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October 11, 2006

Good solid meat for Boris watchers: Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson - Andrew Gimson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson
by Andrew Gimson
London: Simon and Schuster, 2006
Hardback, 17.99

At last. Some good solid meat for Boris Watchers to get their teeth into. Instead of contenting ourselves with transitory moments on Have I Got News For You or occasional paragraphs in newspaper diary columns here is proper full length book which tells the story.

To be honest it is faintly ludicrous for a serious biography to have been written. This is a proper real biography. Proper research, interviews with contemporaries and so forth. It has the jokes but also the darker side. A chapter on Eton. A chapter on Oxford. All the rest of it.

Among the more embarrassing episodes in Boris's distant past was his flirtation with the SDP at Oxford University. Was it a cynical ploy to help him get elected President of the Oxford Union at a time when the SDP was all the rage? Or did he genuinely believe in it? Which is worse?

So troubled was I by this that I sought reassurance as to Boris's side of the story which isn't included in the book. Using my well honed skills as an investigative journalist I googled "Boris" and SDP. Up popped an implausible defence from Boris which tries to explain that he wasn't interested in politics at the time.

In an article for Cherwell in March this year he recalls being told by a don that they had voted to deny Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree:

Oh really, I said, vaguely intrigued, and it is a testament to my magnificent political apathy, as a student (I think I was a kind of green with vague leanings towards the SDP), that I was not in the least outraged, I was just curious.
Or that is how Johnson explains his position at that time.

Almost as bad as the SDP, was his association with Darius Guppy. There is a taped phone conversation of Guppy, an old school friend, asking for Johnson to provide the address of a News of the World journalist Stuart Collier. Guppy thought that as Boris was a journalist he might be able to obtain Collier's home address to facilitate Collier being beaten up. Boris asks how badly Collier will be hurt.

BORIS: Cracked rib?

GUPPY: Nothing which you didn't suffer at rugby, OK?

The conversation was taped by one of Guppy's associates. Although Johnson didn't provide the address, it would have been better if he had said "No" rather than procrastinating with enquiries about how seriously Collier was to be harmed. Boris kept his job at the Telegraph but only after being reprimanded by its then editor Sir Max Hastings who warned him not to repeat his "error of judgement" and added:
As a virtue, loyalty to friends has its limits.
While Johnson has done well out of the printed word, Gimson notes that his relatively limited number of appearances on television reveal huge potential in that medium. For example his appearances on Have I Got News for You have produced vintage episodes of the acclaimed series but they have been rare despite this. Gimson states:
If he had wanted to he could have given up politics and become one of the dominant television personalities of our age. But to Boris's credit, he did not want to sell his soul to television. His well-hidden seriousness of purpose has preserved him from becoming a television star with an income and an audience of millions.
What comes across in this roller coaster account is that Boris is a risk taker. When he was the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent he would get suspicious of what the EU were up to and would take a "flyer". This is not the same as telling a lie. It is making an educated guess. Invariably it would be denounced by the European Union spin doctors - sometimes it would be proved right, sometimes it wouldn't.

When he was Editor of The Spectator he took a risk on a story over Downing Street demanding greater prominence for the Prime Minister for the Queen Mother's lying-in state at Westminster Hall in April 2002. Downing Street complained. But Black Rod, the Parliamentary official responsible, declined to endorse Downing Street's version of events and their complaint collapsed. Game set and match to Boris.

In return for being appointed Editor of The Spectator he agreed not to apply to be a parliamentary candidate. He promptly went off and did just that. Then Boris told Dan Coulson and Conrad Black:

Oh God you should fire me...
But this appointment had resulted in the magazine's circulation going up so he got away with it. Then even more remarkably he got away with remaining Editor for years after being elected an MP, even after being appointed an official Tory spokesman. Interviewed for this book, Lord Black says:
We kind of endured it because the paper was doing well. (Its circulation rose from 57,500 to nearly 70,000.) Our view is that Boris's performance was outrageous, but the chief criterion is what's good for The Spectator, and Boris was a good thing for The Spectator. Still is.
Black says as much about himself as Johnson. Describing Johnson as "ineffably duplicitous", Black goes on to make clear this is not meant as a criticism. Black has written a biography of Roosevelt and feels that Roosevelt's "self confident and Machiavellian duplicity" in assisting Britain during the Second World War before officially joining in was most commendable. Black says:
FDR is one of the few people I know more duplicitous than Boris. If FDR hadn't been devious God knows what would have happened to the World.
Part of the answer to how Boris gets away with it is the luck of having had Lord Black as his boss.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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