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The curious tale about Johnson and the Shakespeare biography

Some six years have passed since Boris Johnson first agreed to write Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, receiving an advance of at least £88,000 to start work on a book that his publisher hoped would bring his “characteristic curiosity, verve, and wit” to retelling the life of Britain’s greatest author.

Johnson, his publisher said, would determine “whether the Bard is indeed all he’s cracked up to be”. As the world waits to hear the answer to that pressing question, Downing Street is facing inquiries about whether the prime minister has been spending time writing his book, rather than running the country.

Westminster is awash with talk that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser in Number 10 turned arch-critic, will use an appearance before MPs on Wednesday to claim the prime minister was working on his Shakespeare biography instead of grappling with the impending Covid-19 pandemic.

Johnson’s spokesman flatly denied on Monday the prime minister was focusing on the book in January and February 2020 — as the crisis moved closer. “The prime minister has throughout been at the helm of the government’s response to the pandemic,” said Number 10.

However, Downing Street did not deny that Johnson has worked on the Shakespeare biography, for which he received the £88,000 advance from his publisher Hodder and Stoughton UK in May 2015, since becoming prime minister in July 2019.

Johnson’s financial difficulties — including funding a divorce, child support and a makeover of his Downing Street flat — are well documented, although his allies said he had not submitted any work to the publisher during his time in Number 10.

But mystery has long surrounded Johnson’s disappearance from public view for 12 days in February 2020, during which time he retreated to Chevening, a government grace-and-favour house, with his fiancée Carrie Symonds.

In the first two months of 2020 Johnson did not attend five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee to discuss coronavirus. Downing Street said they were chaired by senior ministers and that this arrangement was not unusual.

Britain was also hit by severe flooding in February but Johnson did not visit the areas affected. He finally chaired a Cobra meeting about Covid-19 on March 2, three weeks before the country was put into lockdown.

The Shakespeare biography was originally scheduled for publication in 2016, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Hodder, the publisher of Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill, paid the initial advance and held UK rights, while Riverhead planned to bring the book out in the US and McClelland & Stewart in Canada.

Typically publishers make further payments to authors on delivery of a manuscript and on publication of the book. Some media reports have put the value of Johnson’s book deal at close to £500,000 — a sum that publishing executives said was not out of kilter with his prominence or record as a best-selling author.

When he signed the deal, Johnson was mayor of London, and he received the advance just a few weeks after being re-elected to parliament at the May 2015 general election. Alongside his book writing, Johnson also penned a column for the Daily Telegraph, for which was paid about £260,000 a year.

But those commitments soon became difficult to juggle. Johnson missed the first deadline for the Shakespeare biography, which coincided with the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. He was then forced to shelve the project later that year after being appointed foreign secretary by the then prime minister Theresa May. Hodder said at the time the book was delayed “for the foreseeable future”. 

Once Johnson was back on the Conservative backbenches after quitting as foreign secretary in 2019, a new date for the unfinished book was set for April 2020. But this too was postponed after Johnson won the Tory leadership race in July 2019.

Hodder said on Monday: “After the success of Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which was published in 2014, Hodder & Stoughton contracted him to write a book about Shakespeare, originally planning to tie in with the Shakespeare anniversary in 2016.

“When Boris Johnson became foreign secretary we agreed that we would delay publication until a more suitable time, and we have not scheduled the book to be released in the foreseeable future.”

Johnson’s friends said they would not be surprised if he had worked on the book in Number 10, partly because he needs the money and also because he writes to relax.

In 2009 he defended writing his Daily Telegraph column while serving as London mayor, saying there was no reason why, on a Sunday morning, he “should not knock off an article as a way of relaxation”.

In 2019, during the Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson said he had already started preparing his Shakespeare biography and suggested he intended to complete it — although not as “rapidly” as he had hoped.

“That unjustly neglected author will no longer get the treatment he deserves as fast as it might otherwise happen,” he added. “That will grieve me because . . . I love writing about him.”

Anthony Seldon, chronicler of successive prime ministers, said it would be “fantastic” if Johnson had found time to write books during his time in Number 10 because it would allow his mind to be elevated above the day-to-day grind of office.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Sebastian Payne in London

© Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images

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