Boris by Andrew Gimson

The Houdini of moral dilemmas
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The Independent Culture

During the 2001 general election campaign, I was taking a taxi across London when the young cabbie engaged me in conversation about the inadequacies of William Hague as Tory leader. "That Boris Johnson," he suddenly said, "I reckon he'd make a good Tory leader." This was astonishing. After all, Boris was only just at that moment in the process of being elected for the first time and, apart from a couple of memorable appearances on Have I Got News For You, had barely impinged on the public consciousness. I was reminded of this incident when I came across a statement in the introduction to this book: "He reaches far beyond the ranks of those who are interested in politics, and attracts support even among those who hate politicians." Today, Boris has still not held high office. Yet, apart from David Cameron and William Hague, he is the only Tory opposition spokesman who is instantly recognisable. What's more, despite being an Old Etonian who speaks like a stage Englishman from an old movie, he has a common touch and is "a master of pre-emptive self-criticism... He enlists our sympathy by leaping to a harsher verdict on his conduct than we would have reached ourselves."

Boris Johnson is descended on his father's side from a Turkish politician and journalist who was lynched by a mob in the early 1920s, and on his mother's side from Henry Fawcett, a late 19th-century Radical MP. Both Boris's parents were in their early twenties when he was born. His mother, Charlotte, continued studying for her English degree at Oxford, then Stanley took the family to Washington, where he worked for the World Bank, and later to Brussels, where he joined the staff of the European Commission. Indeed, the Johnsons moved no fewer than 33 times during their 12-year-long marriage. By the time of their divorce, Stanley was a Tory candidate. At one selection meeting, he was asked whether Mrs Johnson would be coming to live in the constituency. "Mrs Johnson will possibly be coming to live in the constituency," he explained, "but certainly not with me." He was selected and served as a Tory MP from 1979 to 1984.

An inkling of Boris's future capacity to entertain and provoke came in his first written comment, "Boo to grown-ups!", daubed on a wall at the age of five. Already gifted as a child, Boris was a voracious reader. He would rebuff the efforts of his siblings to enlist him in games with the response "Let's play reading". Within his highly competitive family - he had three siblings from his mother Charlotte and two from Stanley's second marriage - Boris was definitely the alpha male. A star at Eton (to which he won a scholarship) and at Oxford (where contemporaries began to talk of him as a future prime minister), he dazzled as a Daily Telegraph correspondent and columnist and as editor of The Spectator. "He's got this wonderful streak of creative irresponsibility," notes a colleague.

One of his school reports identified a trait in his character that explains some of his actions as an adult: "I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else." With a hint of what was to come, he stated his intention in the College Leaving Book, to carve "more notches on my phallocratic phallus". He is supremely confident with women and he once vouchsafed that he hasn't needed to masturbate for years.

Unable to choose between journalism and politics, he once explained to a colleague, "I want to have my cake and eat it." The same applied to his second marriage (to childhood friend Marina Wheeler) and his much- publicised affair with the journalist and Tory groupie Petronella Wyatt, though he was eventually forced to choose. Gimson identifies as a major flaw Boris's "gift for unclarity, and for avoiding inconvenient questions", and elsewhere "his inability, or obdurate unwillingness, to make choices which would entail a degree of self- sacrifice". One unnamed source describes him as "a Houdini of moral dilemmas". Grilled by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs last autumn, Boris sounded at times, according to Gimson, "like a cashiered major who is desperately trying to keep up appearances."

Full of jokes and witty observations, this is a well-paced biography which leaves you wanting to know more about the subject. You couldn't ask for a more genial guide to Planet Boris than Andrew Gimson. His understated flair is the perfect foil for Boris's headlong, over-the-top exuberance.

A remarkable man who has already had a more remarkable career than many who have ostensibly achieved more - more remarkable, for example, than Cameron's career before becoming Tory leader - it is impossible to imagine that we have seen the last of Boris the politician, whose self-deprecating persona demonstrates that politicians, for all their flaws, can merit our affection as well as our cynical disregard.

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