Boris and Ken: warnings from history

With Boris Johnson making a naked bid to become PM and Ken Livingstone making trouble for Jeremy Corbyn, I decided to revive this, from November 2011, from the Literary Review, in which I got my teeth into Boris’s unauthorised biography and Ken’s auto-hagiography. My hope is that reading this will you put you off both of these shallow, shameless opportunists.


DURING the Tory Party Conference in October 2011 an encounter occurred between Boris Johnson and his unauthorised biographer Sonia Purnell.

“I spotted Boris at around midnight,” says Purnell, who used to work with Boris in the Daily Telegraph office in Brussels. “He was talking to Nick Robinson of the BBC who discreetly stepped aside.

“Boris said, ‘Have you written anything nice about me?’ and I said there’s lots of nice stuff. He said he had only seen the extracts in the papers and he said he must read it, he had only heard what some people had been saying about it.

“He then said he knew he should have bought me lunch, but I knew he never would. He only buys lunch when he really needs to get out of a hole and keep people onside.”


This incident reminded me of my own encounters with Boris, following a cover story I wrote about him for the Spectator in 2010, two years into his mayoralty. It was written more in sorrow than in anger, but it pulled no punches in comparing Boris’s pre-election persona and promises and his rather disappointing performance as London’s elected leader.

I expected Boris to either rage against me, or ask me to come and talk to him about my criticisms. After all, I had discussed planning and housing with him a few times during the election campaign, and was even put forward for the position of Deputy Mayor for Housing (a job that was subsequently mysteriously abolished, and even more mysteriously resurrected).

But all Boris wanted to know was whether I had offered the piece to the Speccie or whether they had asked for it. When I said it was very much the latter, he put on his best hangdog expression (nobody does it better, although Prince Charles comes close) and shuffled off promising to be in touch. I knew he wouldn’t and I was right.


Nothing in Purnell’s thoroughly researched and well crafted page-turner (not to say ‘bodice ripper’) came as a surprise to me, although I was struck by her insights.

“In spite of his quick-fire wit he does not laugh,” she notes, explaining that this is because “To laugh – as to cry – involves a loss of control… and that is something he is unwilling to allow.” How true: in spite of all those familiar shambolic features, Boris is an intensely calculating man with a sharp albeit lazy mind.

What I was not expecting was her detailed account of his four-year affair with Petronella Wyatt, and especially the searingly painful description of events leading up to her aborting the second baby she conceived by him. At one point, Purnell says, he suggested “she should have an affair with someone else and say it was their child” – so he could avoid paying child support. Lady Wyatt added that Boris had refused to pay the £1,500 medical costs of the abortion. His description of his £250,000 a year for his Telegraph column as “chickenfeed”, makes Purnell’s revelations of Boris’s common meanness particularly unattractive.


Andrew Gilligan once quipped that Boris was a serious man pretending to be a buffoon, while Ken Livingstone was a buffoon pretending to be a serious man.


The front cover of his memoirs shows Ken – who for years was paid handsomely by the Evening Standard to review some of London’s top restaurants – relaxing in a greasy spoon caff. He claims his childhood dream was to work in London Zoo, and in many ways he appears to have made it come true.

I first saw Ken in County Hall in 1974. I was having a cuppa with the veteran Housing Chair Gladys Dimson, a mild yet effective Old Labour politician. Suddenly she whispered: “Don’t look now – but here comes the snake in the grass.” Ken had entered the room.


Nothing has happened since to make me think she had been wrong in her assessment.

Everything in his life and times has always been of Ken and for Ken. Now we finally have also have the ‘by Ken’. Reading “You Can’t Say That” is a weary trawl through over 670 pages of self-serving tedium. The author is clearly as media-obsessed as he is self-obsessed, appearing to have  read – and kept – every single newspaper reference to himself, for better or worse. He is also the kind of bully who accuses others of thuggery while always presenting himself as the victim. The result is whinge rather than wit.

I chose two incidents of which I have considerable personal knowledge to give Ken’s account a reality check. The first was the infamous party attended by Ken, his then pregnant girlfriend Emma Beale and Emma’s best friend, my friend and colleague Robin Hedges. It involved a row between Ken (who had been drinking) and Emma (who had been smoking). Robin came to her defense and ended up severely injured at the bottom of a stairwell. There followed an ambulance trip to A&E.

Ken claims that Robin “lost his balance”. Robin clearly remembers being helped to lose his balance by a shove from Ken. Ken then says Robin “asked us to issue a statement”, insisting it was just an accident. Robin tells me he was put under enormous pressure by Emma, first not to call the police and then to agree to a statement drafted by Ken and herself. Robin had – and has – no reason to lie, while for Ken it would have been a career killer. You do the maths.


The second incident involves another colleague, Oliver Finegold. I recommend anyone interested in a career in spinning, ducking and diving to read carefully pages 513 – 517.

What actually happened was that, after a City Hall reception to which the Standard had not been invited, Oliver asked Ken politely how the party had gone. Ken replied by asking if he was a “German war criminal”. After being told by Finegold that he was Jewish and offended by the remark, Ken said: “Oh, you’re like those concentration camp guards, then – only obeying orders”.

When the story broke Ken first tried to claim that Oliver had sworn at him. He had to abandon this vicious lie when a tape recording emerged.

In his book, he dismisses the entire exchange as light-hearted banter, and claims “I was exonerated” by the High Court. In fact, he got off on a technicality, but Mr Justice Collins emphasised:  “This decision is not an indication that, in my view, the appellant’s (Mr Livingstone’s) actions were appropriate. I’m quite clear they were not.”

No apology has ever been forthcoming (has Ken ever apologised for anything ?) and – irony of ironies – he is happy to quote the support he got in refusing to apologise from… Boris Johnson!


Which brings us full circle.


If you want to know who and what Boris is, read Purnell. If you want to know who and what Ken is – read Andrew Hosken’s admirably fair, accurate and lively 2008 biography, which is also 200 pages shorter. You may then reach the sad conclusion that one is a man who listens to no one and one who listens to too many; between one who air-brushes history and one who writes about it; between a control freak and an out-of-control freak. And that Britain deserves better – much better – than either.


PS Purnell’s comprehensive book has an eight-page index.

Ken’s index is 30 pages long and contains glancing single references to Michelle Obama and Lord Lucan. But none to “restaurant”…



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