Nick Wood reviews Sonia Purnell's biography of Boris Johnson, "Just Boris". Nick is former Head of Communications for the Conservative Party and now runs Media Intelligence Partners. He is a regular blogger at RightMinds.
I suppose you could say that the world divides into two camps when it comes to Boris Johnson: those who think he is a bumbling, self-indulgent, unprincipled idiot incapable of doing a serious political job – and those who think that beneath the disheveled exterior lies a sharp, original and amusing mind, a ferocious capacity for hard work, and an even more ferocious ambition to get to the top of the greasy pole.
Few people are indifferent to him. And in a world where the average Fleet Street newsdesk could not name half the Cabinet, few people, from the highest to the lowest, live in a world that has never heard of Boris.
He even had a walk on part in Eastenders – playing himself of course, an act he has perfected over nearly half a century. And like a footballing Galactico, he is known throughout the land by his first name alone. London cabbies hail him as "Bozza", he is mobbed pretty much wherever he goes and he commands vast sums of money for his speaking, writing and TV appearances, while at the same time appearing to go through life without ever buying anyone a drink.
One of the many virtues of Sonia Purnell's forensic newly published biography Just Boris (Aurum Press Limited, £20) is that she broadly leaves the reader to make up his own mind about the true nature of this political phenomenon – a national celebrity in a land that seems to have turned its back on politics. She also worked with Boris as a young reporter.
But, writing as a trained journalist, what Purnell does do admirably is marshall the facts, warts and all, about this man who remains the bookmaker's favourite to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party.
So we hear about his fragmented early life as his family, led by his bohemian and restless father Stanley, ricocheted between New York, the place of his birth, a draughty farmhouse on Exmoor, London and Brussels; his days at Eton where he was made a member of Pop and was described by his headmaster as the "most interesting pupil" he had ever taught; his gap year in Australia; and his Oxford years where he characteristically shifted his political ground to win the election for President of the Union at the
By now it is clear that for all his apparent lack of organisation, Boris is a politician to his fingertips. He tacked to the Left to win the Oxford vote then moved Right once he was in post. Purnell quotes his contemporaries even then marvelling at his opportunism and lack of loyalty to the "stooges" who he charmed into doing his bidding, but then dropped once they were no longer of value.
As one comments, the striking thing about Boris was his lack of vision or political passion – a theme Purnell develops throughout the book.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Boris's journalism for The Daily Telegraph as Brussels correspondent between 1989-1994, where at the tender age of just 25 he virtually single-handedly invented the "straight banana" story – or as a Telegraph headline put it – EC Cheese Row Takes the Biscuit.
Boris made his name in Brussels, even if the accuracy of his stories sometimes left a little to be desired. But the curious thing, according to several of his contemporaries, was that his instincts, if not his headlines, were pro-European. The conclusion is that Boris saw the main chance – and took it – a trait that he has displayed to this day, for all his tweedy image as a latter-day Colonel Blimp.
The many ups and downs of Boris's professional and personal life over the past decade and half are chronicled in great detail and with great insight. Despite his affairs with at least three young women, his second wife and mother of his four children, Marina, comes across as the rock in Boris's otherwise rackety life. She has referred to him as her fifth child and she alone seems capable of righting the ship when all seems lost.
Boris has survived scandals and scrapes that would have destroyed a lesser man, partly on the strength of his undeniable talent and partly because of his almost superhuman ability to grovel and charm his way out of a tight spot.
On being given the job as editor of The Spectator, Boris promised Conrad Black, proprietor of the magazine and the Telegraph, that he would drop his political ambitions. He did no such thing and within two years was MP for the plum Tory seat of Henley-on-Thames. His bosses were furious, but a comically contrite Boris persuaded them to let him do both jobs.
Michael Howard did sack him as Shadow Arts Minister after he allegedly lied about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. But by 2005 Boris was back on David Cameron's frontbench as Shadow Minister for Higher Education. This time he survived press reports about another alleged affair with a young reporter by posting a flippant message on his website about "tin hats on" and saying nothing more.
Charles Moore, the former editor of the Telegraph, put it best: "I told Boris I don't care what he does in his private life and he told me: 'Nor do I'."
Purnell traces Boris's time as London Mayor where, after a shakey start, involving the loss of three deputy mayors, he seems to stand a better than evens chance of defeating Ken Livingstone again in the election next summer. Beyond the "Boris bikes", scrapping the Western extension of the congestion charge, and holding down his bit of the council tax, he hasn't made a vast difference to the life of Londoners. But at least we have been spared Ken's dreary agit-prop stunts like doing oil deals with Venezuela.
Speculation now centres on Boris's next move. He is committed to taking on Livingstone in the mayoral election of 2012, which would seem to rule out any return to the Commons before 2016, after the next general election.
By then, of course, Cameron could have gone as Prime Minister – and another man (or woman) might be leader of the Conservative Party. Oddly enough, Boris's best chance of being a player in the next Tory leadership contest might be for him to lose to Ken. But then, Boris doesn't like losing.
Purnell's summary of his character – good and ill – is worth repeating:
"Boris has been endowed with the brains, the emotional intelligence, self-belief and perhaps most of all good luck to make it (as leader). He is blessed with immense charisma, wit, sex appeal and celebrity gold dust; he is also recognised and loved by millions – although less so by many who have had to work closely with him… Resourceful, cunning and strategic, he can pull off serious political coups when the greater good happens to coincide with his personal advantage. Boris inspires sympathy and loyalty but rarely repays it; he is friendly though not often a friend. He cheers people up, is physically brave and apparently tireless, but also prone to indulgent attention-seeking and so often appears to favour the frivolous over the serious…a convenient evasion over an awkward truth. He is never boring but still seems to lack vision or moral convictions… he disappoints more often than he offends… the suspicion (remains) that he is in it for only one cause and for only one person: Just Boris."
If Boris ever does run for the Tory leadership, thanks to Ms Purnell's flair and industry, we cannot say that we have not been warned.