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Boris Johnson Reviews

Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Boris Johnson: The Gambler

Tom Bower

2.83 out of 5

12 reviews

Imprint: W H Allen
Publisher: Ebury Publishing
Publication date: 15 Oct 2020
ISBN: 9780753554906

Based on a wealth of new interviews and research, this is the deepest, most rounded and most comprehensive portrait to date of the man, the mind, the politics, the affairs, the family - of a loner, a lover, a leader. Revelatory, unsettling and compulsively readable, it is the most timely and indispensable book yet from Britain's leading investigative biographer.

  • The TimesBook of the Week
2 stars out of 5
16 Oct 2020

"he prime minister is painted as the victim of an unhappy upbringing, rather than a leader who is responsible for his faults and mistakes"

The book left me feeling queasy, like taking a journey on one of those tilting trains that career across the countryside. It’s a fast and furious ride through personal infidelities and political betrayals, but there is a lack of humanity in both subject and writer. The passages on domestic abuse are genuinely disturbing, but they are reported with lip-smacking relish by Bower and somehow used to excuse Johnson’s personal and political failings. The best political biographies entertain and elucidate, with a warmth and a humour that rise above the ambition and rivalries at Westminster. 


3 stars out of 5
5 Nov 2020

"[Bower] chooses in this new biography of Boris Johnson, to provoke through rehabilitation "

Bower is wrong to suggest that Johnson is seeking to emulate the heroes of ancient Greece. Johnson states grandly that “every skill and every pursuit and every practical effort or undertaking seems to aim at some good, says old Aristotle, my all-time hero. And that goal is happiness”. But Johnson’s notion of happiness seems a much thinner thing than Aristotle’s life of honour and virtue. 

3 stars out of 5
1 Nov 2020

"There’s no doubting the depth of Tom Bower's research, but he is too seduced by the Prime Minister and the gilded world in which he operates to write a balanced biography"

As for Johnson himself – well, history tells us that psychologically damaged nations, which is what post-imperial Britain now seems to be, will sometimes turn to populist leaders who, in some deep way, reflect back that damage, while still projecting a strength or ebullience that seems able to defy or reverse it. Johnson’s historic decision to become a leading Brexiteer has put him at the epicentre of such a reactionary movement, despite his own well-advertised liberal instincts. And the future well-being of us all, on these islands, may depend on whether Johnson and his advisors can now seriously transform that reactionary project into something more progressive and humane; or whether, as seems likely, they lack the breadth of political perspective to achieve any such thing – a lack that will not, alas, be remedied by this biography, which for all its detail and industry, is too seduced by the man and the world it describes to achieve greatness, or any satisfying sense of context at all.

2 stars out of 5
Sonia Purnell
29 Oct 2020

"It is symptomatic of the darkness of this book that makes you want to close it and never look at it again."

Such a long biography — turned around in just a year — might be excused a few minor errors. But the more I read, the more my confidence in its accuracy ebbed away — in part inspired by the fallacies in a passage about me, an earlier and less sympathetic Johnson biographer, that could have been corrected by a brief Google search or a phone call.

A far worse biographical blunder is that other people and events may have been misrepresented and I fear the publishers should brace themselves for letters from people I know. It is symptomatic of the darkness of this book that makes you want to close it and never look at it again. A better subtitle might have been The Blamer.

3 stars out of 5
Lynn Barber
24 Oct 2020

"Tom Bower pulls his punches with his life of Boris Johnson"

We wait to see whether he will turn out to do anything useful as Prime Minister, but for now everything’s been blown off course by Covid. Bower devotes two very long and tedious chapters to the woeful mismanagement of Covid, but it is not clear that this was really Boris’s fault. He was slow to pay attention, and when he did he relied on ‘the science’, obviously not realising to what extent the science was fractured and contradictory. And having Covid himself was obviously a shaker. Everyone agrees he’s lost his bounce; nowadays he seems wavering and uncertain. But then perhaps a less confident, more thoughtful Boris is to be welcomed. Being prime minister is really not like being World King. This is a very well-researched biography, but for now it’s a story without an ending.

3 stars out of 5
Dominic Lawson
22 Oct 2020

"the author’s highly familiar account of a man convinced he can get away with behaviour that no one else could rings true "

Bower makes a convincing case for his achievements in that role. Perhaps, however, it would have been better if the author had also acknowledged his wife, Veronica Wadley, recently ennobled by the PM, had been one of Johnson’s paid advisers during that period. It is the sort of thing a good editor might have insisted upon, but this weighty volume (the best part of 600 pages) seems to have been rushed into print without much in the way of fact-checking.

2 stars out of 5
Stephen Bush
21 Oct 2020

"Bower is no stylist, and his attempts at dramatic flourishes result in moments of accidental farce"

The problem, though, is that these insights, as well as being thin, are hard to trust, even when they have the ring of truth. A book that suggests, whether through accident or malice, that one-liners deployed by Johnson were insults hurled at him, and that gets dates wrong, can’t persuasively lead us to make comforting conclusions about Johnson or the people around him. A book that discloses on its penultimate page a major conflict of interest cannot escape questions about judgement or impartiality. 

  • The ObserverBook of the Week
3 stars out of 5
Andrew Rawnsley
18 Oct 2020

"Tom Bower gives us a better idea of Boris Johnson’s inner demons but is much too forgiving of his many flaws"

A biography of this length needs to get a grip on the slippery porcine and answer the question: who is the authentic Boris Johnson? Is it the mayor Johnson who was broadly aligned with a liberal, cosmopolitan idea of Toryism during his eight years as the political face of the capital? Is it the Brexiter Johnson who fanned xenophobia to win the referendum? Is it the “Brexity Hezza” he told the cabinet he’d be after he won the 2019 election? I put down this biography with a better idea of the inner demons that drive the prime minister, but little the wiser about whether he has any convictions, other than the many for traffic offences. Even an admiring biographer can find no serious answer to the charge that Borisology amounts to nothing more than his narrow-eyed, ever-fluxing, always-cynical calculations about what he thinks will serve his interests and satisfy his appetites from one day to the next. Who is to blame for that? In the Bower version, it won’t be Boris.

3 stars out of 5
Dominic Sandbrook
18 Oct 2020

"the prime minister emerges as a complex figure in this mammoth biography"

Bower is an indefatigable bloodhound, with a boundless appetite for gossip. His book’s literary and intellectual qualities, however, are non-existent. Like his last biography, a life of Jeremy Corbyn, it is padded beyond endurance, this time with long digressions about London politics and Sage pandemic preparations. His political analysis, meanwhile, is one-sided to the point of parody.

3 stars out of 5
Robert Shrimsley
15 Oct 2020

"The prime minister’s flaws are treated kindly in Tom Bower’s new biography exploring the impact of a miserable childhood"

The book will change few minds. Brexit has led most people to a firm position on Johnson, but this is an attempt to offer a nuanced account — supportive but critical — of a man Bower calls an “intelligent patriot”. The voters, he concludes, “still wait to see if he is a leader”. The overwhelming impression is of a man Bower likes and pities. The arc of this story is of a brilliant child trapped inside a prime minister, a victim of an atrocious father still searching for approval. 

3 stars out of 5
13 Oct 2020

"It’s a reading – Boris as victim – which is helpful for Bower who, it soon becomes clear, wants to write a forgiving portrait of his subject. "

For all Bower’s eagerness to put a kind gloss on Johnson’s actions, he doesn’t flinch from the man’s record. It’s all there: the affairs, the lies, the broken promises, the unpaid debts. There is yet more evidence that Johnson scarcely believes in anything. After an argument about education, his first wife realises with horror: “Oh God, he’s got … no ideals.” Oliver Letwin comes to see that Johnson was “politically light, there was no ideology”. And of course there are the wildly oscillating positions on Europe. Bower reminds us that Johnson, who headed a Vote Leave campaign that falsely warned that Turkey was poised to join the EU, had made a TV documentary in 2008 advocating Turkey’s accession to the EU. Even once he’d committed to Brexit, he argued that it made no sense for Britain to leave the single market – a position he would casually jettison once it suited him.

4 stars out of 5
Madeline Grant
13 Oct 2020

" Bower’s new biography of the PM depicts a man endlessly defying his critics’ expectations"

It is of course all too tempting to read Bower’s biography through the lens of the current dysfunctional state of government – to trace back weaknesses that could explain, for instance, how the PM came to abandon his libertarian principles. But Bower insists Boris Johnson should not be underestimated. He has repeatedly confounded his critics. Why should he not again?