Quite a monster of a book – I bought it as an ebook, which in fact is probably the best way to read it. The index is well-constructed, and it’s easy to use the search function. There’s a lot in it, and this review concentrates more on Johnson’s character as revealed in the book than on his relationships with other members of his party, with his attitude to Brexit, and the details of his actions and reactions to the Covid pandemic.
I suppose everyone reading this book comes with a preconceived opinion of Johnson. Mine is typical, I suppose, of many, seeing Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as a lazy narcissist, with sociopathic tendencies. The view expressed in this book, based on interviews and contemporaneous documents, is a little more sympathetic. There’s a lot to read, not only about Johnson, but also about the other big beasts in the Tories, some of whom are still with us, and also about Johnson’s ally, and in many ways, his nemesis, Dominic Cummings, who comes over as more sensible (though just as dislikable as a person) than his Spitting Image caricature.
Though Johnson likes to compare himself to Winston Churchill, Seldon sees him as being much more similar to Lloyd George, likewise a notorious philanderer and populist, who swayed with the prevailing political wind.
From reading the book, it seems that Johnson’s main aim in life is to be liked, together with a disregard for truth that borders on the pathological. Couple that with an almost complete ignorance of the functions and utility of the various aspects of the organisations that help the Prime Minister’s office (civil service, Cabinet, Parliament), and you have a premiership which is destined for disaster.
As a child, Johnson famously wrote that he wanted to be “king of the world”, and that indeed is the way in which he wished to be Prime Minister – as an absolute monarch, ruling by whim, dispensing favours, and building monuments to himself.
His propensity for self-promotion through large projects was noticeable in his Mayoralty of London – the ill-fated ”Garden Bridge” and his island airport schemes, for example. The 2012 Olympics was an exception, but this event rested as much on the hard work done by others as it did on Johnson’s efforts.
As PM, he was largely responsible for the continuation of the over-budget and already obsolete HS2 line (albeit in abbreviated form), as well as the promotion of totally impractical projects such as the Northern Ireland bridge.
Indeed, this obsession with self-promotion led him to believe that the 2019 election result was the result of his own charm and charisma and popularity, ignoring the roles of Nigel Farage, who had paved the way for the Brexit fanatics to take over the steering wheel of the Conservative Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, who had been demonised by the right-wing press as a Marxist monster. Naturally, the image of the jolly, bumbling, tousle-headed Eton toff with a taste for Latin phrases, who nonetheless was “one of us” helped, but Johnson was keen to believe that the victory was his alone.
Since he had no knowledge of how a Cabinet operated, and had no wish to involve others in decision-making at any serious level, his Cabinet appointments, following his purge of the Conservative Party, were a rump of mediocrities and ideologues (sometimes both at the same time, such as Braverman or Rees-Mogg). His ongoing relationship with Gove, who comes over in this book as almost the only surviving Tory with any brains, is complex, and perhaps beyond the scope of this brief review.
And, while Johnson had wide-ranging ideas as to what should be his legacy (reform of social care, etc.), he could not be bothered to think about the details of what these reforms would be, let along how they were to be achieved. In fact, the refusal to examine detail and to comprehend the issues confronting him in any depth runs through his premiership.
His desire to please everyone, together with a disregard for honesty and truth, and a refusal to confront the details of issues, could lead him to give three different answers to the same question on any given day, depending on the questioner, and to deny on the following day that he had given these answers.
It’s hard to imagine almost any other senior politician doing as badly as Johnson when faced with the Covid crises. Seldon does however give him credit for his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which gave him his opportunity to do his Churchill impression on the world stage, and to make relatively simple decisions on black-and-white issues.
Overall, though, the impression that can be taken away from this book is that Johnson should never have become leader of the Conservative Party, still less Prime Minister. His character flaws make him totally unsuitable to hold any public office other than a ceremonial one such as the Mayor of London, where he was able to assemble a team of competent underlings to put his ideas into practice.
After reading this book, it is unbelievable to me that anyone can seriously still support this man as the political leader of the UK.