Boris Johnson’s bizarre insistence yesterday that he would not “undergo a psychological transformation” despite mounting fury at his mendacious and lawbreaking conduct gave us a rare insight into his tortured mind. The bags under his eyes, the ever-expanding middle, the sweaty goosey pink skin all bear testimony to a man who is increasingly uncomfortable with himself and his legacy.
There have always been flashes of instability – the frothing temper, the bizarre shrieking when under pressure – but as a narcissist these traits only get worse when he is cornered as he is now. I remember friends of Johnson telling me just before he became prime minister that there was concern in the family that he was simply not sufficiently mentally stable to cope with the relentless pressures and problems of running a country.
Since then, he has become genuinely frightened of the chaos, division, unhappiness and potential for much worse that he has unleashed – consult Sasha Swire’s diaries, for instance, for when he confessed to her that the fear stopped him from sleeping at night.
Decades of indulgence, exceptionalism, and lack of consequence programmed him to behave in a selfish and reckless way
Imagine how he feels now that the scandals keep coming in, fully knowing there are many more, potentially even worse, to come out. Now the economy is tanking, the health service is in crisis, and the country gripped by strikes and the slogans are falling flat. He has no clue what to do next. He never gave much thought to being prime minister (only the becoming of PM) and virtually none at all to the afterwards except the idea of getting very rich.
Don’t hold your breath for a Johnson global idea thinktank or worthy charitable foundation when he finally departs Downing Street, but who except the deluded or desperate will want anything to do with him then anyway?
Yet whether it is voters, MPs, staff or even wives and mistresses who demand that that he change – or rather improve – he will not and cannot do so. He is a leopard who won’t change his spots because he does not have other ones. Decades of indulgence, exceptionalism, and lack of consequence have programmed him to behave in a selfish and reckless way. It has, after all, done him very well, propelling him to the highest elected office in the land. He has never thought about much else.
There have been virtually no boundaries imposed on Johnsonian conduct (by employers, party, or cabinet) but just as with children – and there is truly something of the toddler about Johnson – that does not necessarily lead to happiness.
In the 30 years I have known him – and the year I spent working as his closest colleague – I have never seen him switch off. That manic approach to winning (which he himself once compared to wasps fighting in a jam jar) cannot, however, be sustained. There is a hollowness in Johnson that blocks out those things in life that normally buoy us through trouble – the love of family or friends or place.
With reality at the age of 58 finally closing in on him, his one old trick of joking around will no longer do. As even people who voted for him with delight and pride now try to deny it, he is no doubt desperately trying to find another gamble with an eye-catching announcement that might buy him more time. Otherwise, he knows too well that there is only one button left in his toybox, the one marked self-destruct. He would rather not go out on a whimper but a very big bang.
Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition