In 1994, Boris Johnson returned to London after five years as the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels. In his time there, he had earned a reputation for barefaced lying, making up stories, misquoting sources and generally rubbishing the European Union for the entertainment of the paper’s right-wing readership, massaging their every prejudice. He got away with this conduct by the fact that his reporting served the paper’s political purposes and by means of his ability to pass it all off as a joke. Indeed many of his fellow journalists were not even convinced he was really hostile to the EU, they thought it was all just a pose. On his return to London, he hoped to become a war reporter, but while the Telegraph had no problem with the standard of his EU journalism, according to his biographer, Sonia Purnell, who worked with him in Brussels, it was thought that his “creativity with the facts might actually prove dangerous” in the “military arena”.1 This man is now the British prime minister, leading the most right-wing British government of modern times, the 20th Old Etonian to hold that office. It is a tribute to the rigidity of the British class system that of the 55 prime ministers the country has had since Robert Walpole, only nine were educated at non-fee paying schools. Johnson has, of course, been celebrated by Donald Trump himself as “Britain Trump”.
Johnson is, of course, very much a product of privilege. He arrived in Oxford University in 1983 and inevitably became a member of the Bullingdon Club, a notorious all-male stronghold of right-wing snobbery and hooliganism (Cecil Rhodes and Edward VIII had both been members), whose members wrecked restaurants for a laugh, confident that their ability to pay for the considerable damage would protect them from the law. According to Johnson himself, he was initially uninterested in party politics until he was asked to contribute to a collection for the miners fighting against pit closures in 1984, a request that awoke his innate Toryism and fired up his hostility to the impertinence that is trade unionism. This was “my first spasm of savage right-wing indignation”, provoked by “these blasted miners”, although fortunately their defeat “meant…the end of trade union militancy”.2 This story is, of course, quite likely something he subsequently made up. At Oxford, he made the necessary contacts for a career in journalism, going to work for The Times once he had graduated. He was sacked in 1988 for making up a quotation. Such an offence was apparently a positive recommendation at the Telegraph where he went to work next.
Journalism proved to be the vehicle for the launch of his political career: at the Telegraph, as motoring correspondent for GQ magazine and as editor of the Spectator. Absolutely crucial, however, was the way he invented himself as a posh clown, as a comical figure whose lies, casual racism, sexism and homophobia were not to be taken seriously. His remarks to the effect that if two men could marry then why not a union between “three men and a dog”, and that the Tony Blair government was made up of “nancy boys”, his reference to black people as “flag-waving piccaninnies” and that on a Blair visit to the Congo, the African warriors would all “stop their hacking of human flesh” and welcome him with “watermelon smiles”, all this could be laughed off, while at the very same time reassuring his audience that he really shared their prejudices.3 Johnson successfully invented himself as a comic celebrity politician, someone capable of espousing wholly contradictory views when it suited his purposes, never believing in anything really, telling barefaced lies without any shame or embarrassment, and when caught out, grinning like a naughty public schoolboy and passing it all off as a joke, feigning incoherence. His appearance, scruffy, with his hair deliberately mussed up before every public appearance, and his use of language, a mixture of posh schoolboy exclamations (“crumbs”, “crikey” and “gosh”), obscure antique words culled from the Thesaurus and the odd Latin or Greek quotation, were all part of his lovable, comical public schoolboy pose. And it worked. He became undeniably popular with much of the public at large. The BBC comedy panel show Have I Got News For You, despite the later protestations of Ian Hislop, undoubtedly played a big role in this, introducing him to a mass audience and helping create the political celebrity known as “Boris”. Indeed, Johnson acknowledged as much himself with the publication of a collection of his journalism, Have I Got Views for You! It is also important to remember that beneath this clown’s make-up, he is “coldly ruthless” and “makes a bad enemy”.4
It is worth noticing one particular episode that occurred in 1990 while Johnson was working at the Telegraph. He was phoned by an old Eton and University friend, Darius Guppy, who wanted Johnson to provide him with the home address of journalist Stuart Collier, who was investigating his criminal activities, so that he could have him beaten up as a warning. Johnson was adamant that the man must not be badly beaten and Guppy assured him that the worst it would be was a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib. He assured Johnson that there was no way anyone would ever find out about his part in the beating and that anyway he would have an alibi because he would be in Brussels when it took place. In the event, Johnson never provided Guppy with the address and in 1993 his crooked friend was arrested for staging a fake jewel robbery, in which he was tied up at gunpoint, or so he claimed, for the insurance (£1.8 million) and eventually sent down for five years. What Johnson did not know was that one of Guppy’s criminal associates had taped the phone call for insurance purposes. In 1995 the tape came to light. On one occasion, when he was asked about the episode, Johnson inevitably lied and denied it had ever happened, right up until the tape was played to him. When his editor, Max Hastings, came into possession of the tape, instead of firing Johnson, he invited him back to London for a “serious discussion”.5 Johnson passed it all off as a joke, and after all, he had never provided the address, although more out of fear of the consequences for himself if caught than for any concern about the beating up of a fellow journalist it seems.
What is interesting though is that a journalist who was already positioning himself as a champion of “Law and Order” and who is today at the head of a hard-line “Law and Order” government not only did not warn the police of his friend’s criminal intentions, but did not warn the potential victim either. Johnson shambled away from the episode unscathed.
He was less fortunate when he lied to then leader of the opposition Michael Howard in November 2004 about his extra-marital relationship with Petronella Wyatt and was sacked as shadow arts minister. Being sacked for lying to the party leader would normally end a political career, but Johnson’s comic turn had built up enough support among the party membership for him to survive even this.
Before going on to examine his political career and views, it is also worth briefly considering his motoring journalism, which once again marks him out as a wholly unique prime minister. The pathetically juvenile sexualised nature of this journalism is admirably captured by his account in GQ magazine of being overtaken in his Alpha Romeo by a “beautiful” blonde. As he eloquently put it: “If there is one thing calculated to make the testosterone sloosh in your ears like the echoing sea and the red mist of war descend over your eyes, it’s being treated as though you were an old woman by a young woman”. He “watched her rear waggle ahead of me” but eventually after a heavily sexualised account of speeding and dangerous driving “my Alfa took her from behind”. Then his car stalled “and her rump wiggled away for the last time”. He might have caught up with her, but his five-year-old was sick in the back of the car! On another occasion, he cheerfully admits to driving at 130 mph past Luton, bravely defying “the intensifying tyranny of Blair’s Britain, where speed cameras pop at every corner”. And then there is his encounter with a Porsche Carrera: “One minute you’re caressing her leather, you’re whimpering as she gives you the ride of your life, and then, just as you are approaching the climax of enthusiasm…” and so on and on and on, relentless sub-Top Gear masturbatory garbage.6
Johnson, it is generally acknowledged, has no principles beyond his own self-aggrandisement and will take up any political position if he thinks it is to his advantage. When mayor of London, for example, he enthusiastically supported Turkey’s membership of the EU. During the EU referendum campaign, he strongly opposed Turkey’s membership, warning of the dangers of mass immigration, and then he later publicly denied that he had ever opposed Turkey’s EU membership. Johnson would no doubt describe this as just so much political positioning. But the fact is that he does have certain core beliefs that are inviolable. He is, for example, a very strong believer in the necessity for great inequalities of wealth, in social hierarchy and in the maintenance of upper class privilege. He made his position absolutely clear in a column in the Telegraph in February 1995:
We seem to have forgotten that societies need rich people, even sickeningly rich people, and not just to provide jobs for those who clean swimming pools and resurface tennis courts. If British history had not allowed outrageous financial rewards for a few top people, there would be no Chatsworth, no Longleat. These stately homes of England would never have been built.7
Such inequality was, of course, a necessary precondition for his Great Man view of History. He inevitably included himself in the ranks of these heroes.
As far as Johnson is concerned, Great Men are the makers of history, with the overwhelming majority of the population at best onlookers and at worst collateral damage. His history of London, The Spirit of London, for example, is a chronicle of great men (and three women), culminating inevitably in Winston Churchill and then, presumably in an effort to look cool, Keith Richards and Mo Farah. The history of radical struggle, for the vote, for trade unionism and social reform, against unemployment, against the fascists, and more recently against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax and the Iraq war is all left out. This is only to be expected really. When history is made by Great Men, the little people only get in the way if they don’t do what they are told. In Johnson’s earlier history of Rome, The Dream of Rome, he airbrushes out slavery and does not so much as mention the Spartacus revolt. Presumably the very idea of slaves revolting was too upsetting for him and his readers even to contemplate. He is, however, very excited by the fact that Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar both have months named after them.
Which brings us to his biography of Churchill, The Churchill Factor, published in 2014. It is certainly one of the worst biographies of the man and there is a lot of competition. It is bad, excruciatingly bad. Indeed, it is inconceivable that it would ever have been published if it had not had a celebrity author. The book is a wholly transparent exercise in identifying what Johnson himself has in common with Churchill and vice versa. They are both Great Men, walking with Destiny, with Johnson, at that time, still awaiting the call to save the country. He writes of Churchill in May 1940 as being widely regarded as “an opportunist, a turncoat, a blow-hard, an egotist, a rotter, a bounder, a cad”, but he still saved both the country and the world. Johnson’s only real criticism of Churchill is that he did not have enough of the Johnson about him and in particular that “he had fewer notches on his bedpost than you might expect”.8 The book is clearly not about Churchill at all. It is really all about Johnson himself. It is an extended plea to Conservative Party members and MPs to forget his character and to embrace him as their saviour in their hour of need. At the time he wrote the book, he had not yet made up his mind as to whether his career was best advanced by being pro-EU or anti-EU.
One other core belief that Johnson adheres to is the conviction that the British Empire was a benign endeavour of great benefit to the world; that it shows how great the British were and will be again under his leadership. As he proudly proclaimed when he delivered the Third Margaret Thatcher Lecture in November 2013: “Our country—Britain—used to rule the world—almost literally. Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or invaded at least 171”.9 This amusing celebration of military aggression actually understates the level of slaughter the British state has inflicted throughout the world because many countries were invaded more than once. There were three invasions of China in the 19th century, for example, including the occupation of Beijing, all intended to open the country up to the extremely profitable opium trade. At the turn of the century Britain also played its part in the bloody suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. The dead and wounded, the burned villages and wrecked cities, the rape and the pillage, the misery inflicted on country after country would be regarded with horror if perpetrated by anyone else. But the British state did this to “native” populations out of benign motives and all for their own good.
How did this man become prime minister? Is he part of a global right-wing “populist” surge? The evidence suggests otherwise. Johnson was embraced out of sheer desperation by a Conservative Party fearful of electoral disaster at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. And, at the same time, the party’s hard right see him as a popular figurehead for a renewed assault on working people and the welfare state that will make austerity look like the good old days.
John Newsinger is a member of Brighton SWP. His most recent book is Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (Pluto, 2018).
1 Purnell, 2011, p140.
2 Johnson, 2008, pp116 and 118.
3 Johnson, 2002, pp91 and 146; Purnell, 2011, p169.
4 Purnell, 2011, p7. For Johnson and the importance of HIGNFY see pp178-179.
5 Hastings, 2002, p273.
6 Johnson, 2007, pp26-29, 52 and 82-83.
7 Johnson, 2008, p340
8 Johnson, 2014, pp32 and 120.
9 Johnson, 2013.