Boris Johnson's father Stanley hit the Prime Minister’s mother in a domestic violence incident that broke her nose and left her requiring hospital treatment, an explosive new book has revealed.
The astonishing disclosure is one of a string of revelations in The Gambler, a major biography of Mr Johnson by the renowned investigative author Tom Bower, which is being serialised in The Mail on Sunday, starting today.
Mr Bower describes Stanley’s first marriage, to Mr Johnson’s mother Charlotte, as violent and unhappy, quoting her as saying: ‘He broke my nose. He made me feel like I deserved it.’
Charlotte told the author: ‘I want the truth to be told.’
Last night, family friends confirmed the story to this newspaper, but insisted that the incident had been a one-off.
The friends said it happened in the 1970s when Charlotte was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and had ‘flailed’ at Stanley, who broke her nose when ‘flailing back’.
Father Stanley and mother Charlotte. Boris, centre, is pictured with his brother and sisters in the seventies. Mr Bower describes Stanley’s first marriage, to Mr Johnson’s mother Charlotte, as violent and unhappy, quoting her as saying: ‘He broke my nose. He made me feel like I deserved it’
Boris with Carrie Symonds in March. Following several humiliating exposés of Boris’s adultery, Marina Wheeler had tried to repair their relationship, but those efforts had been wrecked by his most recent affair with Carrie Symonds, the 30-year-old Tory communications chief
They added that Stanley, now 80, deeply regretted the incident, which led to Charlotte being taken to hospital, and denied that he had been violent on any other occasion.
Mr Bower says this secret, and Boris’s parents’ troubled relationship, defined the PM as a man.
Royal biographer Tom Bower
Described as ‘the most effective journalistic sleuth of his generation’, Tom Bower is admired for investigative books that for ever change the way we perceive the rich and powerful.
From Tony Blair to Richard Branson, Mohamed Al Fayed to Prince Charles, the former BBC Panorama reporter’s forensically researched ‘warts-and-all’ biographies are defiantly unauthorised.
Often, they’ve led Bower to court to successfully defend the truth, while crooked publisher Robert Maxwell tried to intimidate the author by setting private detectives on him.
Bower, 74, says: ‘The immorality of the rich and powerful has always fascinated and appalled me.’
He writes: ‘Boris agonised over his mother’s fate… unwilling to confide in others about his father’s violence, he became a loner.
‘To mask the misery and hurt, he demanded attention… But Boris’s bravado masked deep unhappiness.’
Charlotte’s detonation of the long-held Johnson family secret is one of a series of revelations by Mr Bower which come closer than any previous work to explaining Boris’s complex psychology.
Based on interviews with hundreds of colleagues and family members, including with Boris’s mother and first wife, the book invites sympathy for the Prime Minister by painting a portrait of a young boy who turned into a self-contained loner as he battled despair over his parents’ divorce and his feral childhood.
Boris, by this account, grew up unable to forge close relationships with men so sought out women as his soulmates instead, which explains his notoriously prolific love life, in which he recklessly poured out his heart to lovers in poems and letters, even threatening suicide to deter women from abandoning him.
The book also details Boris’s intense desire to become Prime Minister, jostling for advantage with fellow Old Etonian David Cameron and feuding with George Osborne in what is portrayed as the transfer of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club antics to Tory high command.
It chronicles Boris’s soul-searching over Brexit, the victorious Vote Leave campaign and his eventual march into Downing Street after the political quagmire of Theresa May’s Government, as well as the ‘terrorist demands’ that chief aide Dominic Cummings made before joining him in No 10.
The drama of the Covid pandemic is also described, with Boris presented as a Prime Minister who was panicked into a lockdown by overcautious scientists.
Underpinning every political development is the backdrop of constant, draining emotional drama in his private life, but Mr Bower concludes on a positive note – that as Prime Minister, he still has the opportunity and desire to improve fundamentally people’s lives.
When Stanley was asked by The Mail on Sunday outside his home in North London yesterday about the contents of Bower’s book, he said: ‘I haven’t read it. I don’t want to comment.’
He then rode away on his bicycle.
No 10 also declined to comment.
Boris Johnson is pictured with his mother Charlotte at his book launch in 2014. They added that Stanley, now 80, deeply regretted the incident, which led to Charlotte being taken to hospital, and denied that he had been violent on any other occasion
by Tom Bower for The Mail On Sunday
As the staff served dinner in the wood- panelled dining room at Chequers, the tension in the air was palpable. The occasion was a family party hosted by Boris Johnson to mark his father Stanley’s 79th birthday in August 2019. Just weeks before, Boris had become Prime Minister, and his father was understandably proud to be entertained in such style.
But even Stanley’s familiar bonhomie and the new Prime Minister’s joviality could not conceal the strained mood. At the very moment when the famed Johnson clan should have been rejoicing, the family’s relationships were splintering.
The Johnson family in Brussels in 1977. Rachel and Jo, Boris’s younger sister and brother, had both come to Chequers with their spouses and children. Leo, the fourth sibling, was on holiday in Greece
Just over a year earlier, when he resigned as Foreign Secretary, Boris and his then wife Marina had left Carlton Gardens, the Minister’s formal London residence, in separate cars. After 25 years of marriage, they had agreed to divorce.
Following several humiliating exposés of Boris’s adultery, Marina had tried to repair their relationship, but those efforts had been wrecked by his most recent affair with Carrie Symonds, the 30-year-old Tory communications chief. Too many lies, betrayals, confessions and apologies had been offered over the years to make any credible amends.
‘He’s a s***. He’s utterly selfish. He’s destroyed the family,’ one of the Johnson clan had exclaimed.
Boris Johnson with his mother Charlotte. Only Boris’s 77-year-old artist mother, Charlotte, could explain Boris' hostility towards his father Stanley. It reflected the Johnson family’s intimate history, which only now has she chosen to make public
The raw emotions at play were barely concealed.
Rachel and Jo, Boris’s younger sister and brother, had both come to Chequers with their spouses and children. Leo, the fourth sibling, was on holiday in Greece.
But to Stanley’s disappointment, Boris’s and Marina’s four children – Lara, then 26, Milo, 24, Cassia, 22, and Theo, 20 – had rejected the invitation to the party.
Not only were they angry about their grandfather shaking Carrie’s hand at a public meeting about the environment, but they also refused to speak to their father.
On top of that resentment was the long-running friction between Stanley’s four older children and his second family – his daughter Julia, then 37, and son Max, 33. In recent months, Stanley’s second wife had openly spoken out against Boris and even forbidden him to visit Nethercote, the family’s farm on Exmoor in Somerset.
As usual, Boris’s enthusiasm and jokes during the Chequers dinner hid his own feelings.
Boris Johnson pictured as a young boy with his father Stanley. Marina blamed Stanley for her marriage’s collapse and refused to speak to him. Like Boris’s first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, she said that Boris’s adultery mirrored his father’s habits
Secretive and untrusting, his accomplished performance concealed his vulnerability.
Any sadness about his children’s absence was cancelled out by his recent triumph. ‘It’s all about Boris,’ many of those working with him would frequently assert.
But even for his family, that truism merely highlighted an enigma. Did anyone, they wondered, know the real Boris?
They agreed he was a loner with few close friends. Among those few had been Marina, his anchor and consigliere, and the ghost at the feast. ‘Marina’s Magic’ had held the Johnson clan together for years, especially more recently at family parties.
Boris’s disloyalty to Marina had generated intense hostility towards him and deep sympathy for her.
Marina blamed Stanley for her marriage’s collapse and refused to speak to him. Like Boris’s first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, she said that Boris’s adultery mirrored his father’s habits. The same unhappiness Stanley had spread among his own children, Marina said, was being repeated by Boris towards his four children with her.
Stanley Johnson introduces himself to Carrie Symonds at an anti-whaling protest outside the Japanese Embassy in central London on Saturday, January 26, 2019
Naturally, the fracture of the family’s ties, exacerbated by their differing views on Brexit, was kept under wraps. United by intelligence, charm and their striking blond hair, the public face of the Johnsons was as a dynasty of tightly bonded high achievers.
The following morning, Boris had expected everyone to stay on at Chequers for Stanley’s birthday lunch. Instead, Rachel and Jo had other long-standing arrangements and left. To those who remained, their departure had seemed somewhat ungracious. Suddenly, the celebrations had gone quiet.
A year later, by August 2020, the family tensions that simmered at Chequers had erupted into an irreconcilable feud. For Stanley’s older children had become ever more bewildered about their father’s second marriage, just as they all questioned Boris’s relationship with his fiancee Carrie.
As Boris struggled to protect 67 million Britons from the disaster of Covid-19, his own family – still heralded by many as an enviable model of love, laughter and glory – was disintegrating in the shadows.
The question asked was whether the unseen collapse of the Johnson dynasty was a metaphor for Johnson’s premiership.
Above all, there was the ongoing complex dynamic between Boris and his father.
During all the media appearances over the years, the striking similarity of appearance, mannerisms and jokey tone shared by Stanley and Boris would suggest that the two men were closely bonded. Few people, however, noticed during the Tory Party’s leadership campaign events in 2019 the cold stares Boris shot as he walked past his father, invariably standing in the front row. But even Allegra, who had maintained that her former husband’s worst habits were inherited from his father, was unaware of the real reason for Boris’s deep anger towards Stanley.
During all the media appearances over the years, the striking similarity of appearance, mannerisms and jokey tone shared by Stanley and Boris would suggest that the two men were closely bonded. Family pictured in the 1970s
Only Boris’s 77-year-old artist mother, Charlotte, could explain his hostility. It reflected the Johnson family’s intimate history, which only now has she chosen to make public.
Bowled over by Stanley’s energy, dynamism and intelligence, the 20-year-old Charlotte Fawcett had married him in 1963 while an undergraduate at Oxford University. Only years later would she realise that instead of a loving and deep friendship, she had become infatuated with a man who deliberately minimised the seriousness of anything and ridiculed intimacy.
Their first child, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, was born in June 1964. While his mother completed her English degree, the baby would sleep in a drawer at her college room.
By the end of the year, Charlotte was pregnant again, and the relationship with Stanley changed.
During a series of bitter arguments, Stanley accused Charlotte of seeing too much of her friends. ‘He resented that I cared about my friends,’ she recalls. Charlotte blamed herself for Stanley’s anger and continued her studies.
Bowled over by Stanley’s energy, dynamism and intelligence, the 20-year-old Charlotte Fawcett had married him in 1963 while an undergraduate at Oxford University
Their problems were buried after Stanley joined MI6 and began a training course which separated him and Charlotte during the week. In June 1965, she gained her degree and celebrated that Boris had walked at 11 months.
He was 15 months old when Rachel was born, and his expression on seeing his sister for the first time was not joyous. ‘When Boris arrived at the hospital to see Rachel in my arms,’ Charlotte recalls, ‘his look was shock, disbelief and fear.’
In 1966, the family moved to the US, where Stanley had obtained a job with the World Bank. Boris was proving to be a temperate, smiling baby. Aged three, he had begun to read – in particular he enjoyed a comic strip depicting the story of an ancient civilisation called the Trigan Empire. ‘He was gripped by that,’ says Charlotte, ‘and that gave him an idea. He said to me, “I want to be world king.” ’
Stanley, who had changed his job to work for the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, missed these milestones. As a committed environmentalist, he was flying around the world seeking to improve the condition of poverty-stricken countries. During visits to his young family in Connecticut, he was the life and soul of any social gathering. But back at home, the humour disappeared.
In 1969, the family returned to Britain. Because money was short, it was decided that Charlotte would live with her husband’s family at Nethercote, on Exmoor, as Stanley would be travelling the world as part of a scholarship programme. On the eve of his departure, there was another argument in front of Boris, then five years old – and, incidentally, already reading the editorial columns of the Daily Telegraph.
‘Stanley was very bad-tempered,’ remembers Charlotte. ‘He was always shouting and angry.’ Without apologies, Stanley would drive off from Nethercote for his next adventure.
As Rachel wrote nearly 50 years later: ‘He is never happier than setting off to live with some remote tribe many thousands of miles from his loved ones. He cares far more about other animals than even his own family.’
Being left behind in Somerset was a punishment for Charlotte and, as she believed, an opportunity for serial adultery on the part of her husband. Asked many years later if he was ‘completely unfaithful’ and ‘an amazing womaniser’ as Charlotte had thought, Stanley replied: ‘Total garbage. Honestly.’
Life at Nethercote was chaotic. As Boris approached school age, Charlotte and her children moved into a dilapidated, unheated house next door to Stanley’s parents, Johnny and Irene. With little money, they were marooned. ‘There was no point saying to Stanley, “Give me a car,” ’ Charlotte explains. ‘He wouldn’t.’
For Boris, untidiness became a way of life. Rubbish was strewn around the home, and in later life either thrown into the back of his car or out of the window.
While Stanley was saving rainforests, his family were sick because Nethercote’s water was contaminated by lead pipes. ‘We were all lying ill on the floor,’ says Charlotte. Compounding his sickness, Boris often screamed with pain from agonising ear-aches caused by grommets, and suffered long periods of deafness.
The only constant male influence in his life was his paternal grandfather Johnny. All the children loved him, proudly bearing the special nicknames he gave them. Unlike Stanley, Johnny did not smack the children, nor criticise their appearance.
Charlotte’s lawyer father, too, was a kindly influence. James Fawcett, a classicist who had won a double first at Oxford, introduced his grandson to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Boris became fascinated by the ceaseless competition between macho males driven by self-belief. ‘It was a world,’ he would later write, ‘that believed above all in winners and losers, in death and glory.’
In the summer of 1970, Stanley returned to Nethercote and began inculcating his values in his children. Success, he believed, was generated by competition. He pitted his children against each other – at snooker, reading, maths and table tennis. After Rachel beat Boris at table tennis one day, she watched her brother’s fury: ‘He kicked the garage door so hard he broke his toe.’ Once, after Rachel got on to a table to make a speech, Boris, with uncontrolled anger, pushed her off to make his own.
It was during this period that Charlotte confronted Stanley about the affairs she suspected him of having. He denied it.
‘Stanley wanted to be loved,’ she recalls, ‘and wanted sex and he wanted power. And when I contradicted him, it threatened his power.’ Charlotte never thought of leaving: ‘I stayed because I loved him, despite the tensions.’
Boris agonised over his mother’s fate. Not only had he watched her suffer, but also saw his father blatantly deny the truth.
Unwilling to confide in others about his father’s temper, he became a loner. In his solitariness, his competitiveness was offset by self-doubt. To mask the misery and hurt, he demanded attention.
Just as his father wilfully amused friends and strangers to conceal the wretched chaos at Nethercote, Boris adopted his father’s performance. Rachel, his only confidante, did the same. Together, they learned overwhelming resilience.
In 1972, Stanley, then 32, was offered a well-paid job as the head of the Prevention of Pollution and Nuisance Division at the newly formed EEC’s headquarters in Brussels.
In this prestigious social world, the family was reunited with Charles Wheeler, a BBC journalist whom they had met in the United States, and whose daughter Marina now became a friend of Boris and Rachel at Brussels’ European School.
Across the international community, Johnson senior’s charm and humour were appreciated – although Stanley, they learnt, was always about Stanley. ‘I can count the seconds,’ Rachel wrote in 2017 about meeting her father for lunch, ‘until he says, “So what I’ve been up to…”’
Imitating Stanley, Boris assumed that his life was always going to be about Boris. Like his father, he would entertain to get the laughs and become the leader. Indeed, he adopted a motto Stanley preached: ‘Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.’ And, he could add, avoid apologising. But beneath the laughter, all was not well. Boris’s bravado masked deep unhappiness. His parents’ marriage had become irredeemably fractured. Charlotte found the pressure of her husband’s neglect and philandering overwhelming.
Boris, aged ten, and nine-year-old Rachel became the guardians of their parents’ secret. The family was safer if outsiders did not know. Then, in 1974, the dam broke.
Overwhelmed by severe depression, Charlotte suffered a nervous breakdown. She was rushed from Brussels to the Maudsley Hospital in South London, which specialises in mental health care. Isolated from her family for eight months, she felt wretched. For her four children, the circumstances were unusually difficult.
On an overcast day 45 years later, in the autumn of 2019, handicapped by Parkinson’s and other illnesses, the accomplished artist, who now lives with a carer in a small but comfortable flat in West London’s Notting Hill Gate, disclosed that the marriage ‘was ghastly, terrible.’ In particular, Charlotte described the ‘difficult times’ at the Maudsley. ‘I want the truth told,’ she explained to me.
OVER the years, Stanley has pleaded ignorance about the causes of his wife’s depression. ‘I never got to the bottom of it,’ he said in 2019. ‘It was too complicated for me, and a mystery.’
Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me.’ She recalls: ‘He broke my nose. He made me feel like I deserved it.’
After the attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in North-West London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.
Charlotte’s parents, who lived near the hospital, visited their daughter daily. ‘My parents confronted Stanley about it,’ she continued, ‘but he denied it.’
Although Boris was just ten, Charlotte forensically discussed her marriage with him. Equally, she realised, her son ‘admired his father’s humour and dash’.
Regarding Boris witnessing her suffer at Stanley’s hands, she said: ‘That was terrible for the children.’
Her stoic bravery and silence taught Boris never to reveal vindictiveness or bear grudges. Most important, he has never spoken of how his mother’s suffering permanently influenced his life, character and personality.
While Charlotte was in hospital, Stanley was responsible for his children. But he was absent from their home in Brussels for much of the time, leaving an au pair in charge.
The children were often expected to look after themselves, even making the arrangements to travel from Brussels to London to visit their mother.
Yet, still today, Rachel refuses to blame Stanley. ‘It was difficult for my dad, too,’ she has written. ‘I can’t pretend it wasn’t bleak, but he did brilliantly to keep it all going. He very much kept the show on the road.’
Boris understood the cause of his mother’s condition.
‘I have often thought,’ Charlotte would later say, ‘that his being “world king” was a wish to make himself unhurtable, invincible, somehow safe from the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months.’ The lesson he drew from witnessing marital discord was to avoid overt confrontation in his life.
Charlotte is certain that her suffering preyed on the young Boris. Denied his mother’s embrace and the absence of any home warmth, while at prep school, Ashdown House in East Sussex, there was a vast emotional hole. Some called the result ‘the frozen child’.
Stanley had promised Boris that he would never leave his beloved mother. But in the summer of 1978, after Boris’s first year at Eton, Stanley told his children that he and Charlotte were divorcing.
‘Why did you have us?’ Boris asked his father alongside the three other children.
Stanley subsequently claimed not to understand why his marriage collapsed, or whether his children suffered, ‘because I never asked them’. Charlotte made no secret to their friends about her reason for demanding an end: ‘I couldn’t stay with him. He was inaccessible, not to say completely unfaithful.’
She began a close friendship with Nick Wahl, an American academic who lived in Paris, and whom she regularly commuted to see. Her children endured benign neglect.
‘I was upset when they broke up,’ was the limit of Boris’s disclosure about his parents’ separation, adding, ‘It had some effect. They handled it brilliantly.’
In truth, Stanley’s behaviour has haunted Boris. ‘My father promised me that they wouldn’t divorce,’ he told a girlfriend years later, ‘and I could never forgive him for that.’
Rachel has said: ‘We were abandoned as children after the divorce. We had to bring ourselves up. We had no home.’
Back at Eton – where he was nicknamed Pee-Pee, after de Pfeffel – Boris was surrounded by the children of the aristocracy with seemingly unlimited wealth who had also suffered difficult childhoods, among them Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer.
‘We were the children of fathers who failed their sons and created troubled boys,’ recalled one early friend.
It was the regular habit for Boris’s parents to walk around their home and Exmoor farm naked in the summer.
His father, Stanley, told their young family’s two au pairs in 1976 that a water shortage meant they were unable to wash their clothes so they, too, should not wear any.
Both complied and walked around in the nude.
Stanley insisted on two au pairs – and embarked on an affair with one, in front of his children.
Fellow students said Boris arrived in Oxford in 1983 planning to reach the Cabinet by the age of 35. With a showman’s hunger for celebrity, the Oxford Union, the students’ debating society, was a natural magnet for him. Even then, a few mentioned him as a future Prime Minister.
He was not the cleverest, once described by a tutor as ‘the worst scholar Eton ever sent us – a buffoon and an idler’. But he possessed a magic combination of intelligence, wit, cunning and exhibitionism. His showmanship disturbed his mother when she visited with Nick Wahl. Beneath her son’s sparkle, she saw that his childhood grief about his parents’ relationship lingered.
Ignoring his mother’s new happiness and Wahl’s warmth towards the Johnson children, Charlotte noticed how Boris ‘hated Nick’. He was, she concludes, ‘jealous about Stanley. He wanted his parents to be married. Boris’s reaction was primitive.’
Boris needed a soul mate, someone with whom he could speak heart to heart. That, he found, was impossible with men. Only a woman could ever be his confidante. His requirements rarely changed: good-looking, intelligent and sophisticated. On that scale, few exceeded the charismatic Allegra Mostyn-Owen, renowned as one of the university’s most beautiful women. The two formed a deep friendship, culminating, in the summer of 1986, in a proposal. Insecure, with a fear of homelessness, Boris fulfilled an ambition to ‘marry up’.
‘Boris’s game-plan,’ Allegra was convinced, ‘was influenced by what Stanley had done.’
His father had married a woman from a well-off family early in his life, and Boris, at 23, had decided to follow suit. Two hundred guests were invited to the wedding on September 5, 1987, at the Mostyn-Owens’ country seat in Shropshire. ‘It was a very happy wedding day,’ recalls Allegra, although her groom had lost his wedding ring and had to borrow a morning suit and cufflinks.
Her father had warned her: ‘He’s rapacious. What do you see in him?’ and within two years the relationship was, as Allegra puts it, ‘already creaking’.
In the summer of 1989, Boris, by now working as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Brussels, flew with his wife to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt for a holiday.
Distressed by the break-up of her own parents’ marriage, she needed Boris’s support. But he, flippant and emotionally superficial, was indifferent to his depressed wife. Lonely, self-doubting and locked in a competitive boys’ game, he never revealed to Allegra the pains of his own childhood.
The final straw came in February 1990 when she cooked dinner for him