (plus child), Boris may have considered the consequences for Marina and their four children when his latest affair came to light. Could have considered? You can think of a sharper way to say it. The kids, who boycott a family gathering at Checkers after Johnson became prime minister, certainly can.
Bower, giving in to his priapic private life, can usually be found in Johnsons’ corner because of the many conflicts in his public life. Michael Howard, who fired Johnson from the Tory front bench for telling lies bare-faced about his affair with Petronella Wyatt, is boisterous and blinkered. In the battle for Brexit between Theresa May and Johnson, it is she, not he, who condemns Bower as double-minded and opportunistic.
This becomes especially clear when the topic is Brexit. Writing about the 2016 referendum, he acknowledges that Johnson was campaigning from a bus with a false slogan, but he refuses to call it a lie in an understated manner, an accusation he throws a lot about when talking about Johnson’s political rivals.
Few consider his disaster-ridden period as secretary of state his best hour. Still, his countless blunders and blunders are excused on the grounds that he was set up in May to fail and then abandoned by recalcitrant State Department mandarins. The author blames officials for thwarting a Johnsonian wheeze to buy an island in Norway’s Arctic Ocean to turn it into an espionage 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 bid to close parliament is declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2019, the villain of Bowers’ account is the president of the court, Brenda Hale, who rarely hid her disdain from Boris and was animated by her determination to protect the government. to knock down. This suggests that the Tory leader was confused by an outrageously biased woman, rather than convicted by the unanimous verdict of all 11 of the country’s top judges.
During two thick closing chapters on the coronavirus crisis, Johnson disappears from the text for a long time as the author unleashes a litany of attacks on the scientific advisers to the government, Public Health England, the Department of Health and the cabinet secretary. Some of this criticism may be valuable, but it leaves the question: who was the prime minister and what did he do when so many state institutions apparently failed in the midst of the most serious public health emergency in more than a century? Dominic Cummings’ rule-breaking excursions during the lockdown are discussed sympathetically and without analysis of the disastrous impact on public confidence. Bower agrees with those of us who have long commented that the cabinet lacks talent, but is very lenient about the need for prime ministers to surround themselves with duds.
Charles Moore, his former boss at the Daily telegram and briefly, his candidate to become the next BBC chairman sometimes refers to Johnson as the greased albino piglet. A biography of this length should get to grips with the smooth pig and answer the question: who is the authentic Boris Johnson? Is it Mayor Johnson who, in his eight years as the political face of the capital, was broadly in line with a liberal, cosmopolitan idea of Toryism? Is it Brexiter Johnson fueling xenophobia to win the referendum? Is it the Brexity Hezza he said to the cabinet after winning the 2019 election? I put this biography down with a better idea of the inner demons that drive the prime minister, but it’s no wiser if he has any convictions other than the many for traffic violations. Even an admiring biographer cannot find a serious answer to the charge that Borisology is nothing more than his narrow, ever-changing, always cynical calculations of 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 main political commentator
Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower is published by WH Allen (20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
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