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Rachel Johnson Talks New Memoir Detailing 'Political Mid-life Crisis'


It's become a feature of this polarized age - families divided by politics and not just here in the U.S. In the U.K., the dividing line over the past few years has been Brexit, the yearslong debate over whether and how Britain should leave the European Union. A key figure in that fight has been Boris Johnson, the current prime minister and former mayor of London, who not only broke with his own party to push Britain out of the EU, he also broke with much of his family, including his sister Rachel, who went so far as to run for a seat in the European Parliament to press the point.

Rachel Johnson writes about all this in her funny and poignant new book called "Rake's Progress: The Madcap True Tale Of My Political Midlife Crisis," Rake being her childhood nickname. There are juicy insider details galore but also a conflict many Americans of the Trump era will recognize - a deep love for her brother Boris alongside a deep horror of his stance on Brexit. She read us an excerpt.

RACHEL JOHNSON: (Reading) Politics is politics, and family is family. That will never change. Family will always come first. But whenever someone puts up write a sad/funny story in three words on Twitter, I'm tempted not to write my phone died or she left me like the others but sister of Boris. I never have, as I hate the traitor sister narrative. But what he did changed the course of history. It felt like a compass error, harder to correct with every mile traveled. And just Cameron played Russian roulette with the country and, as the writer Robert Harris judged, blew his brains out, I worried my brother was stuck in that Bruce Springsteen song. He had a hungry heart, but he took a wrong turn and just kept going.

MARTIN: Rachel Johnson's campaign for the European Parliament, her first ever run for public office, was not a success. She makes clear she wasn't good at it. But as Johnson also makes clear, she came to see publicly opposing her brother on Brexit as a matter of principle.

JOHNSON: I couldn't stand by and just think to myself, well, you know, this is going to happen whatever I do because I felt it was incumbent on me to make a stand and to be counted amongst the people who thought it was a terrible idea.

And I have to say, I know it's happened, but I still think it's a terrible idea. I mean, I know it was trying to work out why I think it's such a bad idea. And I think it boils down to this. I'd learnt my trade at the Financial Times. I worked in the Foreign Office. I couldn't see the upside from an economic or diplomatic point of view. I just couldn't, and I still can't. And that's where we are.

MARTIN: You know what's painful, honestly, to read in the book is the misogyny directed at you. This will be familiar to many women who've been in the public eye - journalists, people standing for public office. But I'm sorry, you know, the endless comments about your hair, your intelligence, your ability. Is there any lesson here, or do you just figure naming the disease, hoping somebody else will cure it?

JOHNSON: The weird thing is it's about - it's like online misogyny is a bit like criticism and praise in real life. However hard you try, you only really believe the criticism because when somebody tweets, you know, I loved Rachel's book or she was great on the radio, I don't pay the slightest attention. And I think I would be a sap if I believed it. Yet as soon as someone tweets, you know, Rachel's the stupidest Johnson, you know, I prefer to shag Boris than Rachel and I'm straight, you know, all this stuff you get as a female in the public eye - a lot of it washes over you. But I'm afraid some of it does poison and it does, you know, affect you.

I'm pretty good at tuning it out because I think if I'm going to have a public career, it goes with the territory here. And nobody stands up for you. Nobody calls it out. It's bizarre. I mean, I don't know if it's the same in Washington. Well, actually, Donald Trump did it to Megyn Kelly himself, you know? We saw it. We saw it writ large.

MARTIN: That is a whole other book.


MARTIN: But, you know, I - can I just say - I have to say, given your candor about the sexism directed at you, I was a bit shocked about one of the columns I read of yours in the Daily Mail about Meghan Markle before she married.

JOHNSON: Yes - no, no, I'm very happy to talk about that...

MARTIN: I wish you would. I mean...

JOHNSON: ...Because that was a complete misstep. That was a - I missed - I didn't know - sure.

MARTIN: I'm just saying, your column referring to her exotic DNA...

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Her dreadlocked mother born on the wrong side of the tracks.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no, no, totally.

MARTIN: I don't...

JOHNSON: It was...

MARTIN: I do not understand how somebody as - like you, who is attuned to the disgustingness directed at you - is that funny? I don't understand.

JOHNSON: Yeah, no. It's a fair point. I mean, what I would say was that was out of ignorance. It was 2014, 2015, before I was educated better about the connotations of the word - I used exotic. I literally didn't know. I - what I was trying to do, which was also rude and probably uncalled for, was to draw a distinction between the Spencers and the heritage of Meghan Markle.

Now, this is territory that nobody would stray into now because it's too dangerous. It's instant cancellation. It's - I know now. But seven years ago, when I wrote that, I thought, you know, this was a sweet thing to say about Meghan Markle. But it does follow me around, and it's sad, you know? It's your right to bring it up. And I'm very ashamed of it.

MARTIN: Well, you obviously felt strongly that Brexit was the wrong path for Britain. You've made that very clear. And you wrote about, you know, crying when you learned the outcome of the referendum back in 2016. Now, it's pretty much a done deal. What - tell us a bit more about how you feel about where your country is now?

JOHNSON: Well, it's really hard, as I was explaining, to work out where we are. I mean, economically, we've taken a huge hit, you know? We've got a few trade deals with places like New Zealand and Australia. But to my mind, why would you send and buy stuff from a country that's 9,500 miles away when you've got a trade - the biggest trade bloc in the world, sitting on your doorstep 22 miles away.

So, you know, there are nontariff barriers to trade. Northern Ireland is a powder keg. And we've got COVID pretty rampant with the delta variant. But next Monday, it's going to be a freedom day, and everyone's going to be - all the restrictions are going to be lifted apart for mosques and public transport and stuff like that. So, you know, we're trying to return to some sort of normality, but I don't think life will ever be normal. On top of Brexit, we had COVID. It's just a total freak show, really.

MARTIN: Your brother got sick, and his now-wife got sick.

JOHNSON: That was awful. That was really awful. And I'm so glad he pulled through. And he's very well. And they got a lovely baby, Wilf. And, you know, it's been - you know, there's been lots of really good happy stuff. But life's complicated, you know? Big families are complicated. Divorce is never easy.


JOHNSON: And when I say divorce, I mean divorce from the EU.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, one of the things that I think people will be interested in is that you are living something that many people in the U.S. have been living, which is that there are - a division over something profoundly meaningful. And, yes, your book is funny. And it is called The Madcap, you know, Tale. But for - it's still very painful for many people. And you write, you know, despite the fact that you and your brother, the prime minister, were on opposite sides of the debate, you still feel that it's fundamentally wrong. You love him, and you remain loyal to him. And I just wonder, you know, since many people here in the U.S. are living that same reality - I mean, obviously, their brothers' aren't, you know, running the country right now, right? But many families remain split over politics. And I just wondered if you have some thoughts about how to live that duality.

JOHNSON: Well, the way we did it was - my two principles were if I saw him, it was such fun. I didn't want to ruin it by talking about Brexit. The second principle I have is as I'm a sort of semi-public figure here, I never say anything in public I wouldn't say to him in private. So I try to only speak from a sense of my own principle. I would never do anything to hurt him intentionally.

I disagree with his policies, but I don't want to hurt him. And when I say his policies, I think his policies around the EU, I mean, I think he's handled the pandemic as well as anyone in his shoes could have done it. I mean, there were missteps, but, you know, easy to say with hindsight. So I'm here to support him. I don't think Brexit was a good idea. I still don't. But if he can make a great success of it, great or pat his elbow because the country needs that. We've left.

MARTIN: That was Rachel Johnson. Her new book is called "Rake's Progress: The Madcap True Tale Of My Political Midlife Crisis." Rachel Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us, and I do hope we'll talk again.

JOHNSON: I loved it. Thank you so much for taking the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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