Book review: Boris Johnson - The Gambler, by Tom Bower

There’s no doubting the depth of Tom Bower's research, but he is too seduced by the Prime Minister and the gilded world in which he operates to write a balanced biography, writes Joyce McMillan

Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister's Questions on 7 October, 2020 PIC: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister's Questions on 7 October, 2020 PIC: Leon Neal/Getty Images

On the cover of his new biography of Boris Johnson, Tom Bower is described by his publishers as “Britain’s leading investigative biographer”; and not without reason. Born in London in 1946, Bower is a former civil rights lawyer and BBC journalist who turned full-time author in the 1980s, producing a series of prodigiously well-researched and often controversial biographies of major figures including Robert Maxwell, Mohammed Al-Fayed, Conrad Black, Tony Blair and Prince Charles.

In this latest massive study of Boris Johnson, though - perhaps his first attempt at a subject he finds truly sympathetic - it becomes increasingly difficult to detect the boundary between Bower the investigative journalist, and Bower the admirer and polemicist; as he delivers a detailed account of Johnson’s political career that faithfully records all the criticisms regularly made of his subject - the laziness, the lack of interest in detail, the compulsive lying and opportunism, and his appalling treatment of women - while never allowing those criticisms to influence his evident strong attraction to Johnson, both as a human being, and as a pro-Brexit Conservative politician.

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The result is an uncharacteristically messy book, that freely mixes factual narrative with highly pejorative comment about all those - from Michel Barnier to the entire Foreign Office - whom he sees as malign opponents of what he calls Johnson’s “intelligent patriotism.” The book is full of interesting and dramatic scenes, no question. Bower’s central thesis is that Johnson is a brilliant but flawed man shaped by a desperately dysfunctional childhood, during which his mother was regularly beaten, and he and his siblings alternately bullied and neglected by their often absent father, Stanley. Nor does the drama cease with Johnson’s adult life; there are page-turning sequences about his two marriages and many affairs, a mind-boggling account of his “Sextator” years in the early 2000s as editor of The Spectator, and material for several political thrillers in his betrayal of David Cameron over the EU referendum, and his own subsequent stabbing in the back by Michael Gove, during the 2016 Tory leadership election.

Boris Johnson - The Gambler, by Tom Bower

The final impression left by the book, though, is of an almost shocking lack of perspective, perhaps reflected in its awkward and slightly unbalanced four-act structure. Bower writes throughout as if the bizarre world inhabited by Johnson and his contemporaries in London politics and journalism – a world so small, so incestuous, and so riddled with nepotism, cronyism and unearned privilege that it almost beggars belief – actually is what it imagines itself to be, both the epicentre of British life, and some kind of legitimate representation of it. It is remarkable to watch Bower faithfully chronicling all this without much objection; and with barely a word about the 66 million lives, across Britain, that stand to be profoundly damaged by these people, and their relentless, self-absorbed political game-playing.

As for Johnson himself – well, history tells us that psychologically damaged nations, which is what post-imperial Britain now seems to be, will sometimes turn to populist leaders who, in some deep way, reflect back that damage, while still projecting a strength or ebullience that seems able to defy or reverse it. Johnson’s historic decision to become a leading Brexiteer has put him at the epicentre of such a reactionary movement, despite his own well-advertised liberal instincts. And the future well-being of us all, on these islands, may depend on whether Johnson and his advisors can now seriously transform that reactionary project into something more progressive and humane; or whether, as seems likely, they lack the breadth of political perspective to achieve any such thing – a lack that will not, alas, be remedied by this biography, which for all its detail and industry, is too seduced by the man and the world it describes to achieve greatness, or any satisfying sense of context at all.

Boris Johnson: The Gambler is published by WH Allen, £20

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