The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson by Nadine Dorries
This is the oddest book I have ever reviewed. It is Nadine Dorries’ account of how a shadowy group of fixers, led by a man known, presumably for legal reasons, as Dr No, overthrew Boris Johnson.
The book consists mainly of interviews with anonymous informants, one of whom is described as “a friend of Dr No”. and tells Dorries:
“Dr No… always wanted power in his hands, but uniquely, unlike almost anyone I’ve ever met in this game, he was never trapped by the celebrity of power or the publicity; he never wanted that.
“He just wanted influence and power, and he mixes with and knows a lot of very wealthy people. He is attracted to them, turns on the whole long charm and grooming offensive, and slowly, like an octopus, wraps his tentacles around them, one by one…
“A deep and complex man, never wanted to be an MP, but has more power than any MP ever has had… Attended Dougie’s sex parties, but never wanted to take part, just wandered around watching others, taking names…
“He is the person who is actually running the country and no one ever talks about it.”
Ian Flemjng, to whom Dorries is indebted for many names and chapter headings, often placed James Bond in mortal danger of an exotic and painful death at the hands of a criminal mastermind intent on world domination, but would then describe how Bond, by some brilliant stroke, turned the tables on the villain.
The original Dr No was boiled to death in a nuclear reactor pool, after which Bond, played by Sean Connery, escaped by boat with Ursula Andress.
No such happy ending is to be found in Dorries’ work. Johnson is overthrown, and she is incandescent with rage. Apart from Dr No, she blames a large cast of villains, including Dougie Smith, holder of the sex parties mentioned above, and various other members of the Federation of Conservative Students in the mid-1980s, who have since formed “the Movement”, which for many years has decided who is going to be prime minister, and who must be overthrown.
Can this be true? It seems, to put it mildly, implausible. In journalistic terms, Dorries fails to stand her story up. Anonymous testimony won’t do, especially as it wanders all over the place, with Johnson’s assassins sometimes described as all-powerful, while at other points they fail miserably.
Michael Gove, denounced for knifing Johnson in 2016, did not then become prime minister, had in his youth hailed Michael Portillo as “the future of the Right”, and has now, according to Dorries, been overtaken by Kemi Badenoch in the future leadership stakes.
Dominic Cummings, who is probably denounced more often than anyone else in the book, had turned on one of his earlier employers, Iain Duncan Smith, long before he turned on Johnson.
Duncan Smith, to his credit, gives an on-the-record interview to Dorries, in which he describes how his critics went for his wife, behaviour which prefigures the attacks on Johnson’s wife.
It is undeniably the case that backroom boys (they are still mostly boys) have long sought to influence political events. Disraeli in his novels has two highly enjoyable figures, Tadpole and Taper, who seek to do this.
Lord Lexden recently brought out a short life of the Conservative Party’s first Treasurer, Lord Farquhar, who held that office from 1911-23:
“It was only in 1923 during the last months of his life that damning evidence emerged publicly which destroyed his reputation. A great deal of money was found to be missing from Conservative Party funds. Farquhar had misappropriated it. What had until then been known only to a few became common knowledge: Horace Farquhar was a complete scoundrel.”
Lexden’s account is short, 69 pages of text, for Farquhar took care to leave few records of his misdeeds. Dorries’ book is long, 336 pages of text, but goes round in circles, with figures such as Gove, Cummings, and Rishi Sunak repeatedly condemned by various anonymous witnesses by for dragging Johnson down.
But who appointed Cummings to serve in No 10, kept him on after he picked fights with colleagues, and stood by him after the Barnard Castle affair?
That was Johnson, who admits to Dorries:
“The fundamental mistake I made was this: in everything I’ve done that has gone well, whether it’s in running City Hall or whatever, I’ve always had someone who was my alter ego. Someone intellectual I could bounce things off and argue the point with, and I think I thought that person could be Cummings. I thought he was clever enough but it just didn’t work. He wasn’t that man.”
Cummings, Dorries herself tells Johnson, “actually thought he was the Prime Minister, and even if he wasn’t, [that he] had the authority to act as though he was”.
This was an intolerable way in which to run No 10. It was to Johnson’s credit that he recognised Cummings’ genius, and was able to use it in the fraught months from July 2019 when Brexit was framed as a struggle between the British people, who had voted for it, and Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Financial Times, the CBI, and various other organs of the Remain establishment, which were intent on thwarting it.
Once Johnson had led the Conservatives to a resounding victory in December 2019, Cummings with his gift for picking fights with Conservative MPs, and indeed with anyone who disagreed with him, including the Prime Minister, became, on balance, a liability.
Dorries describes, with fury, how Cummings and his allies leaked stories in order to force Johnson to do their bidding. But she does not admit that Johnson was at fault for continuing to employ Cummings. She hails Johnson as “a kind, loyal, visionary man”, and refuses to see that blind loyalty soon becomes a weakness, not a strength.
Politics, as Alan Watkins remarked, is a rough old trade. We have a brutal political tradition, in which the prime minister is liable at any moment to be overthrown. Our idea of freedom is bound up with being able to sack any of them, even so considerable a figure as Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee, or Thatcher.
It is hard to think of any who has survived in office for an appreciable length of time, or attained any success, without having the good sense, or good fortune, to secure the services of admirable and resourceful subordinates.
Dorries is so loyal to Johnson that she seeks to blame his downfall on the treacherous machinations of lesser figures. In order to exculpate him, she blames them. This generous error leads her to exaggerate the power of various obscure and trivial people.
Nor can she see anything good in Sunak. His decency is discounted, his belief in sound money ignored. He too is a traitor.
Westminster, one of her anonymous witnesses tells her, has “never before been as bad as it is right now”. She herself laments “the naivety of our new MPs and the negative impact of social media”, and suggests that “what Boris had been dealing with was the first generation of algorithm-distorted MPs to enter Parliament”.
Pessimism is a perfectly proper Tory emotion, but Dorries forgets how bad things were before Twitter.