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Boris Johnson: Everything about you is phoney

22 February 2016

12:45 PM

22 February 2016

12:45 PM

Rather rashly, Boris Johnson published The Churchill factor: How one man made history last year. It was without historical merit, or intellectual insight, but Johnson did not intend readers to learn about Churchill. The biography was not a Churchill biography but a Johnson campaign biography, where we were invited to see our  hero as Winston redux.

Both ignored party discipline and conventional routes of advancement, after all. Both were great company. Churchill stayed in the wilderness for years making a fortune from journalism, and so has Johnson. Churchill was a man of principle and so is…

Hold on. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all. For when we talk of principle, the elaborate scaffolding Johnson has erected around himself, the scenery and props, the spotlights and the cameras, fall with a thundering crash. All that remains on stage is a jobbing actor who can play any part convincingly except himself.

The cult of Churchill can be remarkably selective. Certainly, Churchill and others fought appeasement. But he was also the most implacable of diehard imperialists. Churchill meant what he said – and was prepared to suffer when his beliefs were out of fashion.

Johnson believes in the advance of Johnson. That’s all there is. There’s nothing else. Most politicians, and many of the rest of us, are ambitious, of course. But politicians normally hope to advance a cause as they advance themselves. Johnson would have you believe that he is breaking with the establishment, risking all, because of his sincere conviction that we must advance the cause of saving Britain from the European Union.

His colleagues do not believe him. Nicholas Soames called him a liar on Twitter yesterday. Jerry Hayes called him a ‘copper-bottomed, hypocritical little shit.’ The wonder of it is that they may have been understating the case for the prosecution.

After the Times fired him for making up stories, Johnson ended up as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. Once there, he was seduced by the most corrupting desire to afflict a journalist: the urge to give readers what they want. His tales of the EU punishing the rubber industry for making undersized condoms or ordering the straightening of bananas were so flimsy that, like dandelion puffballs, they collapsed with the first puff of scrutiny. They were a hit with his right-wing readers, but no one who knew him at the time thought that Johnson believed what he was writing. David Usborne, the Independent’s man in Brussels, told Johnson’s acidic biographer Sonia Purnell:-

He played the Telegraph game brilliantly [and] compromised his intellectual integrity to get on. I assume that he has done that in the rest of his career.

Curiously, when he entered parliament in 2001, Johnson stopped playing the right-wing nationalist from the Telegraph foreign desk and presented himself as liberal Tory. Chris Cook, an aide to David Willetts, told Purnell:

He was clearly not on the right wing, but actually quite europhile in Tory terms. He liked to come into our office to gossip and bitch about the right-wingers he thought had screwed up the party.


As Mayor of London, Johnson has never called emergency conferences on the alleged EU tyranny, which surely must have fettered him, if it was as oppressive as he is now claiming. He never allied with Daniel Hannan, Charles Moore, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Bill Cash and the rest of the ‘out’ crowd. The subject was of no interest to him – until he returned to Parliament to concentrate on the sole subject that does interest him: the leadership of the Conservative party.

If you doubt his slipperiness, examine today‘s supposed declaration of support for withdrawal. It  is not as unequivocal as it seems. The crucial line ties Johnson to a fantasy pushed by Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott of the Tory campaign group Vote Leave.

There is only one way to get the change we need and that is to vote to go, because all EU history says that they only really listen to a population when it says no.

We will vote to leave, in other words, but we will not actually go, because the EU will give us more. The Ukip wing of Euroscepticism has spent the past few months mocking Vote Leave’s illusion that we could leave but not leave. And I have to say that it is right.

To Johnson watchers, his shiftiness is no surprise. At Oxford he ran for the presidency of the Oxford Union as a Tory. He lost to a state school boy called Neil Sherlock, a liberal, who secured victory by mocking the old Etonian’s sense of entitlement.

In 1985, Johnson tried again and won, but now and all of sudden Johnson was a liberal too, who was opposed to Margaret Thatcher and in favour of proportional representation. Johnson has ‘no core beliefs’ an understandably flabbergasted Sherlock concluded. He would do anything.

The same disease afflicts him now. Charlatans from Donald Trump to Piers Morgan invite us to forget about our own concerns and revel vicariously in their career-advancing machinations, in much the same way that TV crime capers invite you to celebrate conmen and despise their gormless marks. So I beg you do not admire Johnson’s manoeuvres as he climbs to the top over the bodies of his colleagues. Just understand them lest you find yourself his mark one day.

From his point of view, he has positioned himself perfectly. If ‘out’ wins, Cameron and Osborne are finished and he is the next prime minister. His potential rivals Theresa May and Sajid Javid honourably put country before personal ambition and decided that, their deep euroscepiticsm notwithstanding, they could not tear Europe apart when Putin, Islamic State and unstoppable flows of refugees, menaced  the EU, and a revived SNP menaced the union. Johnson lack of scruple has therefore given him a huge competitive advantage.

If ‘out’ loses, he is laughing too. Parliament has been the one place where he has failed. At Eton, Oxford, the Telegraph, the BBC and London’s City Hall he has always got what he wanted. In the Commons, he vanished without trace when he first became an MP, and hasn’t made much of an impression since he returned in 2015. Quentin Letts of the Mail put it well when he said of Johnson.

The Commons sees through you in a way that other institutions don’t. It could see through the accent, and the fact that he was trying to ventilate false anxieties about matters in which he wasn’t really very interested. The reaction was quite often silence. You see, Boris isn’t angry. You’ve got to be angry: you’ve got to feel things as an MP, but there is no soul, no church in him. No belief. Most people don’t just go into politics out of vanity, but maybe he has.

Now he has come out for ‘out’, however – or is at least is half in and half out of the closet, like a nervous drag queen – surely previously unimpressed right-wing MPs will give him enough votes to put him through to the run off, where he will win with the support of members, who according to today’s Guardian,overwhelming oppose Cameron.

As I have said before, Johnson bears few resemblances to Churchill, and far too many to Winston’s shifty sidekick Brendan Bracken, who became propaganda minister during the war. Bracken too was careless with the facts. He invented stories about his childhood to con his way into high society. He was an energetic manipulator of the press in both Churchill’s interest and his own. (Whenever he gave dinner parties he instructed his butler to make up a story that the prime minister was on the phone and announce the news loudly to his guests). Evelyn Waugh couldn’t stand him, and in Brideshead turned Bracken into Rex Motram, who marries the wealthy but naïve Julia because ‘he wanted a woman; he wanted the best on the market, and he wanted her cheap; that was what it amounted to’. Inevitably, he betrays her, within in months of the honeymoon.

‘Rex isn’t anybody at all,’ Julia concludes of Mottram/Bracken. ‘He just doesn’t exist.’

A fine line, which applies as well to Johnson after this week’s performance. But I prefer a snub the historian Piers Brendon credits to an unnamed journalist who met Bracken in a 1930s club. Growing ever more infuriated by Bracken’s trickiness and double-dealing, the unknown hack cried

You’re phoney! Everything about you is phoney! Even your hair that looks like a wig – isn’t!

Bracken had a mop of red hair to match Johnson’s mop of blond. The next time I see our future prime minister I will give it a good hard yank, just to check.


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Show comments
  • WuffoTheWonderDog

    OK Johnson has said he supports Brexit. Hmm, I’ve been a member of UKIP since 1995 and have wanted to leave since Heath took us in. While I’d rather have Johnson pro-leave I still don’t trust him. I would not be surprised if he and Cameron have had a Blair-Brown Granita-type meeting to set up a scam whereby Johnson says he’s for leaving.
    Two weeks before the referendum Johnson suddenly announces before the world press that he has changed his mind and now supports his very wonderful friend Cameron’s Stay In-Crusade. Eighteen months down the line Cameron announces that he is retiring from the heavy burden of signing away the very last of everything to Brussels and he now supports his very good friend Johnson’s intention to follow him into Number Ten as premier.

  • Nicetime

    And we now get to read about all this because he’s supporting Brexit? You can mount a case for the prosecution for anyone. I’m far more angry with the idiotic Major, now posing as a wise elder statesman, who virtually destroyed the Tories for 20 years with his weakness and indecisiveness, most notably by refusing to hold a referendum on Maastricht. That is precisely why we are where we are now. In a club which most of us instinctively don’t want to be in. Lamont had him bang to rights, “In office but not in power”

  • Terry Field

    Why is it a surprise that this court jester puts himself firs second and last????

  • geoIndigo

    Remarkable how Brexit supporters are so blind to Johnson’s lack of values. If I supported Brexit I know I’d still have the integrity to recognise someone that lacked it in such abundance. Guessing it must reflect something of the lack of integrity of not all but certainly many Brexit supporters..

    • Goinlike Billio

      They couldn’t give a d**n what Johnson thinks.

  • Terry Field

    In respect of brexit, Boris show very clearly his sh1t-or-bust gambler’s instinct to shoot for power; as a serious commentator on the Europe question, only a fool would be taken in by him. He neither adds to, nor detracts from the arguments. He simply further illuminates his personality, for our delectation.

  • Uusikaupunki

    I’m glad Johnson is on our side, but he always reminded me of Groucho’s quote:
    “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others…”

    • Maximum Overdrive

      The only benefit Boris brings to the OUT side is publicity.
      He doesn’t want to leave the EU at all, and is not to be trusted and inch on this matter.

  • Ipsmick

    What are Johnson’s distinguished political achievements? On what grounds can he qualify as a statesman? Can we admire someone prepared to sacrifice national good to fulfil personal ambition?

  • gunnerfan

    Nick Cohen, excellent analysis of B. Johnson’s unprincipled past, thank you. Coming right up to date, surely he must be called to account for reneging on the clear proRemain statement he made just 2 weeks ago (as expressly recounted by an MP in Parliament last Monday, but not picked up by the media)?

  • KT Thornton

    Can’t believe any supposed serious writer quotes JERRY HAYES for support.

  • amac

    An unreadable tirade from a bitter sad man who can’t accept that Brexit may win.
    Cohen squeals like a pig every week about whatever it is that upsets him , predictable in his histrionics.

  • nutsingha

    Glad Boris joined the OUT campaign, but I think the review on him here are very valid. I read the book he wrote on Churchill and got exactly the same impression: BoJo [laughably] sees a reflection of himself in Churchill, but fails to realise that he is nothing like the Great Man. BoJo is weak, and ‘whiff-whaffs’ with the careerist populist wind. Churchill stood by his beliefs and ethics, whether they made him popular or not, because he believed it was the right thing to do. Boris isn’t worth Churchill’s toenail clippings.

  • Samuel Hooper

    For a biographer and self-professed admirer of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson is almost singularly lacking in any of the key qualities of our great wartime leader:

  • James Chilton

    Boris is ambitious, mendacious, and unscrupulous: I think I knew that. But I persevered with Nick Cohen’s article, and was rewarded at the end with the joke about Brendan Bracken’s ‘false wig’.

  • Ken Bell

    The Oxford anecdotes are not true;certainly not as I remember them and Johnson and I were contemporaries.

    He was never in the Tories back then, preferring to cast in his lot with a faction that called itself Limehouse. Neil Sherlock may have been a Liberal, but he ran in the Union as head of the TRG faction. Since that was the dominant group in those days, Sherlock won the president’s chair.

    I helped get Johnson elected by the way. He was very popular in Ruskin College, which back then was a genuine working class institution. We quite liked old Boris, and I remember the bursar once saying that if that blonde haired fellow kept eating there, then he was going to get a bill for food consumed.

  • Farages 16ucked Face

    Nick Cohen should debate @UKIPBIACKPOOL instead of no-platforming him

  • Bodkinn

    Poor old Boris. I wonder if he fully realised the opprobrium he would bring down on himself by following his conscience. He must have known his action would attract the accusation of careerism so it was a very brave thing for him to do what is right for the country and take the flak. The fact that Mr Cameron is not seeking re-election does not rule out his political ambitions. In the event of the result of the referendum being to stay in we can expect – in the course of time – for him to be given a nice overpaid sinecure somewhere in the labyrinthian hierarchy of the EU as has others have in the past e.g. Niel Kinock. The EU looks after its friends even if they don’t do too well by the rest of us.

  • Augustus

    This is nothing less than a malicious hatchet job, probably aimed at the Hatchet Job of the Year Award for writers.

    The EU feeds away and hollows out the very self-rule and democracy of its European citizenry, like maggots attacking a piece of meat. Boris Johnson probably believes that the European trading partnership of economic cooperation (EEC) should have remained just that, and not morphed into an experiment in centralized political power, disintegrating national autonomies until entirely subordinate to a federal super-state.