Could Boris Johnson come to the UK’s rescue?
DESPITE being left dangling from a zip-wire, the London mayor’s popularity shows no signs of falling away. As patience with David Cameron wears thin, could Boris Johnson really be our next Prime Minister?
IT IS not what politicians do. Which is the point. For almost any other politician, a zip ride in a suit while waving two plastic Union Flags, and an unfortunate end which sees them dangling in mid air, legs akimbo, would be immediately written off as an embarrassment with career-ending potential. For Boris, not so. “Highwire act Boris Johnson defies political gravity” declared one BBC headline – this after, a few days earlier, it had described footage of Jeremy Hunt having an accident with a bell to ring in the Olympics as “a gaffe”. One man’s gaffe is another man’s triumph. And in this case, the other man is the ubiquitous London mayor.
As Great Britain celebrates its gold rush this weekend, and London basks in the attention of the world, so the political ramifications of the event are being weighed up. Chief among them is whether or not, like the gymnasts at the ExCel Arena who have captured the country’s hearts, Johnson is poised to use the games as a springboard from which to somersault all the way to Number Ten. “Seriously?” some might ask. Deadly. Speak to Conservative figures about Johnson and the question is not whether he will or won’t attempt to use his position to push on for high office, but how and when it will happen.
In Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron has been heard lightheartedly complaining that he is being kept awake at night by the beach volleyball, which plays Queen’s We Will Rock You at the beginning of each game. With a flatlining economy, poor poll ratings and a grouchy mid-term party behind him, that is not the only thing keeping him awake. By contrast, Johnson – whose name was being chanted by 60,000 people in Hyde Park at the beginning of the games – is having a whale of a time. Foreign TV crews line up to interview him, saying he is far better known to their audiences than the PM. On Friday night, he sat alongside another fan, Rupert Murdoch, to cheer on Rebecca Adlington in the 800m swimming freestyle. For a former journalist who was once sacked for making up a quote, who then, after becoming an MP, was sacked from his shadow cabinet job for not being straight with his boss about the details of an extra-marital affair, and who has since bumbled his way from the studios of Have I Got News For You to the River Pool in Lewisham (which he fell into in 2009), the sudden Boris-mania is something to behold. Can such a man really usurp the slick Cameron and one day be Prime Minister?
“If any other politician got stuck on a zip-wire it would be disastrous. With Boris it’s a triumph. London is lucky to have him,” agreed Cameron graciously last week. The sub-text of the quote was notable. London is exactly where Downing Street would like Boris to remain. Cameron would not be human were he not to feel a certain prickliness towards a rival who has felt his intellectual superior since the pair were studying at Oxford together. For while the Prime Minister finds himself weighed down by a self-inflicted coalition compromise at Westminster, and a remorseless recession draining his administration of cash, Boris appears not to have a care in the world. The mayoral job – like the First Ministerial roles in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – suits a maverick who can appeal to local sentiment and rail against the centre. In the anti-politics mood of the moment, which leaves leaders like Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband as “them”, a less powerful charismatic leader like Johnson is very much “us.”
Patience with Cameron is now wearing thin. More than two years since his entry into Downing Street, internal questions which began with his failure to win a majority have now grown arms and legs. The complaint within the party is that the government isn’t rousing the troops. The chairman of the National Convention, Emma Pidding (the elected leader of the voluntary party), expressed her worries on BBC Radio 4’s World At One last week: “My concern is that we are potentially upsetting our members and activists when I have one goal, and that is to obtain a Conservative majority government in 2015. Anything which upsets any of my members, I don’t like to see that.”
No wonder that an ebullient, popular leader who both connects to Tory values and to those outside is suddenly seen as an option. Another prominent party figure notes: “The coalition was always going to be a difficult mid-term period for this government. Boris is able to say what he thinks and then get on and do it. Cameron can’t do that in the coalition.”
This particular figure says that the Tory bush telegraph has been hot this week with calls being made about Johnson’s potential. They may have been encouraged by the fact that Johnson’s ratings have improved significantly over the past few weeks. In May, only 24 per cent of people saw him as suited to the job of Prime Minister. By last week, that had risen to 36 per cent. The same poll showed that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives would narrow by five points to just one if the mayor took over from Cameron. So might it happen? Tim Montgomerie, founder of the website Conservative Home, says: “He becomes leader if the Conservative party concludes that Cameron can’t win the next General Election and they turn to Boris as someone who has won twice in a Labour leaning city.” That, however, is a very big “if”. Another survey by Conservative Home found that Cameron was still easily the most popular choice of leader for the next General Election among grass roots members. Montgomerie notes that a change of leader is very low on their “things to be done” list. There is also the small matter of Johnson not being a Member of Parliament. Realistically, a leadership challenge mounted by the London mayor prior to the next election, when he has only just agreed to serve another four years as London mayor, would be both practically impossible and politically toxic. After that, however, all bets are off. Johnson could choose to fight for a seat in the 2015 general election, putting him in the mix post-election.
Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, notes: “That would mean saying he isn’t going to stand in London again. And if Cameron then manages to win in 2015, it is game over. If he doesn’t, it would be very difficult for Cameron to stay on. Then Boris would be in a strong position.” The Conservative Home survey showed that, among party members, Johnson is the favoured successor to Cameron, with William Hague and Michael Gove running behind him. George Osborne – whose calamitous budget this year has eroded what slim chance he had to take over from Cameron – was the most favoured choice of just 2 per cent (the smarter money is on Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond, seen by many Westminster figures as the Tory coming man).
All this chatter is nonsense, says Johnson himself, who has attempted to brush off all speculation about his grand designs in the past week. That, say party insiders, is deceptive. Under the (newly trimmed) flaxen hair lies an ambitious political strategist who has his eyes on bigger things. But two big things still count against him. The first is that the bumbling eccentricity – attractive in a mayor perhaps – becomes scary in the keeper of the nuclear codes. “He has made political slips in the past, but if he did that as Prime Minister you can imagine his leadership unravelling pretty quickly,” notes Curtice. Does Britain want a Prime Minister who accuses Liverpool of wallowing in self-pity, or one who travels to China to declare it was us who invented “whiff whaff” (better known as table tennis)? The second is his London-ness. Outside of the capital, and especially in the north, Johnson has had little to say in the last five years. And while his ambitious support for a new London airport in the Thames has shown he has vision, his plan for Britain is a blank. Or, as one Scottish Tory put it: “What has Boris ever said about the Union? If he wants to be a leader, he has to show he’s about more than just London. That will be his challenge.”
The short-term danger for Johnson is that, if he becomes identified by the wider public as a potential future leader, the floppy-haired authenticity will begin to look forced and out of place. Furthermore, once the Olympics have left town, there is likely to be a post-games mood slump in which zip-sliding antics may be viewed in a more caustic light. The Boris bubble of the last two weeks may come to be seen simply as yet another August silly season story to keep the crowds entertained.
If, however, the serious political figure which lurks within the clownish exterior is given his head, then the chance is there. It may be that Johnson has a politician’s most important attribute – luck. Analysts like Curtice note that, if the Eurozone implodes in the coming months, and Britain’s relationship with the continent becomes the biggest question in the land, a maverick popular leader who stands up for a newly invigorated Britain may be just the tonic the country wants.
If the hair stays trimmed this autumn, watch out for Boris. «
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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