Could Boris Johnson, the ridiculous yet charming mayor of London, really go on to lead Britain?
What a difference a year makes. Last August, London was ablaze and convulsed by riots. Across large swathes of the British capital, police appeared content to surrender control of the streets to rioting youths who looted and pillaged until they could loot and pillage no more. Commentators, both domestic and international, wondered how it had come to this. Something, though it was not quite clear just what, had gone badly wrong in Britain. The city’s mayor, Boris Johnson, later shrugged off criticism, claiming the police had done "a fantastic job" — a view shared by few.
Fast forward to this August and London has presented a far different face to the world. Barring any last minute mishaps, these Olympic Games have been a tremendous success. London has been en fête and, for a few weeks at least, Britain is at ease with itself. Britons, naturally a grumbling people, have gone goofy for the Olympics and there’s a palpable feel-good factor across the land. And the sun has even come out, on occasion.
Though the right to host the games was won by Tony Blair’s Labour government and though Prime Minister David Cameron once hoped the games (plus economic growth) would kick-start his re-election campaign in 2015, the politician who has gained most from the Olympics is London’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
Boris — the only politician who has a first-name-only relationship with the electorate — once described his prospects of ever becoming prime minister as being "only slightly better than my chances of being decapitated by a Frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a disused fridge, or reincarnated as a olive." But, basking in an Olympic glow, and with Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government liable — as matters stand at present — to lose the next election, the once-improbable idea that Boris might actually succeed Cameron as Conservative leader is now being taken seriously in London.
And yet Boris continues to insist that he’s not a contender. This week, he told breakfast television that, "I think it is inconceivable that I am going to be prime minister. At the moment, I certainly don’t want to be prime minister." As denials go, "at the moment" is less than Shermanesque. But Britons indulge eccentricity and admire self-deprecation. When the mayor was photographed dangling helplessly from a zip wire last week, Boris turned a potentially embarrassing photograph to his advantage. "I think the brakes got stuck," he quipped. He then followed it up watching himself on television with, "How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?"
But Boris doth protest too much — and he knows it too. It was one thing when he was elected minister of Parliament for the rock-solid Conservative seat of Henley, but quite another when this mere "entertainer" somehow managed to be elected mayor of one of the world’s greatest cities. Not once, but twice. Few people at Westminster believe Boris’s ambitions have yet been sated. It is considered a matter of when and how, not if, he returns to the House of Commons.
His relationship with prime minister is a bit uneasy. "If any other politician was stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster," said Cameron. "For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph." Though contemporaries at Oxford (and each members of the Bullingdon Club, a now notorious aristocratic drinking club), Boris is seen as a dangerous, unpredictable, free agent by Cameron’s supporters. It is good, they say, that London’s mayor is a Conservative; it would be better if the mayor were someone more reliable. Or, as one of his former colleagues somewhat less decorously told writer Iain Martin, Boris is "shallow, duplicitous, selfish, sociopathic, scheming."
Those close to Cameron remember Boris’s reaction to being sacked as a Tory spokesman for the arts (for lying about an extra-marital affair): "My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters." This is seen, in some parts of the Tory party, as a prophecy for what life might be like were Boris ever to actually become leader. If Boris is the answer, runs this theory, what kind of godforsaken question is being asked?
Nevertheless, many Tory MPs are increasingly disenchanted with Cameron’s leadership. This week, one complained that "Some of us now fear that people are more interested in leading the coalition than leading the party they were elected to lead." With economic growth forecasts downgraded yet again and the coalition seemingly crippled by internal squabbling over matters as arcane as reforming the House of Lords and redrawing constituency boundaries, Cameron’s government urgently needs reviving. Even the Olympics cannot mask or make-up for the pain of Austerity Britain.
That leaves Boris as the prince across the water, presently exiled at the mayor’s office but waiting for the call to return. Where Cameron must seek consensus with his Liberal Democratic coalition partners, Boris can preach the anti-Europe, supply-side Thatcherite gospel that still thrills the Tory base. And Boris has the ability to thrill the faithful; he can reach parts of the conservative id that Cameron will never conquer. Even his more problematic views — such as defending bankers at a time when doing so is rarely either popular or profitable — are forgiven. It’s just Boris being Boris.
His critics ask "what has he done?" and it’s a fair question: His mayoralty is perhaps best known for the provision of a city-wide bike-share scheme. (Typically, the bicycles are known to all as "Boris Bikes.") They ask — and struggle to avoid a sneer when doing so — "is he serious?" Does he have the policy chops to actually deliver? Mayor of London is a grand title, but the mayor actually enjoys fewer powers than his counterparts in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. But the title and the podium it presents just might be enough. As Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer and a former editor of the Spectator and Daily Telegraph, observed last week, "conventional politics is now failing more comprehensively than at any time since the 1930s, and … Boris Johnson is the only unconventional politician in the field."
Quite so. What other politician would dare suggest that "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3." According to all the rules of the political game, statements such as these should disqualify Boris from serious consideration. Yet what other British politician could have 60,000 Britons chanting his name as Boris did when he welcomed the Olympic torch to London?
Be this as it may, the idea of Boris as a future leader of the Conservative party, much less a potential prime minister, is still somewhat implausible. Though he has benefitted from his Olympic moment (to the extent that whereas, in May, just 24 percent of Britons said they thought him a suitable candidate for prime minister, some 36 percent approve of his credentials now) it remains the case that Boris, for all his charm and wit, remains an improbable candidate. But that was true when he ran for mayor — and look what happened.
If voters are indeed tired of disciplined, on-message politicians forever striving to spin their way to the top, then it is no wonder they find Boris so appealing. Unkempt, shambolic, and all over the place, Boris seems the antidote to "professional" politicians. He is not groomed. He does not have a script. As one astute analyst noted recently, Boris has become "the clown prince of the anti-politics movement." At a time in which politicians are routinely mistrusted Boris at least has the advantage of seeming authentic. He is the greatest political celebrity of an age that scorns politics and is in thrall to celebrity. This makes him a figure of endless fascination.
Is it all an act? Can Boris really be as daft or idiosyncratic as he seems? Not likely. But could Britons really consider voting for a man who seems to have sprung from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse? It seems a whole lot more possible now than it did just six months ago.
Perhaps the Olympic good feelings won’t last beyond a few weeks. But with a stagnant economy and a coalition government increasingly defined by intramural squabbling, if ever there was a time for Boris, this may be it. All the usual rules say Boris must be unelectable but, as he has already proved, Boris doesn’t play by the usual rules. Beneath that blonde mop of hair and behind that disheveled, often ludicrous, public front lurks a politician of low cunning and high ambition. And that makes him dangerous.