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.