Philip Hensher

Does Boris Johnson really expect us to think he’s Churchill?

And if not, what exactly is the point of The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson? Apart from a couple of good jokes, that is...

As you would expect, it’s impossible to read this book without drawing fairly direct comparisons between its author and its subject. In promotional exchanges, with the well-worn practice of self-deprecation, its author will of course insist that there is no comparison between the great man and the present humble supplicant. The readership will, with tolerant amusement, conclude that there are plenty of points which could be brought to bear on the argument; plenty, indeed, which may have occurred to the author himself, emerging in some striking encomia:

He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes — and a thoroughgoing genius… From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party… There were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist… His enemies detected in him a titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach… He did behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.

There are some irresistible points of comparison, of course. Churchill was a famously amusing talker and sparkling writer who made his reputation not as a politician but as a very well-paid journalist. Half-American, he was always considered within his party as a big beast, but often an isolated one; there were many black marks against his name. His dealings with the Tonypandy miners through to his catastrophic relations with Lord Fisher during the first world war, his backing of Mrs Simpson, and even the chaos of his last administration, 1951–55; these were redeemed by the events following 1940. But Churchill was unmistakably the sort of politician who got away with stuff. To that extent, the comparisons between author and subject seem fair enough.

But by the time we are brought to contemplate Churchill’s attitudes to ‘champagne-fuelled university high jinks’ and asked to wonder whether Churchill ever felt the temptation to commit adultery (answer: famously not), a certain wry amusement might be setting in.

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