Over the past 12 months or so, journalist and former Boris Johnson colleague Sonia Purnell has been talking to London politicians, City Hall observers and figures from Boris’s personal life.
The full result of her research emerges next week as Just Boris, her unauthorised biography of London’s second Mayor (you can order a copy here).
The book does a great job of delving beyond the headlines and popular myths to offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of “a political celebrity” and deserves a place on any book lover’s Christmas present list.
Earlier this week I met up with Sonia to discuss the book and Boris:
What was the inspiration behind the book?
“I don’t think there’s any other public figure in Britain right now who is as interesting, as multi-layered and as difficult to read as Boris
“No-one’s ever tried to answer the question of what makes him tick before and I’d worked with him very closely in the past and so had a sort of head start.”
You worked with Boris in Brussels, what was your first impression of him?
“I realised that this was an intensely ambitious, focused, ruthless person who would go somewhere because he also had great charm.”
How does Mayor Boris compare with the Boris you worked with?
“He had the same scruffy suit thing that goes on now, slightly less so perhaps, he hadn’t done the hair ruffling yet but there was a lot about that Boris that’s similar to the one of today.”
“The whole thing is really well thought out – the hair, the suit, the bike, the name, the lateness, the jokes, the Latin. It creates a character and a very popular one.”
Did you speak to Boris during the writing of the book?
“No I didn’t, I spoke to lots of people who work very closely with Boris. Boris has every opportunity to put his own point of view across so this was trying to be more of a detached, objective book”
“I did invite him to speak to me, I was promised lunch for quite a long time but that never appeared. It would have been good to speak to him but I got what he wanted to say through Guto [Harri, Boris’s Director of Communications].”
How easy was it to get people to speak to you?
“I was really astonished at what access I was given, from Downing Street downwards.
“There’s something about Boris, people want to talk about him, they want to speculate about him and hear what other people think about him.
“And so, most of the time, the interviews went way over time and people missed trains and got irate calls from families waiting at home and sometimes it was quite difficult to get people to stop talking!
“I was amazed and grateful that people did talk, both on and off the record.”
Was there a majority opinion or narrative that you found as you interviewed people?
“There was a real range of views [but] a lot of people would start off saying ‘oh, I’m very, very fond of Boris obviously’ and then spent the next hour and a half criticising him!”
“I got that quite a lot, that was a common pattern which I was quite surprised about. People are quite fond of him but find him frustrating and infuriating and he tends to drive people mad.
“One of the things I say towards the end of the book is that he tends to disappoint far more than he offends.”
How would you describe Boris?
“He has many gifts, he’s clever, he’s funny, he’s charismatic, he’s popular, he’s lucky, he has a great way with words, he can communicate with lots of different people but he hasn’t done much with all those gifts yet and I think that’s why a lot of people get quite cross with him and other people feel they’ve been let down by him.”
A number of City Hall politicians have called Boris lazy, do you think that’s fair?
“To think that he’s lazy is completely wrong, he’s a workaholic. When he’s working he just wants to get on with it and doesn’t want any interruptions.”
What’s your view of his term as Mayor?
“I think he’s cheered people up, I think until recently he’s made CIty Hall a nicer place to work but I do think there is a problem with the achievement list.
“There’s a bit of an achievement deficit. Sure, he’s introduced the bikes although they were Ken’s idea but that was pretty rocky…and as the book says, they’re going to cost £100m over the course of this Mayoralty. That’s an awful lot of money for what is, in effect, a nice toy.”
What’s next for you?
“The story hasn’t finished with Boris has it? I don’t believe he’s going to disappear whatever happens next year. I’m already working on an extra chapter for the paperback…”
Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity is published by Aurum Press and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.co.uk