Read JUST BORIS: A Tale of Blond Ambition Online

Authors: Sonia Purnell

Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Historical, #Europe, #Great Britain, #History, #Ireland, #England

JUST BORIS: A Tale of Blond Ambition

To the memory of my father

David Purnell, 1918–2010


Title Page




1. ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’: Childhood, 1964–1977

2. ‘Hey, Hey, ABJ’: Eton, 1977–1982

3. Toffs, Tugs and Stains: Oxford, 1983–1987

4. World on Speed Dial: Starting Work, 1987–1989

5. I Fought Delors … and I Won: Brussels, 1989–1994

6. M’learned Wife: Islington Life, 1994–2008

7. Untouchable: Boris the Celebrity, 1994–1999

8. ‘Sack me!’: The
, 1999–2005

9. On Yer Bike!: MP, 2001–2004

10. ‘Busting with spunk’: The Sextator, 1999–2005

11. ‘Cynical self-interest’, 2005–2007

12. Too Funny to be Mayor?, 2007–2008

13. Sense of Wonderment: First Days at City Hall, 2008

14. The Politics of Power: The Mayoralty, 2008–2011







To all those listed in the interviewee and contributor section at the end of this book, I offer my sincere thanks. To those who prefer to remain anonymous for understandable reasons, I am also very grateful for your invaluable contribution. Only with the co-operation of a multitude of people from all walks of life was this book possible. So many of you also made it an enjoyable exercise.

There were others who ensured the book jumped many hurdles, and without whose assistance, guidance, good humour, encouragement and support
Just Boris
would still be only an idea. The story starts with Francis Elliott, Robert and Rebecca Bomford, and continues with major roles played by my superbly determined agent Heather Holden Brown and wonderfully wise editor at Aurum, Sam Harrison. Jane Donovan copy-edited with immense rigour and added greatly to my efforts in the process, while Mark Swan came up with a striking and smart concept for the cover. Rob Dinsdale of HHB and Graham Coster, Barbara Phelan, Liz Somers and Melissa Smith of Aurum have all also contributed a great deal.

Thanks must also go to my mother Jean for putting me up and putting up with me while I did much of the writing; my niece Charlotte Lang, who helped with research early on, and Edward Randell, who did the same later (for both of whom great futures surely beckon); I am indebted to them both.

Many friends gave me much-needed support and encouragement, and I am grateful to all of them. Special mention must go, however,
to Marcus Scriven, Alison Ramsey, Horace McDonald, Andy Corrigan, Jane Dyball, Ali Walsh, Alison Squire, Linda Valentine, Sue Purnell, Zeb Dare and Tanya Hughes. Mira Bar Hillel, Geoff Meade, George Jones, Mark Law, Gaby Hinsliff and many of the staff, past and present, of the
Evening Standard
were also generous with their time and thoughts. Heartfelt thanks also go to Michael Crick for his unparalleled feel for the political universe and the people who travel in it, as well as his sagacious advice on the art of biography-writing. Tom Fairbrother of Oxford University is without match in his infectious enthusiasm for spotting intriguing political connections and coincidences, and I am flattered by his unwavering interest and support. Paul Goodman shared many of his unusually astute observations with me. I was also the last person to interview the late, great Anthony Howard before he died – it was a privilege and I feel a real sadness that there will be no more such conversations. Many great names from journalism have lent their knowledge, expertise and insight to this book without wanting to be named. I am touched by how freely they gave their time and how figures from both domestic and EU politics have also been so generous. Many people close to the Johnson and Wheeler families too have been hugely forthcoming while wishing to remain anonymous.

Nor would this book be possible without help of all sorts from Guto Harri, Boris’s communications chief, Penny Hatfield, the archivist at Eton, the staff at the Oxford Union, Edda Tasiemka and her team at the Tasiemka Library, Charles Grant at the Centre for European Reform, Catherine Temma, Lesley Smith, Lloyd Evans, Frances Goodhart and James Hanning. I am also grateful to Sir John Major for his swift and friendly replies to my questions and substantial contributions from Nick Boles MP and Stuart Reid. My thanks too to Lord Howard, who proved such excellent company, Dan Colson for a very entertaining lunch and Jasper Griffin for an inspiring one. There are so many others who helped with leads, thoughts, messages of encouragement, introductions and hot meals, not to mention emergency childcare; that very much includes Lewis.

But I must reserve the biggest thanks for those who have endured my frequent and sustained absences and my devotion to the book,
almost always at their expense. They have never once complained. Book-writing is by nature a selfish business and I consequently owe more than I can say to my family, Jon, Laurie and Joey, for their patience, understanding and love.


July 2011




‘In our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.’



Just Boris – the only politician known so readily by his first name. Except, of course, it isn’t his first name (which is Alexander) and his family, including his wife Marina, call him Al. Two generations back, the family name was different, too – not Johnson, but Kemal. Boris, the archetypal upper-class English eccentric, is actually descended down the male line from blond-haired Turks.

We may feel we know the public Boris, but so much about this multi-layered character is not quite as it seems. Even his trademark hair owes more to nurture then nature. When presented with the Brylcreem Best Celebrity Hairstyle prize in 2008, he couldn’t help but boast: ‘It’s impossible to imitate, as it is a product of random and competing forces of nature!’ His famous dishevelled look is actually, however, the product of a brisk, artful re-arrangement with his fingers (just before the cameras roll) rather than any naturally occurring disorder.

Call him Boris (his second name) or Al, much is known but little truly understood about this highly evasive figure. He is notoriously difficult to read, harder still to predict, yet beloved by millions and recognised by all. Through sheer force of personality and sleight of hand, Boris is pure box office – drawing adoring crowds like a David Beckham photocall, only perhaps with a higher class of banter and a far deeper timbre. He is set to be a dominant figure in all our lives for the next decade and beyond. The most unconventional, yet compelling politician of the post-Blair era, he is a man who wants to
be our prime minister – and could yet succeed in his aim. But just who is Boris?

Like his hair, he is the one-off product of dozens of ‘random and competing forces.’ A comic turn, yes, but also the result of a heartbreaking childhood, he is a hugely ambitious figure, yet one who occasionally surrenders to a sort of professional death wish. A manic self-promoter, he also longs to be alone. He is a man of the people but also a politician, one who seems to change views more frequently than clothes, suggesting an ideological emptiness beneath the staunch Tory exterior.

When asked in a serious interview if he had any convictions, Boris quipped straight back, ‘Only one – for speeding, but a very long time ago.’ Life with him is laced with fun and jokes, but while the bumbling is now in retreat it has not yet been replaced by clarity and consistency. Take the environment. He was once noted for scorning the global warming agenda, with caustic rants about ‘the cult of climate change.’ Since then, he has flipped sides so many times that petrol-heads and eco-warriors take turns to denounce him as a traitor. Famously, he returned fire with the amusing retort: ‘If the climate can change, I don’t see why my mind can’t!’

Like so many other Borissian handbrake turns, this was a cleverly executed move but it all leaves his audience uncertain as to where Boris’s heart truly lies. Can he really be trusted to follow something through, or will principle always give way to the main chance? But then his flaws, his contradictions, his ‘flexibility’, his refusal to be consigned to any particular ‘box’ also seem to be Just Boris’s most popular qualities. While few if any of us know what he really thinks about anything, the key to his all-conquering appeal is that he is considered so authentic.

For Boris is an original – the opposite of stereotype, the exception to the rule. Overweight and goosey-fleshed, he’s the antithesis of an airbrushed male pin-up. He resembles a ‘human laundry basket’ and has a habit of forgetting to shower. Yet women adore him – even otherwise sensible ones ask him to sign their underwear or their bared breasts. And he laps up the attention. Even on his mayoral victory night, he made a beeline for the most attractive woman at the
celebratory party and once tried to take one of his mistresses on a family holiday. But while women support, nurture and organise him – and quite often much more besides – he is neither faithful nor respectful to them and on occasion, offensive. His philandering is infamous, yet he scoops up the female vote. It all forms part of his self-avowed policy on cake: that is ‘both having it and eating it.’ And yet beneath all the determined optimism, there is a hint of something far more vulnerable, more troubled, more isolated. Who else in public life has such an obsessive desire to do it all alone?

Perhaps the answer to his character lies in his background. One side of Boris is an outrageous Right-wing toff, famous for peppering his plummy vowels with obscure Latin tags. A man who claims to have been sacked by the BBC for being too posh, he attended an upmarket boarding prep school before Eton and at Oxford joined the notoriously elitist Bullingdon Club. Yet now he’s an all-conquering TV superstar in the age of ‘anti-politicians’ with mass-appeal as well as undeniable sex-appeal. Taxi drivers hail him cheerily as ‘Bozza’ and Manchester United fans chant his name to taunt their Merseyside opponents. His eye-rolling appearances on the BBC’s
Have I Got News For You
are judged to be pop culture classics and he has been hailed as ‘party Viagra’ by
. He is a superlative vote-catcher in an age when, for most people, politics has become one big yawn or an outrage. For all his establishment upbringing, in Boris there is the appeal of the outsider.

In his early days in Westminster Michael Portillo – himself once a rising star – told the young Turk he had to make the choice between comedy and politics. But Boris does not see why he should choose. Joking, to him, is a political device for reaching the widest possible audience and one that has proved enormously successful. ‘Humour is a utensil that you can use to sugar the pill and to get important points across,’ he told the
Wall Street Journal
during the mayoral campaign.

It also disarms his opponents. Joking has saved Boris from sounding too Right-wing, too ambitious or too tough; as he himself knows, it is ‘essential’ for someone of his background and self-regard not to ‘appear too gritty or thrusting.’
It is all part of the light and shade that compose his character. Few get to see these underlying contrasts
behind the public persona but as his number two in the Brussels bureau of the
Sunday Telegraph
in the early-1990s, I was fortunate enough to witness him on those extremely rare moments when he briefly lowers his guard. The EU story we were reporting was dominating the domestic news agenda and often we worked late into the night under intense pressure. During that formative time in his life, it was already clear I was dealing with a force of nature, someone unlike anyone else I had encountered or was likely to again. I have never forgotten the experience.

In a noisy corridor at a party in Brussels late in 1992, his soon-to-be wife Marina tracked me down to ask what I really thought of Boris. No doubt she realised that I must have an insight into this extraordinary man, as no one else had worked at such close quarters with him before. Emboldened by the intimacy of a large, jolly crowd, I delivered a verdict rather more candid than careful, but one I still hold to this day: ‘I think he is the most ruthless, ambitious person I have ever met.’ In the half-light she looked rather shocked – it was not then the prevailing view. Most thought of him as a charming, if shambolic hack defined by a love of classical civilisations and a problem with detail. But working with him so closely, I had observed that under a well-cultivated veneer of disorganisation lay not so much a streak of aspiration as a torrent of almost frightening focus and drive.

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