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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Boris, and it normally is just Boris these days, is a figure in British politics who is hard to miss, easily derided and very difficult to pin down.
He is the posh former Bullingdon Club proto-yob who today is a quip-making fun figure on TV. In addition, Johnson is also the most serious Tory challenger to PM David Cameron and currently runs London as Mayor of the capital city.
Defining the man is still difficult after reading Sonia Purnell’s page-turner biography Just Boris.
As with the man, so with his name. Taxi drivers call him Bozza, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson appears on his birth certificate, while his close friends call him Al.
Near the end of this juicy book Purnell writes that Boris “disappoints far more than he offends”.
Desperate ambition is certainly what rolls off these pages. What is interesting is how often Johnson has looked close to being sunk by some storm, but has then bounded back from said “inverted pyramid of piffle” (as he personally labelled one sex scandal).
Boris’s unconventional, ‘classical’ take on marital relations and his spell as editor of The Spectator or “Sextator” at it was known during his stewardship, as well as his haphazard parliamentary career, would seem to make him an unlikely Mayor.
Real political success for Johnson often had seemed just around the corner, but always out of reach – until he unseated Ken Livingstone from City Hall in 2008.
From this book emerge two version of Boris. One of them will not be familiar to viewers who know him only from television. How they both intermingle will be intriguing for fans of UK politics.
On the screen, Boris mark-I fights his way out of a tight corner by using humour. The second is a ruthlessly ambitious political operator who deploys humour as a highly effective tool. Both are so obviously intermingled that it is strange we rarely see Boris mark-II.
The ‘Boris’ brand which is today his biggest political asset and that has served as bombproof armour in various storms of all kinds, was forged at Oxford University.
Purnell, who knows Johnson from working under him at the Brussels bureau of a national newspaper in the early 1990s, traces this persona to his quest for power of the Oxford Union, a paving stone on the path to power.
Johnson lost his first bid to be president, writes Purnell, because he failed to campaign to students outside his Eton/Bullingdon circle.
Next time was a different story. ‘Boris mark- II’ crushed his enemies to secure a thumping victory – like the Terminator robot played by Arnold Schwarzeneggerr, who Johnson later labelled a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”.
In in stark contrast to the robot which made the Govenator famous Johnson deployed “humour, appearance and a nice line in self-deprecation” which are today his trademarks - though City Hall has made him somewhat more buttoned up.
The real Boris who resides in City Hall is mark-II Boris, claims Purnell. The man whom cab drivers affectionately call Bozza. Here is a 21st-century toff - comfortable in his own skin and forgiven by voters for a list of personal indiscretions.
In contrast to that is “Boris mark-I” who is much to fear (for Boris himself). Allegations of racism surfaced after a column in which he wrote of being struck by the “watermelon smiles” of a welcoming party of natives on one foreign trip.
Purnell claims it was an ‘extraordinary power to charm different people with different views and convince them of his sincerity” which allowed Boris to defuse this explosive situation. Equally plausible though, is that the allegations failed to damage him because they were untrue.
This reader also wonders how much Machiavellian cunning Johnson had to deploy to see off sex scandals. His rival Ken Livingstone also has had unconventional domestic arrangements. Indeed the Labour candidate has just revealed all in his autobiography.
In short, such behaviour is very London. No need for Johnson to abandon hope of ever holding office in the capital city over it.
This biography of London’s most powerful politician is full of that sort of juicy detail, from mysterious unnamed sources (a few too many, in fact). Purnell has a chatty informal style that keeps the pages turning over. Of course, so does her intriguing subject.
A problem with this tome is that having tried to axe through the façade to reach ‘Just Boris,’ Purnell uncovers little that is not already known to the reader with some political nous. But that is no reason for these readers and also readers uninterested in politicsa not to read this book.
Do bumbling buffoons really make it to the top in politics? No, they do (usually) not. But a politician can by cultivating a genuinely popular image. That is what lies at the heart of this book and perhaps of Boris Johnson himself.
One central lesion is that Boris is not only the eccentric of popular image.
He is a politician anxious for success, who is prepared to get his hands dirty. Widely regarded as a maverick, there is actually plenty about Boris which is completely typical of politicians past and present in Britain (or ancient Greece, as he might prefer).