The mayor of London – that guy with the floppy blond hair – has written a book. It's about a politician known for his "journalism, the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes" as well as "the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportunism." But Boris Johnson, the rhetorically gifted and slightly camp mayor – also an ex-journalist who recently announced he was re-entering national politics, amid whispers he wants to become prime minister – swears the work isn't even semi-autobiographical. "Any resemblance to any living politician is entirely accidental," Mr. Johnson says mirthfully, reclining in a chair set up in the library of the Hyatt Regency Churchill Hotel in central London. "Honestly."
Mr. Johnson's 10th book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, is, of course, about Britain's legendary Second World War prime minister – and Mr. Johnson's personal hero – Winston Churchill. The man better known in this city as "BoJo" says he wrote the book after being asked to do so by members of the Churchill family to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston's death this coming January.
But it's nonetheless impossible to separate the timing of the book's launch from Mr. Johnson's recent declaration that he is returning to national politics and will seek a seat in parliament in next year's election.
Mr. Johnson writes that Mr. Churchill, as a rising politician, "did indeed seem somehow predestined for the job [of prime minister], and not just in his own eyes."
The same is often said of Mr. Johnson today.
In a YouGov poll taken shortly after he announced his plan to return to Westminster, 69 per cent of Londoners said they believed BoJo's real aim was to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron. A former editor of Britain's high-brow (and small-c conservative) magazine The Spectator, Boris Johnson the journalist is ready for the questions about whether he's trying to make a connection between himself and Churchill in the minds of the public. "People will say that – and, indeed, that's what I would write if I were writing the piece; there's no question of that," he says coyly. "But it's just rubbish."
By now – just eight minutes into our hour-long interview – I understand that Mr. Johnson is the rare politician who enjoys jousting with journalists at least as much as journalists enjoy jousting with him. He's just as ready – with a cheerful and practised non-answer – for the accusation that this is all part of his campaign to lead the nation one day. "I don't think it's remotely likely that I'll be prime minister, because there's no vacancy for the job. I think that we'll win this election [next May 7], and I think by the time David Cameron retires in 2030 or so, younger, fitter candidates – almost certainly female – will be ready to take over," he begins.
Then comes the "but."
"But I still have loads of energy, and my mayoral term is coming toward its …" His voice trails off, as if Mr. Johnson suddenly remembers his term is nowhere near an end: that he's supposed to serve until May, 2016. (He has promised Londoners that he can simultaneously serve as both mayor of the entire city, and the MP of the West London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He's allowed to keep both jobs, but the same YouGov poll found that almost 50 per cent of Londoners want him to resign as mayor if he wins a seat in parliament.)
Interviewing BoJo in the library of the Churchill Hotel, while he's seated under a portrait of Sir Winston, you feel as though you're playing a part in launching not just his book, but his campaign to lead the United Kingdom.
Like his subject, Mr. Johnson is a captivating orator, someone whose charisma allows him to pull off a man-of-the-people routine even though he came up through England's most prestigious schools. (BoJo went to Eton; Mr. Churchill went to rival Harrow.) Both Mr. Churchill and Mr. Johnson had prominent Conservative politicians as fathers.
Cameron attended Oxford at the same time as Mr. Johnson, and both belonged to the infamously posh and poorly behaved Bullingdon Club, a males-only establishment. But while Mr. Cameron struggles to shake an image that he comes from a too privileged background to understand ordinary voters, no one seems fussed that the mayor of London is a direct descendant of King George II (another wartime leader, who faced down the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland, and served as monarch during the outset of the Seven Years' War with France). In fact, it's BoJo's everyman appeal that makes up for his lack of allies within the Conservative Party caucus at Westminster.
"People like him because he makes good jokes. In that way, he seems to be different from most politicians, who seem rather wooden and weird," says Sonia Purnell, the author of Just Boris, a divisive biography that portrays Mr. Johnson as insincere and calculating, to the point that he carefully messes up his hair each morning to create a perfectly Churchillian dishevelled look. Just Boris was hailed as "excellent" in The Guardian (a left-wing paper that dislikes Mr. Johnson) but dismissed as a hatchet job on the mayor by the Daily Mail (a right-wing paper that supports him).
Ms. Purnell, a former colleague of Mr. Johnson's at The Daily Telegraph, points to last month's Conservative Party conference as the kind of performance that sets BoJo apart from other British politicians. Mr. Johnson drew gales of laughter by teasing Mr. Cameron about his impolitic remark that the Queen had "purred" with happiness when he told her the majority of Scottish voters had voted "No" in last month's referendum on independence.
"You have permission to purr, if you so choose, Dave," BoJo quipped from the rostrum as the Prime Minister smiled and squirmed. Ms. Purnell sees it all – the conference speech, the Churchill book, the hair – as part of Mr. Johnson's unofficial campaign to be the next Conservative leader. "He's the most ambitious person I've ever met," says Ms. Purnell, whose upcoming book, ironically, is a biography of Mr. Churchill's wife, Clementine.
Ms. Purnell thinks BoJo may be having something of a mid-life crisis. "He's now 50 [two years older than Mr. Cameron, though 15 years younger than Churchill when he first became PM], and politicians have a pretty short shelf life in Britain. He knows he's only got one or two years, so he's got to go for it now. He will not rest until he becomes prime minister."
But The Churchill Factor would have been a worthy contribution without the political overtones. Like Sir Winston – who somehow published 43 books (and won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature) while not busy leading the defeat of Hitler – Mr. Johnson is a superb writer. Despite the heavy subject matter, The Churchill Factor is a light and quick read. Much of that can be attributed to Churchill's colourful personality and life story, a mixture of historic moments and astonishing behaviour.
BoJo's brisk style of writing also helps keep the book moving, challenging readers with occasional get-out-your-dictionary words and rewarding them with the odd belly laugh. It's an "explanation of Winston Churchill for the person who doesn't want to read a massive political biography," says the author, effortlessly conjuring up a jacket endorsement for his own book as he sinks deeper into his leather chair.
Mr. Johnson – who pounded out 416 pages in less than a year while doing his day job as mayor of 8.4 million people – is reverential about his subject's own ability to multitask. "No normal family man produces more published words than Shakespeare and Dickens combined, wins the Nobel Prize for literature, kills umpteen people in armed conflict on four continents, serves in every great office of state including prime minister (twice), is indispensable to victory in two world wars and then posthumously sells his paintings for a million dollars," he writes. You get the feeling Mr. Johnson occasionally wishes he'd served in a colonial war or two before going into politics.
He says he managed his own workload by cutting back on his once-tabloid-worthy social life (there are websites devoted to listing the pubs BoJo frequents most) and doing much of his writing before his daily bicycle ride to city hall. "I really did work unbelievably hard. I got up very early in the morning. I don't watch TV, and I don't really go to dinner parties and stuff like that. So, I burnt the candle at both ends," he explains. "It was fantastic fun."
But he's hardly turned into a puritan. Mr. Johnson made fresh headlines this week by claiming that he, like Mr. Churchill, "can drink an awful lot at lunch and then write very fluently and fast."
During our interview, Mr. Johnson happily opines on everything from the Islamic State ("We've got to stop the creation of a state that is deeply antithetical to all of our values, and that can do no possible good in the world") to the challenges of multiculturalism ("I want everybody in this city to be able to speak English fluently") to how Churchill might have dealt with the challenge presented by Vladimir Putin's revanchism in Eastern Europe ("I think he would have been very tough with Putin"). He compares the European Union – something he is an increasingly vocal opponent of, as he courts the Euroskeptic right wing of the Conservative Party – to Hitler's plans to unite the continent under Nazi rule. All the while, his publisher sighs in the corner and reminds us repeatedly that we're supposed to be discussing The Churchill Factor.
But neither the subject nor the author of the book are known as sticklers for the rules.
When asked about the prospect of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, and what Churchill would have said in defence of the union, BoJo delivers an impromptu address. "Without Scotland, there can be no Britain, and Britain has given as much to the world – politically and culturally – as anywhere on the planet. … We need to keep it, to keep Britain. We're not done with it yet, and the best is yet to come," he says, unconsciously switching from his rapid conversational patter to a slower speech-giving rhythm. You get the sense BoJo has such speeches at the ready on other topics dear to his heart, such as the need for tighter immigration policies, or why Britain can go it alone outside the EU.
Mr. Johnson says his motivation in writing The Churchill Factor was to show that character and courage matter – "it's a rebuttal of the idea that history is the story of vast, impersonal economic forces." Churchill, he argues, single-handedly changed the course of Great Britain and the world by not backing down and making a deal with Hitler when some in his cabinet wanted to do just that after the fall of France, which left Britain standing almost alone against the mighty Nazi war machine.
Given the chance to write about his hero, Mr. Johnson says he "snatched at it like a seal snatching at a passing, you know, mackerel in the air – I leapt at it." The characterization is a perfect mix of camp, rhetoric and opportunism. "A lot of modern leaders try to pretend to Churchillian qualities, or whatever, and predicaments," he continues. "But I think he was a one-off. I think he was just totally sui generis." And so, we're supposed to think, is Mr. Johnson.