The ugly spectacle of Boris Johnson’s self-destruction will reach a new climax at the end of this week. Many think that only a miracle can save the great escapologist from the official Partygate inquiry. The Gambler himself is convinced that his determination will crush his enemies and once again he will survive to fight and win his next challenge – the local elections in May.
Even Johnson’s closest admirers are baffled how an experienced politician could have orchestrated such an extraordinary succession of self-inflicted wounds. Just what went wrong in Johnson’s life since he won a stunning 80 seat majority just over two years ago?
All the qualities which won that majority – his spontaneous humour, shrewd judgment and unique relationship with electors — have disappeared. Instead, haunched, wet-eyed and dull, he looks dishevelled and exhausted.
Even worse, his political values have damagingly shifted to the left. As London’s mayor, Boris was the low tax, pro-enterprise one-nation Tory who rebuilt the city after the 2008 crash into the world’s most booming, popular destination. Now, he has become a high tax, anti-business, manic environmentalist who has failed to deliver the Brexit bonus. Instead of optimistic Britain being a magnet for wealth creators, Boris’s Britain is gripped by sleazy paralysis.
Of course, his embittered critics predicted in 2019 that Boris’s regime would end in chaos. Sceptical journalists who had worked closely with Boris screamed that the lying adulterer could not be trusted. They were contradicted by those who served in London’s City Hall. Defying his critics, Boris had worked hard, paid attention to detail, listened to shrewd advisors and delivered success. Now, his admirers are puzzled why he has failed to replicate his success as London’s mayor.
As his biographer, I forewarned one year ago that he had sowed his own seeds of self-destruction. He had arrived in Downing Street surrounded by a few loyal City Hall advisors rather than experienced Whitehall Warriors. Overwhelmed by the enormity of governing Britain, Boris’s team struggled from the outset to pull the right levers and deliver their policies. Worse, they lost control of Boris.
Among Boris’s weaknesses is that he doesn’t understand Britain’s political history and governance. Seeped in Ancient Greece and Rome, he sees politics through the role of dictatorial emperors and wise philosophers. Having read very few modern political biographies and history books, he failed from the outset to dominate and manage the Whitehall machine. Handicapped by weak personal advisors in Downing Street, he was thwarted by a depressing clique of senior civil servants. Key departments, especially health, education, defence, the Foreign Office and Home Office, are staffed by incompetent, illiterate, woke antagonists.
As a loner without intimate friends, Boris failed to hit the ground running with an army of ruthless, skilled loyalists. Two years later, Whitehall’s Wokes have suffocated Boris’s instincts and left him powerless.
Those who still now urge Boris to recruit serious advisors ignore his lack of intellectual and emotional strength to appoint uncompromising critics. While he chose Dominic Cummings because the qualities of the unprincipled bombastic maverick compensated Boris’s weaknesses, he seems unable to cope with principled experts who would naturally challenge and not surrender to him.
The question is why no one in Boris’s entourage warned that the Downing Street parties were utterly unacceptable? Why was Boris, a man who dislikes parties, so insensitive? Does he lack empathy as well as principle? The answer lies in his childhood.
Boris is not a toff but the product of a broken, unhappy home. Although he appears jolly, Stanley Johnson was an abusive husband and often an absent father obsessed with securing fame. Boris witnessed his talented mother’s misery and his father’s self-aggrandising disloyalty. He owed his educational opportunities to his grandparents’ money and scholarships. Like father, like son, Boris inherited from Stanley disloyalty, ambition and breathtaking narcissism. And also Stanley’s lack of self-criticism, indiscipline and insensitivity to others.
In May 2019, the Tory party recognised Boris’s flaws. As Theresa May’s government toppled, Boris was not even listed among her top ten successors. His fortunes changed after the European elections. The Tories won just 9.1 per cent of the votes, the party’s worst result in any election in 200 years. Fifth behind the Greens, the Tory party faced oblivion. Boris was suddenly the MPs’ favourite as the only man to save the party.
Rivals could only enviously watch as electors, even Labour supporters, crossed the high street to take selfies with Boris. As he cycled through London, drivers hooted and shouted ‘Boris’. Audiences queued to hear his hilarious speeches, usually written on the back of an envelope ten minutes after the meeting was meant to start. To many, it is hard to believe that all that magnetism has evaporated.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly the sheer burden of office. Regardless of his intelligence, his chaotic character is unsuited to the necessary discipline to prioritise and pursue the delivery of crafted policies from resistant civil servants.
But there is another reason which, until now, has been unmentioned as too delicate. Every strength and weakness in Boris’s life revolves around his relationship with women. Inappropriate as this may feel, it is impossible not to identify his divorce from Marina and his relationship with Carrie Symonds as a cause of his lurch into instability.
When the definitive history of Boris Johnson comes to be written, I believe that examining his loss of Marina Wheeler in 2019 after 27 years of marriage, will be seen as the beginning of Boris’s personal downfall.
The barrister and mother of his four children was Boris’s anchor and consigliere. Wise and steely, ‘Marina’s Magic’ provided the substance and emotional interpretation of his life. Fearlessly, she dispensed home truths to her disloyal husband. Marina tolerated so much but his secret affair with Carrie Symonds was one act of treachery too many. Once she filed for divorce, the unseen collapse of the Johnson dynasty was a metaphor for Johnson’s premiership.
When Boris headed for a brief holiday to Mustique in January 2020 with Carrie Symonds, a 31 year old party-loving former Tory party publicist, Boris thought he could be pretty certain of ten years in Downing Street. Yet his careless reporting about the financing of that £15,000 Caribbean holiday signalled that the Prime Minister’s rule defying life-style would be the seeds of his downfall. While Marina corrected and compensated for Boris’s weaknesses, Carrie appears to have been oblivious to his fatal flaws.
As a modern mother, Carrie expected the Prime Minister to act as a modern father and to change the baby’s nappies. The result was an exhausted politician in need of home comforts and regular square meals.
Then followed Carrie’s redecoration of their Downing Street flat. Astonishingly, she failed to check whether Boris personally could fund her extravagant taste. Asked to explain the financing, Boris’s answer was, to say the least, inaccurate. The Mustique ‘affair’ should have been his warning but Boris, like his father, has surprisingly shown an inability to learn from his mistakes. He dug his own grave then just as he would later by adopting Carrie’s unreasonable passion for animals and the environment.
Fatally, Boris failed to realise that Carrie was politically unsophisticated. Her interference was provoking widespread resentment within Downing Street. Boris’s failure to stop her fatal fight with Dominic Cummings to impose Allegra Stratton as the prime minister’s spokeswoman exposed Boris’s own weaknesses. Allowing Carrie to participate in that decision, let alone win against Cummings who was proven to be right, has unleashed Cummings’s vengeance against a woman he calls ‘Princess Nut Nut’.
My fear that Boris would become Carrie’s hostage was proven at his mother’s funeral last year. Not only did Carrie bring screaming Wilfred to the church, but worse, she gave the restless child to Boris to hold. He could not even mourn in peace.
Now, Boris can mourn his lost opportunity. Instead of building a historic Johnson Era to rival Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s decades, he faces humiliating oblivion. Some would say that if Blair could recover from the Iraq debacle and win the 2005 election, Boris can rebuild his fortunes before the 2024 election. The big difference is that Blair had fashioned a savvy political machine while Boris remains a loner with a wife and two babies, and little a chance to build a fortress to help him survive let alone flourish as his diminishing band of admirers hoped he would.