Seldon and Newell’s “Johnson at 10” is a deeply dispiriting book. I read it because a friend of mine with normally reliable opinions told me I really had to, as it contained such a stark and detailed portrayal of the depths Johnson was prepared to plumb. I didn’t much look forward to it, but agreed I would, and, because I’d agreed, I read it from start to finish. As I started, I reflected on the fact that I was pretty sure that nothing could make my opinion of Johnson any lower than it was already, but also prepared for the possibility that what I read might do just that.
It did. There wasn’t anything worse than we already knew about. But the sheer relentless detail of it made clear what an utter reprobate of a human being Johnson is with not one redeeming feature. He has a great gift with words, he can be charming, he can be nice, he can be generous (as long as it’s with other people’s money). None of those redeem his utter lack of morals. I recently heard of the concept of an “energy drain”, a person who is so negative that they drain the life out of you. I expect we all know one or two. Johnson is an integrity drain. Whatever integrity there is in a situation, Johnson’s very presence just drains it away. I knew that already, although I’ve only now coined the phrase. But the book confirmed for me in black and white, with no shades of grey in between, just what an integrity drain he is.
In its way this book will be seen as a contribution to the historical record. It is a detailed account, using many eye witness statements, and noting provenance where appropriate (though more of that a little later). It gives detailed and apparently accurate accounts of many events, issues and relationships in a period that will receive intense examination from future generations, not just out of macabre historical interest but also with a view to not making the same mistakes again. (On p470 the authors note a supreme irony with regard to a book entitled “How To Run A Government”: "Barber was chuffed to have been told that Johnson had read his book "How To Run A Government". (Johnson was a voracious reader, but this title sounds incongruous: a more implausible title for him to read would be hard to conceive.)" This passage is one of many showing – apparently – that they had no illusions about the man they were writing about.
And yet. And yet.
Throughout the book, through almost six hundred pages, every one packed with detail of how impossible it was for Johnson ever to do anything systematic or responsible, and comments which make it clear that the authors were completely aware of the person they are portraying, they repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly seem to be trying to find ways to exonerate him, to portray him as a man capable of goodness but somehow repeatedly mistaken, misled or falling short.
For example, the quote above about the inappropriateness of Johnson’s reading material is followed soon by p471 "[Rosenfield] was on a hiding to nothing from the start, doing a job no one wanted, working for an impossible man..."
Sandwiched between these two excoriating statements we find this: p470 "The appointment [of Barber] revealed Johnson at his best." There is no "best". Occasionally the shopping trolley points in the right direction. Occasionally Johnson's capacity to produce the right sounding words while meaning absolutely none of them, would fortuitously result in the right person being put into the right place. The authors mistake happenstance for moral character.
Earlier on they write of his victory speech after the 2019 election that he was "gracious in victory" (p135). He wasn't: he wrote words that made him seem gracious in victory. He's actually a human generative AI - "Johnson, write a speech that looks like one delivered by someone gracious in victory". Knowing what we know of Johnson – of which the authors have supplied thousands of examples in this book – we would need proof that he was actually being gracious rather than not. Later on we get references to his speeches about Ukraine. The same caveat applies: "Johnson, write me a speech about the invasion of Ukraine, Churchillian with echoes of Thatcher." And out it comes. Given everything Seldon and Newell have themselves said about Johnson, it is not believable that he actually meant any of it. Ukraine's need happened to coincide with Johnson's desires of the time, and that is all. Eton’s teaching of rhetoric has a great deal to answer for.
And so on throughout: p482 "Why did it all go wrong? Simple. Johnson repeated, though it's hard to believe, exactly the same three mistakes..." I don't find it hard to believe at all; and, given what they've written about him in the previous 481 pages, neither should they. The reason they write that "hard to believe" is that they still believe deep down that Johnson is somehow fundamentally a serious and decent man, and he has just made "mistakes". With a bit of guidance he could have been put on the right path. Everything they write about what he actually does shows that this is not true, is never true. These are not mistakes; they are the essence of Johnson.
And, having inserted that “hard to believe” they then add, just a couple of pages later: p484 "Johnson seemed to have learned little over his three successive regimes in no 10. There is no reason to believe that, were there ever to be a fourth regime, he would not make exactly the same mistakes." Absolutely right, no reason to believe it at all, yet they still seem to want to.
As I noted above, the book is buttressed with contemporary evidence - notes of and conversations with participants in the chaos. But the forgiving asides they insert are not often so buttressed. I have not made a detailed analysis of all the phrases, but it seemed to me as I read that more often than not such forgiving asides were not supported by evidence. From the same section of the book, here is an example: p478 "For all his frustrations with Mirza he mourned being abandoned by his moral compass." If you want to make a statement about Johnson’s inner feelings, you must have detailed evidence from a contemporary source who was close to Johnson, very close. No such evidence is offered. Quite aside from the lack of evidence, this is an astounding sentence. They have demonstrated repeatedly in the book that there is no room for a moral compass anywhere in Johnson's life. How can they let themselves, after all they've said about him, actually believe that he would in any way respond to a moral compass? Particularly as she resigned because of an egregiously immoral statement about Starmer failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, and then equally immorally – as they themselves explain - not apologising after he promised her he would.
And so they continue. In chapter 10 (“Downfall” with a presumably deliberate, but distasteful, echo of Hitler’s last days) after examining all the possible culprits, they exonerate them all, and conclude that it was Johnson who brought Johnson down. Pp564-5: "An ability to govern is the most crucial of all qualities Prime Ministers need to display... Johnson never understood how to be Prime Minister or how to govern." They're right - and he was never going to. Even while examining the death throes of his Prime Ministership, they insist that he was capable of learning. “He could improve in some areas where he could learn from repeated errors…”. I have never seen a man less capable of learning than Johnson - at least unless the learning were of immediate benefit to him. And immediately after saying this - well, to be precise, two pages later, they say "He never listened, never learned, never changed: he never believed he had done anything wrong." Their summary of his personal weaknesses on p567, ending with a quote "He possessed a chronic aversion to the truth, lying morning noon and night", is devastating.
P577: "his most successful performance, showing he was capable of taking effective decisions and producing statesmanlike leadership in response to the invasion of Ukraine. It was no coincidence that his best moment was in a area where he had learned from experience". I doubt there was any learning, and I do not see any effectiveness or statesmanlike actions over this period. He was not "being" statesmanlike, he was playing being statesmanlike as he always did. What made him successful on this occasion was that - completely fortuitously - what he was good at was what was demanded. The Ukraine crisis combined two things he likes to do most of all a) be a showman b) spend other people's money - both of which have been a lifelong habit. There was very little serious decision making – all he had to do was to headline what everybody else wanted. There was no genuine concern for the people of Ukraine; we know, for example, that his trips to Ukraine were generally timed to take the spotlight off moments of domestic difficulty. The facts that it was in a good cause, and one that everybody else rallied round to, are merely fortuitous. Perhaps they're right to call it a "successful performance", because that is what it was, a performance. On a stage. For the consumption of the media.
Right to the end, they're desperate to portray him as capable of being serious. p579 "Had he been prepared to work harder and in a more systematic way, as affirmed by those working at his shoulder, he would have achieved…". Every piece of evidence brought up in the 578 previous pages demonstrates that that was never going to happen. Johnson is not capable, and never was, of hard or systematic work.
The final sentences read, p582 "Johnson had the potential, the aspirations and the opportunity to be one of Britain's great Prime Ministers. His unequivocal exclusion from that club can be laid at the feet of no one else, but himself." I agree with every word of that, except one, "potential" - it ought to be blindingly clear to the authors as well as to everyone who has read what they have written, that Johnson never had the potential to be great. He has a very strong and very defined character, with no moral compass whatsoever: his character excludes greatness. It makes him incapable of system or responsibility.
Thus it is a useful book because of the wealth of historical evidence it contains. But also a book whose analytical aspect is fatally flawed by the authors’ consuming need to find mitigations for one of the most squalid characters of all time.
Updated 15 Oct 23 to correct typos.