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Brutal: George Parker reviews 'Johnson at 10'

April 2022: Boris Johnson following his parliamentary statement on his party gate fine | Alamy

3 min read

Giving credit where it’s due, though unsparing in their analysis of his flaws, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell have produced the most comprehensive and enjoyable account yet of Boris Johnson’s chaotic premiership

Anthony Seldon, at the end of this 600-page take-down, says Boris Johnson had the potential, aspirations and opportunity to be one of Britain’s great prime ministers, but concludes: “His unequivocal exclusion from that club can be laid at the feet of no one else but himself.”

Seldon says Johnson’s closest aides still wonder if “he even knew the difference between right and wrong”, that the former premier was “unable to make a decision which might make him unpopular” and that he squandered the 80-seat majority he secured at the 2019 election.

I’ve known Johnson since the mid-1990s when we sat next to each other in the Commons press gallery. I recall him telling me how he intended to stand for Parliament – I thought he was joking – and in 2016 how he was “veering around like a shopping trolley” as he deliberated on whether to back Brexit.

I can’t say I’m surprised that things turned out as they did, but Seldon and his co-writer Raymond Newell give the most comprehensive – and enjoyable –  account yet of what exactly happened during Johnson’s three years at No 10.

Seldon has written similar accounts of the premierships of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May, but this seems to carry more emotional punch: the authors have clearly found a lot of people willing to tell all, presumably as part of some cathartic exercise.

The authors have clearly found a lot of people willing to tell all

Seldon gives credit where it is due: Johnson galvanised the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he did not retreat from Britain’s green commitments and the rollout of the Covid vaccine programme was a notable success, even if his initial response to the pandemic was typically chaotic.

But Johnson’s flaws are brutally highlighted: his failure to uphold high standards in office, his “total inability to build a coherent mission for his government”, his lack of preparedness for the Brexit referendum victory in 2016 and what should happen next.

Johnson at 10Seldon judges that Brexit will be the issue for which Johnson will be remembered and many will never forgive him for the frivolous way in which he approached this defining moment in the nation’s history.

“Oh shit, we’ve got no plan,” Johnson says on the morning that the result of the vote becomes clear. “We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy crap, what will we do?” He then went on to deliver the hardest form of Brexit available.

Dominic Cummings’s role in all of this gets 70 pages in the book – an indication of who was really running the show in the first year of the Johnson administration – although Seldon notes that Johnson was also dependent on the editor of The Daily Telegraph for advice.

Johnson’s allies say he is still “keeping his options open” and has not given up hope of a comeback. At Westminster, where attention spans seem to shrink by the year, this book will serve as a useful reminder of what happened last time he was in charge.

George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times

Johnson at 10: The Inside Story
By: Anthony Seldon & Raymond Newell
Publisher: Atlantic Books

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