‘Boris Johnson: The Gambler’ review

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Many people think they know Boris Johnson. His, in the words of Sadiq Khan, “blithering, Bullingdon, Bollinger-drinker, buffoon” personality is one the man himself has never shied away from, and one the media have wasted no opportunity to perpetuate. Tom Bower’s new biography of the Prime Minister, however, embraces a broader canvas to paint Boris as a boisterous, Balliol-educated, British bulldog besmirched by Brussels bureaucrats for bolstering the Brexit cause.

What emerges from the new biography is the picture of a misunderstood man. Indeed, it raises the question, as biographies are supposed to answer, about who the real Boris is. The comic actor? The serious politician? The serial adulterer, or the loner with no real friends? Bower reveals that Boris’ most transparent quality is his inherent opaqueness. Despite all the TV appearances, the incalculable newspaper columns, and the decades in the public eye, our Prime Minister remains yet to be pinned down.

For such a tricky topic, Bower’s research is excellent. He takes us through Boris’ troubled childhood, where he suffered from debilitating physical illnesses and bullying, to his time at the top of politics’ “greasy pole” where he clings on despite several setbacks from mental illness and bouts of crippling depression. It is the human soul behind the media personality and the derided politician that makes Bower’s biography so endearing. He strips away numerous layers of preconceptions and false allegations to reveal a man as ordinary, as flawed, and as frail as anyone of his many admirers or detractors. What gradually emerges is the picture of a man less stuffy than Theresa May, and indeed, less scruffy than Jeremy Corbyn. A member of the establishment who nevertheless had and has greater appeal to the common voter than all of his rivals.

Image Credit: Amazon

But Bower is no bawdy Borisophile. His interviews and research reveal a man whose external conflict is conquered only by his internal conviction that no cause matters more than self-advancement. Bower takes us to the heart of Boris’ toughest decisions. To run for London mayor or to challenge for the Conservative Party leadership? Marital loyalty or personal transgression? Leave or Remain? Lockdown or liberty? There are no easy answers when tackling such an opaque subject. What Bower does make clear is that Boris’ staunchest conviction is that his ambition, a quality he believes is essential for us all, supersedes the end goal. He knew he could reach lofty heights in any of his endeavours. The thrill was in chasing the prize not in flaunting its trappings. 

Despite a couple of historical inaccuracies, which will have to be addressed for future editions, Bower has produced a first-rate biography. It is a snapshot of history, yet a portrait for posterity to learn from. It leaves the reader with questions, yet combines lucid prose with tales of backroom deals, backstabbing, intrigue, and ruthless ambition to explain how this most inscrutable of men rose to become our Prime Minister.    

Image Credit: NPR, Getty Images