Bozza: a conformist in eccentric clothing
A new biography is too obsessed with skewering Boris’s personality to expose his real failing: his embrace of Livingstone-like miserabilism.
If, as Sonia Purnell asserts in her biography of Aryan-lite London mayor Boris Johnson, ‘you cross or criticise – or worse still, mock [the Johnson clan] at your peril’, then she could probably do with giving Securicor a ring. For Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity is an intensely gossipy and ultimately eviscerating volume. And it comes not from an avowed enemy, but from his one-time number two at the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau. By the book’s end, the popular idea of Boris as a blundering but charming free spirit, ever ready with a quip and a knowing smirk, is demolished. In its place stands a very different looking figure, a heartless egotist, in fact, intent above all on self-advancement with a bit of fluff-fiddling, hanky-panky along the way.
Indeed, the mock-heroic image of Johnson as an unlikely philanderer, an accidental Casanova, is one of the principal plinths of the Johnson myth to take a battering. Not that Johnson is in reality a model of monogamy. Far from it. Throughout both his high-society marriages, first to Allegra Mostyn-Owen and, subsequently, to his then-pregnant mistress, Marina Wheeler, Johnson’s attitude to the conjugal pact has been positively French. What Purnell seems intent on denuding us of is the impression that Johnson’s horizontal fun and frolics is, well, just that, fun and frolics, an endearing testament to his bracingly liberal attitude to life and love, not to mention a triumph of charisma over his ‘frequent habit of forgetting to shower’ and his slightly ‘whiffy jackets’.
For instance, the chapter ‘Busting with spunk’ dishes the dirt with sanctimonious glee. Dealing with his time as the editor of the Spectator – or the Sextator, as Purnell calls it – she brings the bonk-and-booze atmosphere of the magazine to rather sordid life. Purnell even has one unnamed object of Johnson’s amour explain his seduction technique at the time: ‘He invades your personal space, gets really close up to you, and then with those slightly popping blue eyes of his says intently in a deep voice: “you really must come and write for me at the Spectator”.’ Creepy, maybe, but it seems there was no shortage of young women eager to file copy. Worse still, Purnell relays Johnson’s affair with randy socialite Petronella Wyatt in cruel, unnecessary Technicolor, complete with tales of abortion and, ultimately, Wyatt’s abandonment.
Johnson’s extra-marital commissioning has come at a cost, of course. It was his refusal to come clean about his affair with Wyatt after newspapers exposed it that forced the Tory leader at the time, Michael Howard, to dismiss the blonde swordsman from his front bench. But while Johnson’s determination to keep his pecker up has caused him some professional discomfort, Purnell clearly does not think he has suffered enough. She finger wags: ‘No one should doubt that there are casualties in a jolly Johnson jape – and they are usually women (or children).’
In many ways, however, it is the view that emerges of Johnson, or better still ‘Boris’, as the carefully manufactured conceit of an arch egotist that is most damaging. Nothing is quite what it appears. His first name is actually Alexander, not Boris, or ‘Al’ as his family calls him; his famous bouffant is not artlessly unkempt, but deliberately messed up prior to public appearances; and his achingly quintessential English eccentricity was, according to Purnell, a persona initially forged while he was a scholarship boy at Eton.
What Purnell seems keen to emphasise throughout is that Johnson is always manipulating, always trying to bend those around him to his will – others in Purnell’s telling are always means, not ends, to Johnson. He appears as he thinks those he wants and needs desire him to appear. It is calculated, not spontaneous; his poshness and his bumbling are affectations. Even his membership of the notorious Bullingdon club, alongside current prime minister David Cameron, was instrumental rather than full-hearted, Purnell argues. She quotes the late Anthony Howard: ‘Boris was a first-generation Etonian. The way he adapted to the ways of the rich and grand, including people like Charlie Spencer [Princess Diana’s brother] and Darius Guppy, and the members of the Bullingdon was astounding. It was not in his background at all.’ Indeed. Attending the same Primrose Hill state primary school as the Labour Party’s dead-beat combo, the Miliband brothers, Johnson’s background was more bohemian middle-class, with a touch of Tory shire aspiration thrown in, than unadulterated, entitlement-rich aristocracy.
Purnell certainly seems in little doubt that it was while he was studying at Oxford that Johnson took the almost Nietzschean self-mythologising to a new level. He was determined to win the attention of his largely New Romantic or Smiths-loving peers. Hence the ‘sagging cords, ragged tweeds and [a] haystack coiffeur’, atop a mouth full of plummy vowels and ridiculous ‘grrrs’, ‘errs’ and ‘aaaghhs’. ‘Boris’ was well and truly born.
But what was the point to this display, this work of art known as Boris, is the question Purnell is always raising but never answering. Recalling Johnson at the time, current Lib Dem politico Neil Sherlock, who beat Johnson to the Oxford Union presidency at his first attempt, seems similarly unsure. Purnell writes: ‘Wannabe politicians have a burning mission that drives them – whether it is to reform the NHS, take Britain out of the EU or renew a political party. Boris did not seem to have one then – when politics was considerably more ideological and cause-driven – and does not appear to have one now. As Sherlock observes, “without those passions, it’s not obvious why he would pursue a political career”.’ What was clear back then, especially after Johnson did finally become Union president, was that what he lacked in politics he more than made up for in politicking. This was certainly the view of an unnamed journalist who knew Johnson at Oxford: ‘After his election as president, he became known as someone who will do what he needs to do, say what he needs to say. People came to know that they could like him, but not trust him.’
Yet for all Johnson’s careerism and vaunting ambition, Purnell’s portrait of him in parliament (2001-2008) as Conservative MP for Henley suggests anything but an effortless networker. Late for committee meetings and determined to keep his editorship at the Spectator, plus his columns at the Telegraph and GQ, he was, reports a contemporary, ‘like a fish out of water’. Just to stick the knife into somewhere fleshy, she notes that his weight gain, and subsequent love of jogging, meant he was never going to ‘work the tearooms and bars of Westminister’ for fear of further expanding his girth. She then adds, just for spiteful measure: ‘In any case, Boris finds making genuine conversation with people and particularly women on an equal professional footing difficult… He is better talking at people in performance-mode than talking to them over a coffee table.’
But it is the portrait of Johnson’s performance within parliament from columnist and sketch-writer Quentin Letts that is perhaps most damning. ‘He was terrible in the chamber, an echoing parody of himself… he was trying to ventilate false anxieties about matters in which he really wasn’t very interested. The reaction was quite often silence. You see, 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 go into politics out of vanity, but maybe he has.’
Despite his underwhelming performance in parliament, that has not impeded Johnson’s political rise. Yet it is in his current role, as London mayor, that the real nature of this political soullessness becomes clear. That is, beyond the bon mots and cheekiness, Johnson in office is utterly unremarkable. Purnell notes that after a year, ‘his regime had not become the laboratory for Conservative policy wonkery many had expected’. ‘Boris is a captive of City Hall’, observes one former colleague. ‘The place is a monument to Ken Livingstone.’
Quite. And this, perhaps, is the real twist. It is not that loveable, randy old Boris is a veneer, beneath which an empty, all-consuming vanity rages. The real twist is that behind this meticulous performance, which at points suggests a free-thinking liberal, his politics are drenched in the same prejudices and practice as those of his political peers. He didn’t so much reverse his predecessor Ken Livingstone’s miserable, illiberal policies as continue them. Hence his first, signal act upon becoming mayor was, incredibly, to ban drinking on public transport. He then proved just how willing he really was to challenge the environmentalist consensus – which he’d been doing in print for years – by publishing the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, a report that matched the most green-hearted environmentalist in fearmongering and morally coercive hellfire. ‘When the facts change, you change your mind’, he said at the time to justify his change in views. And just to make sure he didn’t upset anyone at all, he sacked his adviser, John McGrath, for responding to a question about Johnson driving black votes out of London with ‘Let them go if they don’t like it here’. When push came to political shove, Johnson – a self-styled free spirit – proved a little too keen for people not to speak their minds.
So yes, the bluster and bonhomie may well be artifice, the dissimulation of a deeply ambitious but heartless man. But what is truly dispiriting about the Boris phenomenon is the deadening conformism of his politics. His, after all, is effectively a political practice every bit as neck deep in petty authoritarianism, opportunist ‘greenwash’ and politically correct etiquette as his immediate predecessor. He did not break the mould; he refashioned himself (once again) to fit within it. Once asked in an interview if he had any convictions, Boris responded: ‘Only one – for speeding, but a very long time ago.’ Although he could never say it openly, there is a truth to Bozza’s jest. As spectacular a personality as he may still be, as a politician he is just as unwilling to sail against the prevailing wind as his bland, consensus-loving peers. And that is the real story being played out behind the irresistible rise of Boris Johnson.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.