The new PM saw literary potential in his career – as did his own father and a string of other writers. So how does he come across?
Long before Boris Johnson began the game of putting himself in fiction, in his much-derided novel Seventy-Two Virgins in 2004, there were already shadowy echoes of him in literature. Recent profiles of the future prime minister have invoked Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the self-obsessed “president of the galaxy”, but not really in charge) and Toad of Toad Hall (comparing the efforts of friends to rein him in to the ill-fated bid in The Wind in the Willows to make a “sensible Toad” of their manic chum). There’s William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, who rather like the young Boris is mistakenly hired as a reporter but copes by making things up. And the creations of PG Wodehouse, another favourite Johnson benchmark: is he most like Gussie Fink-Nottle (whose fiancee Madeline Bassett does her best to reform), or Roderick Spode, parvenu toff and far-right politician. Or perhaps a fusion of Bertie Wooster’s persona and Jeeves’s brains?
Over the last 15 years, a slew of authors have followed Johnson’s suit, devising versions of him for the page or stage – here are some of them.
Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson (2004)
Johnson’s only novel is a sexist, Islamophobic exercise in wish-fulfilment, in which accident-prone, bumbling Tory MP Roger Barlow prevents a terrorist bomber killing everyone at Westminster – largely so that in lionising him, the press will forget about his private indiscretions. Ten years later, Johnson’s biography of Churchill was also seen as using its central figure as a thinly veiled avatar of himself.
Who’s the Daddy? by Toby Young and Lloyd Evans (2005)
This farce by the Spectator writers draws on the recent shenanigans involving its team that had led to the weekly being dubbed “the Sextator”. No sackings ensued, despite the play including Boris’s extramarital affair with Petronella Wyatt and a three-couple orgy in his office.
Posh by Laura Wade (2010)
Wade’s hit play about ruling-class hooligans on the razzle contains no direct sketches of Johnson or fellow Bullingdon Club members David Cameron and George Osborne; but it does portray a group mentality that opponents would see as defining the entitled Cameron set who were about to come to power in the 2010 election, after Johnson had earlier shown that Tory toffs could triumph in polls by becoming London mayor.
Real Tigers by Mick Herron (2016)
This thriller includes a home secretary called Peter Judd who is described as “a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle”, ie Johnson in the thinnest of disguises. Far from being an engaging eccentric, Judd is the novel’s machiavellian villain, willing to use any means and ditch any past positions in order to propel himself into No 10. Herron was a student, like Johnson, at Balliol College, Oxford, and may have overlapped with him in the 80s.
Kompromat by Stanley Johnson (2017)
This satirical thriller by Johnson’s father is bewilderingly bizarre, portraying the campaign that provided the platform for his son’s subsequent leadership bid – leave’s march to victory in the 2016 EU referendum – as a Russian plot. Johnson Senior renames Vladimir Putin as Igor Popov, who sees an opportunity to destabilise the west when the UK votes on whether to stay in or leave the European Union.
Ultimatum by Frank Gardner (2018)
Published when Johnson was foreign secretary, Gardner’s novel centres on a UK foreign secretary’s abduction during a visit to Iran. As an impartial BBC journalist, Gardner avoids the usual Boris signifiers in characterising his hapless politician, but there’s a discernible relish to the descriptions of his humiliations when held captive.
Brexit: The Uncivil War by James Graham (2019)
Wooed across to TV, the award-winning playwright outclassed other dramatisations of recent politics with his docudrama dominated by Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the leave campaign’s mastermind. Politicians, including Johnson, were portrayed as Cummings’ puppets. Does Graham, with hindsight, now regret not giving Boris more scenes? Will he put him centre-stage in a sequel?
The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson by Jonathan Maitland (2019)
In the first half of Maitland’s play, Johnson has to decide whether to back leave in 2016 when dining with Michael Gove; in the second it is 2029, Dominic Raab is in Downing Street and Boris is tempted to run again. “It leaves its subject unskewered,” complained Michael Billington.