The Max Factor: Meet Boris Johnson’s younger brother, Max
You have to wonder just how much fun it is to be a member of one of Britain’s most high-profile dynasties. ‘It might have been one of the reasons why I decided to head off – because you are afforded a level of anonymity, being away from things,’ says Max Johnson, who, at 35, is the youngest of Stanley Johnson’s sons. ‘You ask what it’s like? It’s the only life I’ve known.’
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Max and his older half-brother Boris. There’s the shock of white-blond hair, the education at Eton and then Oxford, the love of classics, the self-assuredness and the charisma. More obviously, there was the nasty case of coronavirus in the spring, then a baby born in the summer. But that’s about where it ends, because Max has lived in Hong Kong and China for more than 10 years, is fluent in Russian, Polish, Mandarin and French, has a black belt in Taekwondo, ran the Pyongyang Marathon, set up his own investment company and is now seriously considering becoming an actor. And that’s before we’ve got to the noticeable differences in height and bone structure.
Despite the 20-year age gap, the brothers are close. The whole family is, insists Max, whatever the prime minister’s latest biographer, Tom Bower, says. Max thinks Boris is doing ‘the best possible job’. He continues: ‘I’m extremely proud of all of his achievements. I was particularly proud when he became mayor, and again, extremely proud when he became prime minister.’ He’s also full of praise for the achievements of his father, Stanley, both professional and dynastic: ‘Will I, at the age of 80, have 15 grandchildren?’
We’re sitting in the plush splendour of The Promenade at The Dorchester, where genteel piano music plays behind us and Max’s half-eaten Reuben sandwich lies on the table between us. Dressed in a thin black Ralph Lauren hoodie, with his backpack resting by his size-13 feet, Max comes across as relaxed, affable and intelligent. He maintains eye contact without fail. If at times there’s a sense of him narrating a polished life story, that’s possibly because he has just finished writing his 80,000-word memoir – still awaiting a publisher.
The story begins in Brussels. Max was born in 1985, the youngest child of Stanley Johnson – who was then working for the European Commission – and Stanley’s second wife, Jennifer. They lived in a charming house with a tennis court and swimming pool until Max was five, when the family moved to Oxford and later to London, so that his older sister Julia, now a novelist, could attend school in the capital. Summer and winter holidays were spent on the family farm on Exmoor, where they’d be joined by Stanley’s children from his first marriage, Boris, Rachel, Jo and Leo.
Max has always been supportive of his eldest brother. He voted Leave in the referendum – or at least, he tried to, but failed to register as an overseas voter. ‘My vote was really to do with just wanting Boris to be prime minister. And I could see that his side winning the referendum would be good for his career.’ He pauses. ‘But if you were going to ask me today: would I have even held a referendum? No.’ Further questions about Boris are gracefully deflected, though Chequers is ‘beautiful’ and No 10 ‘a bit draughty’. ‘If I were prime minister, I wouldn’t want a flat. I think we could do better for our prime minister. I think we could give him a slightly nicer residence. But then, that wouldn’t be very British of us, would it?’
Downing Street aside, Max speaks with masterful vagueness about the family, who, when we meet, are weathering a Tom Bower-shaped tornado as The Mail on Sunday gleefully serialises the sauciest bits of his biography of Boris Johnson. Bower’s book takes particular aim at Stanley, arguing that a turbulent – and, Bower alleges, violent – family dynamic shaped Boris into the man he is today. ‘Like all families, there are highs and lows,’ says Max. ‘What’s important is that you all pull together. Because family’s all you’ve got at the end of the day.’
So the Tom Bower stuff..? ‘Trash,’ says Max, before I’ve finished the sentence. ‘Not even worth… What was the question?’ He laughs. ‘There’s a lot of rubbish written all the time about us, none of which is true. So, in a sense, that can just be added to the whole genre of writing.’ Unprompted, he continues: ‘I’m a strong believer in maintaining family loyalty and not speaking about certain things that should just remain private. Not speaking about them, not writing about them, not publishing them. And there’s a lot that journalists like him pick up on, which frankly should never have even been in the public domain, but has been, on occasion, put out there, and I regret that it has.’ (Here’s looking at you, Rachel.)
On the whole, though, Max appears unfazed by it all. ‘You’ll have to do a lot better than that to actually score some damage,’ he says. ‘Some of it falls into the category of just, like, trash writing, which is so wide of the mark that it’s just ridiculous.’
Like Boris, Max thrived at Eton, where he was a contemporary of Prince Harry – though they only crossed paths on the rugby field. He got involved in drama, sold bootleg cigarettes and made fake IDs. ‘I’ve always been interested in business,’ he says. ‘And if you take away the subject matter of what I was doing, school was a market – a captive market.’ More interesting was Russian, which, together with Polish, is what he went on to read at Christ Church, Oxford. He worked hard, made lifelong friends and basked in the Oxford-ness of working in the Bodleian. He was a member of the drinking society Stoics and another club called the Loders, but only ‘casually’, he insists. ‘I went to a few dinners, I didn’t smash anything.’ Drinking societies weren’t really his thing, he concluded. ‘I think I was brought up better than that.’ For Max, travelling was more stimulating, with its draw of ‘discovering the unknown’. His summers were spent Interrailing (eastern Europe, Armenia, the ’Stans): ‘It was a strange sort of natural progression towards the East from age 15, really.’ His year abroad had him hitchhiking along the Silk Road, studying in Kraków, working in Irkutsk and trying his hand at selling second-hand Boeing 747s in Moscow. After Oxford, he went to Tsinghua University in Beijing to do an MBA. It was 2007, China was on the up, and Max saw a chance to ‘get my foot in the door’. He rang Stanley, who said: ‘Do it.’
Max spoke no Mandarin but ‘it didn’t daunt me, because, having learnt ancient Greek, Latin, Russian and French, I knew I could do it’. (As we make our way from the Tatler photoshoot at China Tang in The Dorchester to The Promenade, he quickly pops back to thank the staff in flawless – to this untrained ear, at least – Mandarin.) It was an exciting time to be in Beijing: the 2008 Olympics were around the corner and the air pollution was clearing up. He left to join Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, arriving in 2013. He was 27 and clearly had the time of his life. ‘There I am, bachelor life, Hong Kong. You’ve got your office life, working hard, playing hard. Social life was incredible. It’s got fantastic restaurants and bars and hikes. Lots of parties – boats and yachts and weekends in Bali or Thailand.’
He was a regular at Tatler HK parties (and was named one of their most eligible bachelors), though his vibe was perhaps less ‘bonkers in Honkers’ and more exercise junkie. ‘I actually got very fit,’ says Max. He took up Taekwondo, earning his black belt, played some serious tennis and got into running. He entered the Pyongyang Marathon and has returned to North Korea twice since: ‘I’m of the view that you can’t really make an opinion of a place until you’ve been there yourself. I find it really frustrating when people stereotype Russia or China when they haven’t even been there.’
Back in Hong Kong, Max also met a girl: Gabriela Maia, a former model from Macapá in northern Brazil, who is now training to be a therapist. Max proposed on a Monday and they got married the Saturday after, barefoot on an Indonesian beach in 2018. ‘It suits my character,’ says Max of the impromptu nuptials. ‘I want to get this done and I’m really impatient to get it done.’ Was it romantic? ‘It was. And it was beautiful. And [there were] water buffalo on the beach, and horses. And it was the most beautiful sunset.’ Their daughter, Ayla, was born in July 2020.
Now, Max runs his own investment advisory firm, MJ Capital, which helps companies navigate the complex corporate waters of China and elsewhere in Asia. Demand is especially high at the moment, he says, as UK-Chinese relations become increasingly frosty. Max is one of the British Council in China’s Leading Lights (essentially, an official role model), and is disappointed in the West’s pivot away from China – a couple of days before our meeting, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab hints that the UK may boycott the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics in response to China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims. ‘If you end up cutting discourse and boycotting, where do you go from there?’ Max asks. ‘It’s a bit petulant to just stand up and walk off.’
Researchers estimate that at least a million Uighurs have been imprisoned in ‘re-education camps’ – but Max seems convinced that dialogue is the way forward. ‘I think if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that you need your neighbours,’ he says earnestly. ‘If you have a difficult neighbour, building your hedge higher or ignoring them doesn’t change anything, they’re still going to be your neighbour.’ And if that neighbour has a particularly grim human-rights record, what then? ‘I leave it for diplomats and politicians to discuss whatever human-rights situation exists in other countries they may object to. I don’t think that’s the role of business. That’s not my role,’ says Max. As a businessman with decades of experience working in China and Hong Kong told me, wryly: ‘The people who are most successful in China are those with the quietest relationships with China.’
Still, things did get bad in Hong Kong last year, as the pro-democracy protests and China’s response escalated. ‘Look, it was awful,’ says Max. ‘Who likes Molotov cocktails being thrown outside your window?’ But as far as he’s concerned, Britain needs to ‘draw the line’ when it comes to Hong Kong. ‘We’ve got to separate our emotions from what is fact,’ he says. ‘The fact is that we handed Hong Kong back, and Hong Kong is part of China. And we may object to what other countries do in their own backyards – and there are ways to object to that – I just think it’s important to do so for the right reasons, not based on what I think could be seen as a sort of emotional response, which goes back to some sort of regret that Hong Kong was handed back.’
Max and Gabriela left Hong Kong at the end of 2019, although he still keeps his office there and a flat in Central. (The plan had been to split their time between Hong Kong and London, where they live in Queen’s Park – but the pandemic has had him grounded here.) However, there’s a sense that Max feels his time in Hong Kong is up. ‘There’s just a lot more out there,’ he shrugs. It’s at moments such as these that he comes across as a bit of a Faust figure (of the Goethe, rather than Marlowe, variety), ever striving to master the next thing. ‘There’s no rule book in life,’ he says. ‘Some people will say, “Oh, you’re doing this, you’ve just got to stay at that.” When the truth is, a lot of people probably have a lot of other talents to do other things.’
Which is why Max is staging a return to one of the passions of his youth: acting. ‘I just didn’t have the guts to do acting professionally after university. Maybe I didn’t think I had the talent either,’ he says. (A talent scout in Hong Kong thought otherwise, and asked him to be an extra in a Transformers movie – admittedly a step down from his supporting role in a BBC adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper at the age of 11.) Last year, he took an acting course at the Giles Foreman Centre in Soho. He hopes to make a proper go of it: ‘I just get a lot of personal satisfaction from acting. I suppose just from using this body that I have and being able to create something. I suppose it’s more nourishing for the soul.’
Max’s experience of the first national lockdown – after he and his pregnant wife recovered from the virus – was ‘fantastic’. They spent the three months in a house on Stanley’s farm in Exmoor – ‘We saw each other, but kept our distance.’ Ayla has yet to meet her new cousin Wilfred, but Max has seen his brother. ‘He looks well,’ insists Max, dismissing speculation that the prime minister is still poorly. ‘Obviously he had it bad, but he looks pretty good.’
Max’s own run-ins with the tabloids have been pretty minor, though the Daily Mirror did question whether his appointment to the board of a wellness company was intended to open doors at No 10. ‘I have my agenda and what I need to focus on,’ he says, shrugging. ‘And I’ll just let other people speculate, really.’
For now, he’s looking for a publisher for his memoir, which he wrote during lockdown – ‘I’ve wanted to write one for a long time, and I also wanted to prove to myself that I could actually write a book.’ It’s called FILTH – a self-deprecating reference to the old phrase ‘Failed in London, try Hong Kong’. And then he’s loving fatherhood (‘I’m also really tired’); taking a course in farm management; fixing up Stanley’s ancient Land Rover; and simply enjoying life back in England.
And while he has joked in the past about the Johnson family having a one in, one out policy when it comes to politics, he assures me that, currently, he has no political ambitions of his own. ‘Politics should be about serving the people, not serving the self. And until I reach the moment where I want to act selflessly for the people, it’s not the thing for me to do.’
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue. Subscribe now to get 3 issues of Tatler for just £1, plus free home delivery and free instant access to the digital editions
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