On the morning of his election as Tory chief in July 2019, Boris Johnson got here down from the stage on the QEII Centre in London and walked in the direction of the members of his household sitting within the entrance row. There was a kiss for sister, Rachel, and a heat look for brother Jo, however the handshake provided by father, Stanley, was rebuffed.

“At his second of supreme triumph, Boris refused his father’s congratulation – a secret reminder that Stanley had ignored his kids when he was wanted.”

Analysis suggests {that a} excessive proportion of leaders had broken childhoods. Bereavement or sickness, parental divorce, delinquency or habit are options within the early lives of many senior politicians. The phenomenon has a reputation: the Phaeton complex.

Few leaders have suffered that advanced extra utterly than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. That’s crucial and authentic argument of this biography. Consider the numerous character flaws that we affiliate with the prime minister: serial infidelities, narcissistic ambition, a desperation for adulation, reckless gambles, damaged guarantees and betrayed colleagues. The important supply of all of it, contends Tom Bower, is a traumatised childhood.

The son is the product of the sins of the daddy. Stanley Johnson was a feckless and self-obsessed dad and an untrue and violent husband, in keeping with this guide. The younger Boris was enduringly scarred by the deeply troubled marriage between his father and the artist Charlotte Wahl. In 1974, when her oldest son was aged 10, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the Maudsley hospital in south London, a specialist unit in psychological well being care. Bower quotes Charlotte as saying: “The medical doctors on the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many instances, over a few years.” She attributes her son’s childhood obsession with turning into “world king” to a want to “make himself unhurtable, invincible, in some way protected from the pains of your mom disappearing for eight months”.

Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his first spouse, and Marina Wheeler, his much-betrayed second spouse, each assume the son’s serial infidelity was a trait inherited from the daddy. Bower tells us that Marina believes “the symmetry of Boris and Stanley, the son because the mirror picture of his father, might by no means be damaged”.

Boris Johnson at Eton in 1979
Boris Johnson at Eton in 1979. {Photograph}: Ian Sumner/Rex/Shutterstock

Johnson senior, himself the son of a miserly, wife-beating, alcoholic, serial adulterer, disputes the model of occasions associated by Charlotte. There’s no denying that Stanley did journey overseas loads to fulfill an unrequited craving for fame and fortune. World overpopulation grew to become one in every of his causes. He produced Life With out Delivery, a polemic denouncing the shortage of contraception. Bower doesn’t do humour, so he doesn’t crack the plain joke that Dad’s enthusiasm for curbing procreation was one trait that didn’t rub off on the son.

Whereas Stanley was off for a 12 months on one in every of his adventures, Charlotte was left to fend for herself with three young children in a dilapidated home on Exmoor, the place garbage was strewn across the dwelling and the water was contaminated by the lead piping. When Stanley was round, he inspired a frantic competitiveness in his kids by pitting them in opposition to one another. After Rachel beat Boris at desk tennis, he kicked the storage door so arduous he broke his toe. Years later, when Jo grew to become head of David Cameron’s policy unit at Quantity 10, Boris remarked: “Slightly piece of me dies, however in any other case I rejoice in his success.”

For Bower, a painful, chaotic and fractured childhood explains Johnson’s ambition, exhibitionism, secretiveness, unreliability, vulnerabilities and resilience. “Boris agonised over his mom’s destiny. Not solely had he watched his mom endure from being commonly hit, however he additionally noticed his father blatantly deny the reality. Unwilling to speak in confidence to others about his father’s violence, he grew to become a loner… To masks the distress and harm, he demanded consideration.” The benefit of this as a biographical framing machine is that it provides an apparently logical rationalization for his topic’s regularly appalling behaviour as an grownup. The flaw in assigning all of the culpability to Stanley is that it presents Boris a gold-plated alibi. We should always not, it suggests, assume too badly of him when he betrays a spouse, concocts fabrications or stumbles from debacle to catastrophe by a public well being disaster. We should always consider him because the sufferer of that troubled childhood.

That isn’t the one method wherein this guide is extraordinarily beneficiant to its topic. Bower made his title as a biographer with impressively courageous exposés of enterprise figures akin to Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and Mohamed Al Fayed. He gave the title Broken Vows to an tried hatchet job on Tony Blair and Dangerous Hero to a damnatory biography of Jeremy Corbyn. But the fearsome investigative creator places away his knuckledusters and slides on child gloves for “Boris”, as he fondly calls his topic all through a textual content wherein each different politician is referred to by surname.

Johnson with father, Stanley, in Devon, April 2005
Johnson with father, Stanley, in Devon, April 2005. {Photograph}: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

The numerous scandals, scrapes and mistresses are right here – they may hardly be ignored – but Bower applies a softening gloss even to probably the most ugly examples of Johnson’s behaviour. All these affairs? His childhood had left him unable to forge trusting relationships with males, so Johnson sought out soulmates amongst girls, the creator contends. An easier rationalization could happen to you. He likes to shag loads and doesn’t care who’s harm by his selfishness. Marina lastly couldn’t take his infidelities any extra and ended their marriage after Carrie Symonds grew to become his mistress. Bower feedback evenly: “After Marina had forgiven his affairs with Petronella Wyatt, Anna Fazackerley and Helen Macintyre (plus child), Boris may need thought-about the results for Marina and their 4 kids as soon as his newest affair was uncovered.” “Might need thought-about”? You may consider a extra pungent method of placing it. The kids, who boycotted a household gathering at Chequers after Johnson grew to become prime minister, definitely can.

Indulgent of his priapic non-public life, Bower is often to be present in Johnson’s nook for the numerous conflicts of his public life. Michael Howard, who sacked Johnson from the Tory frontbench for telling bare-faced lies about his affair with Petronella Wyatt, is “impetuous and blinkered”. Within the battles over Brexit between Theresa Might and Johnson, it’s she, fairly than he, who Bower condemns as “duplicitous” and an “opportunist”.

This turns into significantly apparent when the subject is Brexit. Writing in regards to the 2016 referendum, he acknowledges that Johnson campaigned from a bus with a false slogan, however demurely declines to name it mendacious, an accusation he tosses about loads when speaking about Johnson’s political rivals.

Few regard his calamity-studded stint as international secretary as his best hour. But his myriad gaffes and blunders are excused on the grounds that he had been “arrange” to fail by Might and was then let down by “recalcitrant Overseas Workplace mandarins”. The creator blames civil servants for thwarting a Johnsonian wheeze to purchase an island within the Arctic Ocean from Norway to show it right into a spy base. Others might imagine it by no means occurred as a result of it was one in every of Johnson’s many fantasy tasks.

The apologias proceed as soon as he turns into prime minister. When his try to shut down parliament in 2019 is ruled unlawful by the supreme court, the villain of Bowers’s account is the court docket’s president, Brenda Hale, “who had hardly ever hid her contempt for Boris” and was animated by “her willpower to slap down the federal government”. This means that the Tory chief had been confounded by one outrageously biased girl, fairly than condemned by the unanimous verdict of all 11 of the nation’s most senior judges.

Throughout two chunky concluding chapters in regards to the coronavirus disaster, Johnson vanishes from the textual content for lengthy stretches because the creator unleashes a litany of assaults on the federal government’s scientific advisers, Public Well being England, the Division of Well being and the cupboard secretary. A few of this criticism could have benefit, however it leaves the query: who was the prime minister and what was he doing when so many establishments of the state have been apparently failing in the midst of the gravest public well being emergency in additional than a century? Dominic Cummings’s rule-busting excursions through the lockdown are mentioned sympathetically and with out evaluation of the disastrous influence on public belief. Bower agrees with these of us who’ve lengthy noticed that the cupboard is skinny on expertise, however may be very lenient in regards to the prime minister’s must encompass himself with duds and stooges.

Charles Moore, his former boss on the Every day Telegraph and briefly his candidate to be the next chairman of the BBC, typically refers to Johnson as “the greased albino piglet”. A biography of this size must get a grip on the slippery porcine and reply the query: who’s the genuine Boris Johnson? Is it the mayor Johnson who was broadly aligned with a liberal, cosmopolitan thought of Toryism throughout his eight years because the political face of the capital? Is it the Brexiter Johnson who fanned xenophobia to win the referendum? Is it the “Brexity Hezza” he instructed the cupboard he’d be after he gained the 2019 election? I put down this biography with a greater thought of the interior demons that drive the prime minister, however little the wiser about whether or not he has any convictions, aside from the numerous for site visitors offences. Even an admiring biographer can discover no critical reply to the cost that Borisology quantities to nothing greater than his narrow-eyed, ever-fluxing, always-cynical calculations about what he thinks will serve his pursuits and fulfill his appetites from someday to the following. Who’s guilty for that? Within the Bower model, it gained’t be Boris.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower is revealed by WH Allen (£20). To order a replica go to guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees could apply



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