Oh, Rachel Johnson, you’re never related to the prime minister? You’ve kept that quiet | Catherine Bennett | Opinion

As an accomplished writer, Rachel Johnson is understandably narked to be known primarily as “the sister of Boris Johnson”, or nowadays, “the sister of the prime minister”.

Readers of her new book, Rake’s Progress, are reminded, repeatedly, how much she dislikes being introduced as “Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris, as if it’s my day job, like being a plumber, rather than an accidental side hustle of biology”. Section headings such as “Sister of Boris” and “Sister of the PM” also emphasise how much she has minded her own reputation becoming entwined with that of the Etonian shagger.

With headlines such as “OMG! They made my brother prime minister”, extracts from and publicity for the book can only have further promulgated this calumny, just when extreme social distance from the prime minister might be, for more sensitive family members, as merciful as it is wholesome.

Because they do exist! It’s possible – I know from experience – to meet a Johnson who never mentions his public school. True, Stanley Johnson might, as lead apologist and envoy for his son, consider himself identically qualified to spout sociopathic advice (enjoy unlimited long-haul flights, risk virus-spreading in pubs). And Rachel Johnson confirms that her brother has achieved his father’s unfulfilled dreams: “Al has given him that.” In what seems to be a shared interest with Dominic Cummings, she finds various genes for specialness cascading, like the family’s cherished blondeness, through Johnson generations. “Doing what we are told not to do is a family trait.”

But: nurture. Most Johnsons, however much they share Stanley and Rachel’s glee in the all-family, first-class upgrade (“there were never any toiletries at Chevening”), are probably quite different from the brother whose Churchillian affectations are daily confirmed to have been the empty pretensions of a shiftily inadequate man whose most notable characteristics – vanity, lust and ambition – were never, even pre-Covid-19, going to substitute for competence. By way of balance, Rachel obviously sees her “bro the PM” differently. “Under his Augustan reign, which he would govern like a blond, overexcited crossbreed Churchill and Pericles puppy,” she wrote (before death from the plague emerged as the sole, potential similarity between PM and Athenian statesman?), “it would be time to let the sunshine in.” Ditto, as ever, his family.

Tolerantly, she has not checked interviewers on the Today programme and elsewhere, when they introduce her, genes first, as “the sister of the prime minister”, before asking her thoughts, from this austerely objective perspective, on how Pericles the younger is dealing with the epidemic. She’s “very proud of how my brother is handling this crisis”. For Loose Women, she added a defence of her father’s pub idiocy to her considered analysis – “I think he’s doing an incredible job” – before ticking off interviewers for neglecting her work: “I’m not here to talk about Boris.”

In fairness – though, why? – to programme-makers who consider regular Johnson-flattering a defensible exercise, an interview about the book would have amounted, since it’s largely Johnson hagiography, to the same thing. Rake’s Progress, which might be more accurately titled, “Boris: My Part in His Premiership”, is basically a diary (including travel arrangements) chronicling the author’s candidacy for the forgotten Change UK party, sandwiched between doting anecdotes, or as such reminiscences are called here, “a foundational myth of the Johnson rise to power”, about family life.

Rachel Johnson on ITV’s Loose Women.

‘Very proud’: Rachel Johnson on her brother’s handling of coronavirus on ITV’s Loose Women. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Not since the life of Stalin – or maybe make that Christ – can a leader’s exemplary infancy have been so loyally documented. Did we know, all throughout Boris’s wondrous childhood, the boy narcissist wanted to be “world king”? Yes. We’ve known since 2013. About his prodigious reading? Exhaustively. But do we know about the time the untamed Johnson geniuses used, deliberately, to play ball where ball games were not allowed? “Once, when a man told us to stop, we told on him and my father came out and shouted that if the neighbour told us off again he would ‘knock his block off’ – an act of muscular fatherhood we still remember with admiration and affection to this day.” Bless.

Anyone hoping for more, in a similarly revelatory vein, about Johnson’s recent history, such as the number of his children, will, however, be disappointed. We meet Granny, nanny and repeatedly, Dada, but never, for some reason, Carrie.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s book is well timed to cast marginally more light – given some scenes are already more familiar than our own childhood flashbacks – on her brother’s struggle with decency. It would be reassuring to learn that, beneath his lies and bluster, Johnson is capable of reasoning, even a person for whom “loved ones”, his term for family members, are not, really, as disposable – if admittedly more easily replaced – as the toilet rolls his government has yet to ration. His sister depicts the proudly Johnsonian opposite. Her family turns “everything into either a competition, a game, a joke – or all three”. Think how her brother enlivened a discussion about ventilator production by referring to “operation last gasp”.

After transforming the premiership into a multi-occupancy scheme, perhaps the most striking of the Johnson family achievements is its success in persuading people that, unlike other hangers-on, they are not so much milking it, as worth it. And you can’t, admittedly, be certain the more exhibitionistic members of the “House of Johnson”, as Rachel calls the reality TV dynasty, would not be notorious if Boris had never met Cummings.

“If I hadn’t been born, he would probably not be prime minister,” she concludes in a book written, alas, before her vision of the blond Churchill/Pericles puppy seemed a less apt comparison, in terms of public health protection, than that of a flea-infested black rat. On the bright side, if junior takes down the family name along with much of the population, there’s probably at least three books in it.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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