Johnson At 10: The Inside Story by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
“The full truth may never be fully known,” Seldon and Newell admit at the start of a 60-page chapter on Covid. Almost anyone else who wrote a phrase like that would decide that either “full” or “fully” had to go, unless the expression “the full truth” had been used shortly before, in which case the repetition might become elegant.
Seldon and Newell are never elegant. Infelicities trip the reader on every page. Robert Harris quotes several strange examples in his review for The Sunday Times and wonders of these sentences, “Did Seldon read them before publication? Did anyone?”
The book is marred by frequent errors of fact. One which no other reviewer could be expected to spot occurs on page 249, where some words I am supposed to have written in 2014 in a profile for ConHome of Dominic Cummings are quoted: “the 30-year-old got up the noses of Tory traditionalists”.
This didn’t sound like me, so I looked up the piece, and found the words in question are actually by Tim Bale.
The most widely cited words about Johnson – repeated everywhere from The New Yorker to Russia Today and read by Rory Stewart in the Albert Hall – were written when he was 17 in a school report by his housemaster at Eton, Martin Hammond:
“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.”
These reports constitute a biography in miniature of Johnson, unclouded by hindsight and throwing brilliant shafts of illumination into the future.
Johnson himself acknowledged Hammond, a distinguished classicist, as “the really inspirational teacher” at Eton.
Nobody has been in a better position than Hammond to try to get the best out of Johnson, and in these reports we see a fascinating duel develop between the master, who strives to instill a profound knowledge of Latin and Greek, and the apprentice, who rejoices in these languages but rejects the discipline and self-denial needed to become a professional classicist, and instead pursues a more risky but amusing path to success.
While setting the scene for Johnson’s prime ministership, which is their chief topic, Seldon and Newell quote nine lines from Hammond’s reports, telling readers in an accompanying note that these have been “edited via email”, and do not tell anyone who might want to read more of these masterpieces that much longer extracts, including various missing words, can be found in my own early work, now entitled Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister.
According to Seldon and Newell, Michael Howard dismissed Johnson from the Shadow Cabinet and David Cameron reinstated him.
Neither statement is true: Johnson was never in the Shadow Cabinet.
The problem with these minor errors about things which can be checked is that most of this book has to be taken on trust, for it draws “on the silent voices” – can a voice be silent? – “of those who will never publish memoirs and diaries”.
How do we know these officials and advisers will never publish memoirs and diaries? But supposing they don’t, how can we be confident that Seldon and Newell have accurately recorded what they said?
All historians make mistakes, and hope to correct these in future editions of their work, but this book is so slapdash it ought to be rewritten.
The authors begin with an arresting assertion:
“Boris Johnson was Britain’s most iconoclastic and outlandish Prime Minister since David Lloyd George a hundred years before.”
This makes one think. There is evidently something in it. The authors quote Lord Riddell, press baron and close friend of Lloyd George, who wrote of him in 1917:
“His energy, capacity for work, and power of recuperation are remarkable. He has an extraordinary memory, imagination, and the art of getting at the root of a matter….He is not afraid of responsibility, and has no respect for tradition or convention. He is always ready to examine, scrap or revise established theories and practices. These qualities give him unlimited confidence in himself…. He is one of the craftiest of men, and his extraordinary charm of manner not only wins him friends, but does much to soften the asperities of his opponents and enemies. He is full of humour and a born actor….He has an instinctive power of divining the thoughts and intentions of people with whom he is conversing. His chief defects are: (1) Lack of appreciation of existing institutions, organisations, and stolid, dull people…their ways are not his ways and their methods are not his methods. (2) Fondness for a grandiose scheme in preference to an attempt to improve existing machinery. (3) Disregard of difficulties in carrying out big projects…he is not a man of detail.”
This version of the quotation, fuller than that used by Seldon and Newell, is taken from Riddell’s Wikipedia entry.
Lloyd George supplied the dynamic war leadership which his predecessor, Herbert Asquith, was unable to provide, and not long after the end of the First World War became a liability. Stanley Baldwin, an obscure but emerging Tory MP, complained that Lloyd George had a “morally disintegrating effect” on all who dealt with him, and urged his fellow Tory MPs to withdraw their support from the Government, which duly fell.
Johnson supplied the dynamic peacetime leadership which his predecessor, Theresa May, had been unable to provide, and thanks to this he got Brexit done. But not long afterwards, he too became a liability, was indeed accused, by various obscure but emerging Tory MPs, of having a morally disintegrating effect, so out he went.
Isaac Levido, the protégé of Lynton Crosby who ran the 2019 general election campaign so well, told the authors of this book:
“For better or worse, you needed those three years of Theresa to create the conditions for Boris to present himself as the answer; why he was right to take over and solve the problem.”
In the United States, with fixed terms, it is almost impossible to get rid of a President who has lost the nation’s confidence: Nixon was the first and so far last President to resign, and Watergate was a fearful ordeal.
The British system is in that respect more democratic: we can chuck out a Prime Minister with brutal speed, Conservative MPs generally conceiving it to be in the national interest to evict anyone who threatens their chances of re-election.
They then put in someone who, they hope, will prove more attuned to the nation’s needs. After Johnson, and the brief interlude when the membership gave Liz Truss a go, the MPs chose Rishi Sunak to provide the calm professional management of the nation’s affairs which Johnson had so signally failed to provide.
This book contains much detail about the chaos in Downing Street during the Johnson years. The trouble with this new material is not only that it is of uneven quality, but that it is unsurprising: we already knew, from Cummings and others, of the bitter infighting which made the machinery of government difficult to operate.
Seldon and Newell are deeply interested in that machinery, and tend to compare what happened in 2019-22 against an imaginary standard of perfection.
Politics for them, as for many people, consists of the skilled implementation by efficient ministers and officials of judiciously selected policies.
They are not interested in party politics, for which they harbour a certain technocratic scorn. Although they admit Johnson was a better campaigner and communicator than May, this counts for little when they come to describe, at wearisome length, the messy way he ran, or failed to run, Downing Street.
This appals them, and they say in their conclusion that Johnson lacked various “top tier traits” which are needed for a successful prime ministership:
“moral seriousness, an ability to work relentlessly hard when the pressure eased, decisiveness and resolution, mature and stable core relationships, the courage to appoint strong Cabinet and No 10 teams, and a gift for managing Cabinet and the media proactively.”
Here is management consultancy at its most sententious. Frivolous leaders hold no appeal for Seldon, who excluded Disraeli from his list of eight or nine great Prime Ministers, given in this ConHome review of his book about PMs published in 2021.
One ventures to suggest that while Disraeli’s achievements in government were modest compared to Gladstone’s, in giving the nation its idea of itself he was a sublime and witty statesman, whose fame and influence endured until at length eclipsed by Winston Churchill’s.
Seldon and Newell’s damning view of Johnson as a failed man of government is widely shared, and has won them the praise of those for whom no verdict on this PM can be too harsh.
But it precludes any understanding of his jokes, instincts and ability to connect with the wider public. What a brilliant figure he is at his best, and with what clumsy relish the dreary mediocrities now dance on what they hope is his grave.