Tim Bale / Sep 2022
Contrary to what you might have read, Boris Johnson has not been entirely idle over the summer. As well as taking his latest wife and children on a couple of foreign holidays and doing what he can to ensure that Rishi Sunak (who he seems to hold personally responsible for his downfall) didn't succeed him, he has apparently been busy talking to publishers about a book based on diaries he claims to have been keeping for the last few years.
The fact that someone as preternaturally disorganised as Johnson has, amidst the political, economic and diplomatic chaos he has created since 2016, managed to summon up the daily self-discipline required to journal his innermost thoughts will come as a huge surprise to many. But the fact that he’s aiming to negotiate a seven-figure book deal will not. Johnson’s money problems, combined with his obsession with besting David Cameron (who was allegedly paid ‘only’ a six-figure sum for his memoirs), were always going to make such a deal inevitable. Besides, Johnson, of all people, is familiar with his idol Winston Churchill’s quip that ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’
Johnson is not, of course, the first disappointed Tory prime minister to attempt to reinforce and/or rescue their legacy by effectively getting their retaliation in first. It’s just that less and less time seems to be elapsing between their defenestrations and the emergence of their occasionally dubious accounts of their rise to power and their time at Number Ten. Getting on for a quarter of a century had passed before Ted Heath released The Course of My Life, but his successor, Margaret Thatcher, managed to publish The Downing Street Years less than 36 months after she was booted out (or, as she saw it, betrayed) by her colleagues. Cameron achieved a similar feat with his For the Record.
As a keen student of the Conservative Party, I have been obliged (nay, keen) to read each of them from cover to cover. Predictably enough, they are, all of them, at once illuminating and infuriating – at points genuinely self-aware while, at others, transparently self-justificatory.
Whether Johnson, by all accounts something of a narcissist and a sociopath, is really capable of much (indeed, any) halfway honest insight into his own character and motivations remains to be seen. But we can pretty much guarantee that the money-spinner he produces will portray him, his motives and his actions in the best possible light while painting his rivals and opponents in altogether darker (or at least drearier) colours.
Certainly anyone naïve enough to believe Johnson might supply us with something that might conceivably pass for the truth on Brexit is bound to be disappointed. In fact, if I’ve learned one thing from reading reams on Europe from Conservative politicians over the years, it’s that their party’s interminable infighting over the issue makes it virtually impossible for them to level with readers – not just when it comes to the inevitable trade-offs involved in Britain’s relationship with the EU but also when it comes to the reasons they themselves did what they did.
Until Johnson’s effort emerges in due course, Cameron’s book, which came out almost exactly three years ago, will have to serve as the latest case in point. Indeed, its attempt to effectively rewrite history when it came to why he called the 2016 in/out referendum (as well as his inevitably partial take on why he lost it) was one of the main reasons why I’ve just published my own slim volume on the issue.
While it might suit Cameron (and others) to suggest that by holding a vote he was somehow bowing to the inevitable and to the democratic demands of the British people, it won’t do. The referendum was, in effect, a war of choice – and one fought largely to manage his own party. Cameron also wanted to spike the guns of the populist radical right insurgency, UKIP, that had so spooked Tory MPs and whose rise was fuelled by his failure to fulfil his patently unrealistic promises on immigration.
When it comes to why Cameron lost the referendum, yes, he was let down by colleagues (most obviously Johnson himself) and by Corbyn. But he could and should have predicted that. Moreover, he did himself (and the country) no favours by fighting with what amounted to one hand tied behind his back for fear that, when he won (as, for the most part, he thought he would), he might otherwise find it tricky to put his party back together again.
And talking of putting the Conservative Party back together again, we are – thank goodness – finally about to find out who is to succeed Boris Johnson as its leader and as prime minister. Given the perfect storm of problems with which he’s left whoever takes over, it seems unlikely that they will have much time to keep a diary. We may well be reading their memoirs, however, rather sooner than they probably hope.