The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson, book review: All about our greatest leader (and a bit about Churchill)

In history-book terms, it is an opportunity missed, but for Johnson’s career it will no doubt work wonders.

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The handsome front cover of Boris Johnson’s new tome is a masterpiece of subliminal messaging.

His last book, ostensibly on London, was described as the “longest personal manifesto” in the capital’s history with every page a “coded plea” for “Boris for Mayor”. This time, you need neither buy nor read The Churchill Factor to detect the drumbeat for all those Conservatives and Ukippers out there in search of a strongman alternative to Cameronian appeasement of those pesky Europeans.

Just who might have the Churchill Factor now, we are encouraged to ponder by the size of the author’s name in relation to his supposed subject. And who might again become the “One Man” capable of making history?

Johnson does indeed share certain Churchillian traits – not least a restless energy and talent for churning out books while apparently holding down a government day-job. The mayor’s latest effort romps along nicely in places like his better columns, and makes no greater claim on a lengthy shelf-life. Churchill was dressed, we are told, “like some burly and hungover butler” from Downton Abbey. Other points are driven home with many cameo scenes from Johnson’s life.

In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult at times to separate Churchill’s story from Johnson’s. When describing a figure of obvious appeal to young people today, Johnson refers to an “eccentric” with “his own special trademark clothes” who was a “thoroughgoing genius”. Who can he mean? We hear how Churchill was considered an adventurer, reckless, disloyal, untrustworthy, in possession of “death-defying self belief” and consequently “not what people thought of as a man of principle; he was a glory-chasing goal-mouth-hanging opportunist”. And yet this embodiment of unlikely qualities eventually became the saviour of the nation and the hero of the free world. So,  are we being subtly induced to believe that that is what Britain is also in need of now? If so, who can Johnson have in mind?

And just in case we missed the coincidence, Johnson makes a point that Churchill was surely entitled to the enormous sums he was paid for his journalism “because he was popular with the public, and helped boost circulation”. Yes, our mayor of London is paid a Churchillian £5,000 plus per column; so no more criticism of this largesse, please.

In another paean to his own brand of personality politics, Johnson declares that “Character is destiny, said the Greeks, and I agree”. We already know that Johnson believes his destiny resides in Downing Street and here are 350 pages on why he should shortly be sent there. There are impressive passages in this book, where Johnson flexes his journalistic talent for rendering historical landfill into shiny new consumables. He does have a certain genius – as displayed in his previous The Dream of Rome book – for making history, in that dreaded term, “accessible”.

But he refers to himself some 30 times in the short introduction alone, and on many more occasions in the following pages. Overall, the book says perhaps less about Churchill than it does about the ambition and self-image of Boris. In history-book terms, it is an opportunity missed. For Johnson’s career, it will no doubt work wonders.

Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition. Her book on Clementine Churchill is out next year.