At long last Johnson Studies is starting to take off. It had always been my hope, after publishing my own slim volume on Boris Johnson, that the baton could be passed to younger and fitter hands who would place the subject on a proper academic footing. Scholars from Balliol to Bangor would churn out papers and hold seminars on the symbolism of the Boris bike, or the duel between Boris and George Osborne for the Tory leadership. Very soon the American and Chinese universities would insist on getting involved, and would buy up some of the best people. A young man from the University of Hull came to interview me for his thesis on the Cult of Boris, his idea being that Boris was developing into a minor divinity, of the kind so often worshipped in the ancient world. If this potentially brilliant thesis is ever finished, I would love to see a copy of it.
But here comes Sonia Purnell with a thicker and altogether more serious book: over 400 pages of closely written text plus footnotes. Future biographers will always be in her debt. Purnell has accumulated a wealth of previously unknown detail on such episodes as Boris’s two campaigns to become President of the Oxford Union, and his selection as the Tory candidate to succeed Michael Heseltine as Member of Parliament for Henley. There is no revelation that forces us completely to revise our opinion of him, but there is a lot of fleshing out of the existing picture.
At the start of her book, Purnell poses a difficult question: ‘Just what makes Boris tick?’ Yet in the course of her work, she finds herself describing him as ‘highly evasive’, ‘secretive’, ‘obsessively silent’, ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unknowable’. In other words, Purnell has not discovered what makes him tick. Boris will not tell her. She quotes a number of people who complain that it is impossible to have a proper conversation with him, and she herself has been unable to have much in the way of proper conversations with anyone now close to him.
There is no disgrace in failing to get all the answers to a man who is a work in progress. Boris is 47 and many of us would say he has changed considerably, or even matured, since his election in 2008 as Mayor of London. The school of thought according to which he would immediately be exposed as a clown has fallen silent. There is a photograph of him in this book which shows his stricken expression when it is announced that he has defeated Ken Livingstone. The caption describes the new Mayor as ‘granite-faced’, but that does not do justice to his air of vulnerability, his pained sense that next to an election lost, there is nothing so terrible as an election won.
In the absence of any other explanation, Purnell attributes many of Boris’s achievements to luck. When he wins the candidacy in Henley, thanks in large part to the eurosceptic reputation he has built up as the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels, she comments: ‘It was another stunning display of breathtaking Johnsonian good fortune largely designed by others.’ But elsewhere, Purnell suggests, intriguingly, that Boris is actually a closet europhile, who allows credulous Tories to think he is far more hostile to Brussels than is actually the case. These are deep waters, but she provides ample evidence to show that most of the time Boris made his own luck, by seizing opportunities that others were too timid or idle or slow-witted to grasp. None of the other correspondents in Brussels understood and dramatised with anything like Boris’s verve what Jacques Delors was trying to do.
Nor has any of Boris’s rivals managed to dramatise the generally unexciting work of metropolitan administration in the way that he has done. He allows his imagination to get caught by projects such as the estuary airport which most politicians would reject as too difficult. His cavalier approach to detail, or his accurate calculation that he just needs to employ gifted people to deal with that stuff, enables him to go for shots which other politicians would not attempt. Purnell adopts a somewhat humourless tone towards her subject, yet is fair-minded enough to include evidence which contradicts whatever she has just said. She has paid Boris the unintended compliment of making immense efforts to trip him up, and not quite managing to do so.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson (Pocket Books, £7.99)
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 8, 2011