Questions for Boris Johnson over mystery of Shakespeare book and '£98k' advance

Boris Johnson is facing fresh questions over whether he missed five crucial Covid meetings because he was writing a book on Shakespeare.

Downing Street has denied the reason the Prime Minister skipped the Cobra summits in the early days of the pandemic was due to his literary ambitions.

No 10 insiders claimed that no work on ‘The Riddle of Genius’ had been submitted to the publisher while Mr Johnson had been in office.

But sources told the Mirror that he was warned by Hodder & Stoughton that unless he completed a draft he would have to pay back his five-figure advance.

One source said: “He couldn’t afford it because of the perilous state of his finances, so the draft was completed.”

Asked about the claims today, the publisher simply said that they had agreed with the PM to delay publication “until a more suitable time”.

Mr Johnson appears to have been paid an advance of almost £98,000 for the book in 2015 by the publisher, according to his Register of Members’ Interests.

He declared an £88,000 advance from Hodder & Stoughton which he received on 31 May 2015 for a “book as yet unwritten” – two months before it was announced he would write the book on Shakespeare.

He then declared another £9,981 advance for “paperback publication of book not yet written”, bringing the apparent total to just under £98,000.

The title of the book was not named, and it is also possible Mr Johnson could have received other payments before May 2015 which went undeclared to Parliament because he was not yet an MP. Previous reports claimed he stood to make £500,000 from the deal.

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The PM eventually chaired his first Cobra meeting on the pandemic on 2 March 2020.

But in February while the virus crept into Britain, he spent 12 days out of public view on a “working holiday” at grace-and-favour residence Chevening.

A file photo of Boris Johnson without a paddle at Chevening, the grace and favour retreat
A file photo of Boris Johnson without a paddle at Chevening, the grace and favour retreat

He also spent a weekend at Chequers with Carrie Symonds, where the couple announced their engagement.

Tory aides fear that Dominic Cummings will accuse the PM of needing to deliver the book to finalise his divorce from ex Marina Wheeler, according to reports at the weekend.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman, who started his role a few weeks ago, said he was “not aware” of the PM doing any work on the biography since he took office.

He added: “The Prime Minister has been leading the response to this pandemic throughout. That has been his focus.”

Defending the decision to miss the meetings, he added: “There are a number of incidents I can run you through where Cobras have been chaired by relevant Secretaries of State as we made clear last year.”

The book was originally planned for publication by Hodder & Stoughton in October 2016, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

But after Mr Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019, the publisher confirmed that they had no plans to publish the book “in the foreseeable future”.

A spokeswoman added today: “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.”

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