Johnson at 10 book review – Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell

Many people realise that Boris Johnson is a dishonest chancer who lacks any real convictions, said David Gauke in The New Statesman. Less obvious – at least to those outside Whitehall – is “quite how extraordinarily inept he was at performing some of the basic functions of being prime minister”. In their account of Johnson’s time at No. 10, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell “have done a service to us all in setting out this reality in unsparing detail”. Based on more than 200 interviews, the book exposes “again and again” Johnson’s lack of fitness for high office. He chaired meetings chaotically, had a minuscule attention span, and would say different things to different people, often several times in a single day. Grasping that he could achieve little on his own, he depended heavily on Dominic Cummings – to the extent that his adviser was “able to remove both the chancellor (Sajid Javid) and the cabinet secretary (Mark Sedwill) and choose their successors”. “I am meant to be in control. I am the führer. I’m the king,” the authors report Johnson saying after being sidelined by Cummings. 

It was Brexit that “made Johnson as prime minister possible”, said Robert Harris in The Sunday Times – and the “greatest, bitterest joke of all is that he seems never really to have believed in it”. On the morning of the result, he was heard to mutter: “Holy shit, f**k, what have we done?” Thereafter he had no idea what to do with it. Seldon and Newell are “occasionally generous”, said Daniel Finkelstein in The Times – “correctly so in describing Johnson’s handling of the Ukraine crisis”. But generally this “excellent book” is “both fair and damning”. It describes an administration beset by strategic and organisational confusion, and characterised by “internal conflict and persistent gridlock”. 

While it’s hard to dispute the main argument of this book, it’s a shame it tells us so little that is new, said Alexander Larman in The Daily Telegraph. The big revelations – that Johnson called President Trump “a bit thick”, for instance, and tried to see The Queen while he had Covid – fall rather flat, and in the end the accumulation of detail becomes tedious. On the contrary, the great merit of Seldon and Newell’s account is the sheer weight of evidence they marshal, said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. Their “authoritative, gripping and often jaw-dropping” book confirms what many people darkly suspected of Johnson’s premiership: it was “an anarchy” presided over by a “frivolous, frantically floundering and deeply decadent lord of misrule”.

Atlantic 624pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99