Sebastian Payne’s energetic book charting the downfall of Boris Johnson reads more like a comic novel than a biography. To recap: in late 2021, BoJo was riding high off the back of Brexit and the Coronavirus, occupying Left and Right, squatting “like a giant toad across British politics” (to quote a contemporary writer).
What brought him down within six silly months? “The three Ps”. Owen Paterson, who Boris unwisely tried to protect in wake of a lobbying scandal; Partygate, which he brazened through and almost survived; and Chris Pincher, the whip whose wandering hands goosed a government.
The final 48 hours, in which ministers resigned, were replaced and then their replacements resigned too, borders on the best of Tom Sharpe. “There was one MP who publicly announced they had submitted a letter” demanding a leadership ballot, “publicly stated it was withdrawn then publicly resubmitted it, without ever actually writing one.” Michael Gove visited the PM to tell him it was time to quit and Boris, after thanking him for his courtesy, recalled the story of a family member “who had failed to take his meds one day”, collected a shotgun and barricaded himself in the town hall. “That is going to be me,” he said. “I’m going to fight, they’re going to have to prise me out of here.”
In the end, he went peacefully, and then went on holiday.
Payne writes with great skill; my only quibble is with the analysis. The author is concerned with the question “was all this inevitable?” and focuses on character, teasing out several consistent themes. One is loyalty: Boris defended Paterson, for example, because he felt sorry for a man who had just lost his wife to suicide. Another is ego: our hero simply didn’t feel that the rules applied to him. And there is dysfunction, the inability to focus or organise, with Boris repeatedly out of contact when things went wrong or let down by poor advice. An interesting take is that working for Boris was so toxic that by the time he reached No10 he had burned through the available talent.
And yet it’s actually the chapter on Ukraine that is the most revelatory, for it tells the story of when Boris got it right. He was decisive. He cut through the red tape. His issue knowledge was exceptional: one Foreign Office advisor recalled that when they studied the maps “Boris knew where everything was – the villages, historical monuments, it fitted into a particular part of his brain.” And for a man dismissed as “wanting to be liked”, he was unyielding in his diplomacy, convincing sceptical leaders that the only acceptable strategy was “Ukraine must win”.
“We did change the course of international opinion,” believed one insider. A former cabinet minister argued that only Boris could’ve pulled it off: “He took on the blob” of policy orthodoxy “and won, it was a shame he could not do it on other matters, too.”
The downside of concentrating on the last few months of Johnson in office is that it minimises those qualities that propelled him into national politics and pulled off Brexit when the elite declared it impossible, making those who remained loyal to him to the bitter end look like fools. Yet Payne recently published another, very well received book on the Red Wall that adds vital context. Johnson was more than a man; he embodied a movement. Euroscepticism confounded its opponents because it managed to ally southern Thatcherites and northern socialists, and even if this confederacy seems bizarre on paper, it cohered through the personality of a witty patriot whose abiding concern was to make Britain feel better about itself. When I voted Conservative in 2019, it was more for Boris than for the Conservatives – and with his brand of populism out of the picture, I’m not sure I’ll do the same again.
Are the Tories better off since Johnson resigned? No. The economy is terrible; their polling is far worse; Labour’s victory seems all but guaranteed. Brexit is questioned again. We have gone from tax cuts, under Truss, to tax rises, under Rishi – and all without the consolations of good humour.
The Fall of Boris Johnson is published by Macmillan at £22. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books