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Keith Simpson reviews 'Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10'

Keith Simpson reviews 'Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10'


Keith Simpson

3 min read

Well-written, with a discerning eye for detail, Andrew Gimson’s biography sets out to understand the electoral appeal of a man so frequently dismissed as a charlatan and a clown

Andrew Gimson is a political journalist and author with considerable knowledge and expertise about British politics. An amused observer of politicians and ministers, his original life of Boris Johnson first appeared in 2006 and has been revised and updated on numerous occasions. This volume looking at Johnson as prime minister is not a traditional biography, but rather a series of vignettes that could be mistaken for columns appearing in the national press.

Gimson set out to discover how a man dismissed as a liar, charlatan and tasteless joke was able, despite being written off more frequently than any other British politician of the 21st century, to become prime minister. Gimson has a thorough knowledge of British political history and a discerning eye for the foibles of leading politicians. He writes well and tries to analyse the conflicting interpretations of Johnson’s life, and – although prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – this is no hagiography.

Gimson repeats known facts of Johnson’s life, including his early ambitions and a complete failure to be bound by the constraints in private and public life that others are forced to observe. As Gimson writes, he has tried “to work out what kind of person Johnson is, and what kind of a country would dream of making him its prime minister”.

Johnson is a great campaigner, a dissembler, at times a huckster who promotes firewater as real medicine

As Gimson shows, everything about Johnson should have prevented his rise to power, including a rackety private life, an ability to exaggerate and tell lies, and a failure to develop an overarching political philosophy apart from optimism and what became known as “cakeism”. As Gimson concludes: “Johnson is in many ways an 18th century figure, at ease with sex and money and rudeness.” He has successfully, despite being an Old Etonian, cast himself as an anti-establishment figure, who exudes positive thinking and a robust love of life, which goes some way to explaining his electoral successes.

Johnson has exemplified in today’s politics a variation of the old saying to read “Tory men and Labour measures”. Johnson is a comedian, with a brilliant instinct for power who yearns for immortal fame. Gimson sees him as Benjamin Disraeli’s heir, and there are comparisons with Lord Palmerston, and, your reviewer would say, David Lloyd George – but without his multiple political achievements.

Johnson is a great campaigner, a dissembler, at times a huckster who promotes firewater as real medicine. In a series of short chapters, Gimson reminds us of the successes and all too frequent failures of the Johnsonian premiership. Johnson hadn’t got the temperament or the attention to detail required, and had a transitory relationship with his MPs. I have not forgotten Johnson’s rambling appearance as foreign secretary in front of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The never-ending failures and gaffes finally persuaded his MPs and many ministers that he had to go.

Johnson left office with no real public display of regret but rather a sense of defiance, and with his ardent supporters spinning the line that he had been “stabbed in the back” – Erich Ludendorff revisited. Like Lloyd George, one suspects he believes he will be recalled to No 10 – and for Conservative MPs fearful or hopeful of that prospect Andrew Gimson’s book is a useful aide-memoire to this “subversive troublemaker”.

Keith Simpson is a former Conservative MP for Broadland and Mid Norfolk

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