When Boris Johnson was selected as the Conservative candidate for Henley in 2000, a year after being made editor of The Spectator, he called up Charles Moore and asked for his advise on how to handle Conrad Black, the magazine's proprietor. The problem was that Boris had given him his word that he would not try and become an MP.
After listening to Boris ramble on for a bit, Moore grew impatient and asked him what it was that he wanted.
"I want to have my cake and eat it," he said.
What is remarkable about Boris Johnson--and the reason this biography is so fascinating--is that he has more or less been granted this wish. At Oxford, he became President of the Union in spite of being hopelessly unprepared for every debate he ever took part in. He was fired from The Times for making up a quote--and then immediately landed a better job on The Telegraph. After his first appearance on Have I Got News For You he wrote a scathing "exposé" of the programme--and ended up as a guest presenter. He was sacked from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet for "lying" to the leader, only to be given another front bench job the following year. Perhaps most astonishingly, he is still married to Marina Wheeler--a prominent divorce lawyer--in spite of having had a very public affair with Petronella Wyatt.
At Eton, one of his masters chided him for thinking he was someone to whom the rules of society did not apply: "I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else." But the point about Boris is that he is an exception. (Conrad Black's response on discovering the extent of his employee's treachery was to throw a party celebrating "the Boris Phenomenon".) Throughout his life, Boris has been able to get away with things that the rest of us would have been hung, drawn and quartered for.
This biography is a case in point. Andrew Gimson struggles manfully to produce a warts-and-all portrait--every scandalous episode is dealt with in meticulous detail--yet his affection for his subject shines through on every page. Indeed, after recounting each of Boris's misdemeanours, he makes a plea for clemency. For instance, on the subject of Boris's adultery, he writes: "Which of us, if we had had his opportunities, and had found Petronella attractive, would have refrained from having a fling with her?"
Gimson has various theories as to how his subject manages to have his cake and eat it. For one thing, Boris is capable of being very funny at his own expense. He is able to defuse any anger directed towards him by being the first to admit that he is at fault--and making a joke out of it. Boris's self-deprecating wit is particularly effective because it isn't accompanied by the usual smugness. "People love him because he makes them laugh, but also because they glimpse the hurt young kid behind the laughter," writes Gimson. "Boris's vulnerability is akin to someone like Marilyn Monroe's: it is part of his attraction, and like her he can use it to seduce audiences pretty much at will."
More importantly, he's a "character" and, as such, people are willing to extend him a great deal of latitude. On a programme like Question Time, with its deadly penumbra of identikit politicians, Boris is a ray of sunshine. His very existence is proof that the bureaucrats and percentage players haven't won the day. That someone so shambolic and disorganised can play a role in our public life is a source of pride. Like Alan Bennett, he's become a national treasure.
Above all, Boris has tremendous force of personality. In his Diaries, Alan Clark talks about the effect that Margaret Thatcher had on him: "At the end, when she spoke of her determination to go on, and her blue eyes flashed, I got a full dose of personality compulsion, something of the Führer Kontakt." Boris has this effect on people, too. He is a Man of Destiny. Gimson doesn't quite do justice to this facet of the Boris Phenomenon and it is left to Lloyd Evans--quoted at length in the book--to sum it up: "He's a war leader. He is one of the two or three most extraordinary people I've ever met. You just feel he's going somewhere. People just love him. They go along with him and they enjoy being led."