30/07/2013 08:40 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Strange Case of Boris Johnson and Benjamin Disraeli


Having read Boris Johnson's review of a book that, among other things, compares him to Benjamin Disraeli, I find myself no more at ease with the mayor of London, and also with how much I like him. There's something about his blonde bumbling that is rather endearing. He is so unlike the rest of our politicians; you feel he really is a person, not just a condom - a joke that never gets old, in the Guardian's eyes at least. Yet it is also this individuality that puts me ill at ease with London's mayor; I can't quite understand why he ended up as a greasy pole-climbing politician. I can't praise those politicians who have known nothing but politics, and have dedicated their lives exclusively to the party's call, but I can at least comprehend their eventual manifestations as MPs, city councillors and parish big-wigs. But how did Johnson end up there? Wouldn't he have been better suited to showbiz?

So when the Mail on Sunday gave Johnson the awkward task of writing a review of Disraeli, Or the Two Lives, a damning critique of the nineteenth century politician, which also suggests a comparison between Disraeli and Johnson, how did the man respond? He wrote with his characteristic blonde bumbling that leaves you wondering quite what, politically, he means. He begins by listing several of the criticisms made of Disraeli in this new book: "It turns out that he was an unprincipled adventurer of sexual tastes", "he embezzled money from the husband of his mistress", "when he did finally win in 1874, he had no particular idea what to do and would regularly fall asleep in Cabinet" - these are just a few of the many cases made against Disraeli by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young.

Johnson even has the confidence to bring up some of the contemporary criticisms of Disraeli; the historian J.A. Froude, Trollope and Punch all lambasted him, very wittily, in his own time. And then our mayor dismisses virtually every argument made in the book with a swish of his golden locks; "this attack on Disraeli is really the renewal of points regularly made in his lifetime, and, for my money, it fails to make any kind of dent in his greatness," he writes. Ah, good - so glad you've cleared that up for us, Boris.

But the strangest part of the article must be Johnson's description of Disraeli in his own image: "the son of an antiquarian bookseller... overcame entrenched anti-Semitism not by concealing his origins - but by foppishly and flamboyantly playing them up." Foppish flamboyance - these are concepts that describe Johnson rather well, aren't they? Piers Morgan certainly wrote of his "foppish tomfoolery" in GQ, and in the Independent Jo Johnson was described as lacking "his brother's flamboyant streak".

When I read this article, my mind couldn't help wandering back to a recent review in the LRB, in which Jonathan Coe looks at Harry Mount's, The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. The book argues, to summarise crudely, that Johnson's got plenty of the former, but not so much of the latter - and importantly, that the overflowing wit makes it tricky to see what exactly the wisdom might be. "Boris Johnson has become his own satirist: safe, above all, in the knowledge that the best way to make sure the satire aimed at you is gentle and unchallenging is to create it yourself," Coe concludes.

Has Boris managed to play his satirist trick again? Has he managed to distract us from the extremely negative connotations of being compared with this portrait of Disraeli by focusing instead on the man's foppish flamboyance? Perhaps tellingly, the only real criticism of Disraeli that Johnson swallows is his excessive sense of humour; "if he had a flaw it was that he was too amused, and refused ever to stoop to the literal-mindedness of Peel or the priggishness of Gladstone," Johnson writes, before recounting a fairly weak joke Disraeli made on his deathbed.

I do rather like Johnson's review, though.