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Euan McColm: Boris would refresh Westminster

Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty

Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty

  • by Euan McColm
 

WITHIN minutes of London mayor Boris Johnson announcing on Wednesday that he planned to stand in next year’s general election, campaigners for Scottish independence were using the news to further their cause.

Meet the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, they said. Vote Yes.

Johnson, of course, is the living embodiment of the Tory bogeyman the SNP is so very eager to evoke whenever the opportunity presents itself. Before Scottish Labour was bound into a temporary partnership with the Conservatives for the duration of the referendum campaign, its members were equally enthusiastic about using Tory toffs as a weapon. And, once the constitutional question is answered, they will do so again.

There are a number of reasons that Johnson is the perfect chap to raise the hackles of the chippy Scottish voter. There’s his name, for example. What kind of man has a name like Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson? A braying git, that’s what kind of man.

And there’s the education at Eton where, Scottish political folklore has it, children are schooled in the ways of oppressing others. Following that there was Oxford University, where Johnson became a member of the Bullingdon Club, a society of tossers to which the young David Cameron and George Osborne also belonged.

Add to his name, his school, his uni chums, and his offensive poshness the fact that he’s pursued his political career as a representative of the Conservative Party and we can see that Johnson’s a perfect hate figure for a certain type of political campaigning. It’s almost as if it’s too easy to dismiss him.

So let me, instead, defend him.

You will often hear people say that they want more politicians who think for themselves (when, of course, what each of them means is “I want more politicians who think like me”). Johnson is precisely that sort of politician. Whatever he thinks is pure, unfiltered Boris.

And while chattering class lefties north of the Border may not find him to their tastes, his appeal is far broader than might make them comfortable.

Within the greater London area, there are 73 parliamentary constituencies, of which 38 are held by Lab­our MPs, 28 by Tories, and seven by Liberal Democrats. Johnson did not win the mayoralty of London, first in 2008 and again four years later, solely with the support of traditional Conservative voters.

In fact, he won power by winning the backing of many of those Londoners who had supported his predecessor in office, Labour’s Ken Livingstone.

The overgrown, tousle-haired public schoolboy Johnson and the lip-curling unreconstructed left-winger Livingstone might appear to have little in common and, certainly, voters choosing between both men were 
offered quite starkly different political ideologies.

But while they diverged on the sol­utions for London’s challenges, both managed to convince the city’s residents that they would put the capital first.

It is not just with successful (or previously successful) Labour politicians that Johnson shares certain traits. He is not so very different to First Minister Alex Salmond.

Both the mayor of London and the leader of the SNP are political outsiders (aren’t the best leaders always?) They stand slightly apart from their colleagues, bolder, more willing to step into the fray.

And, regardless of what one might think of their politics, it is difficult to criticise their dedication to their 
respective patches. Johnson’s “this is the greatest place on earth” schtick is no less plausible than Salmond’s. Both men deliver their pitches with brio.

Our politics lacks characters. The romantic, nostalgic view is that this is because politics has been homogenised, that all the rough edges are smoothed off our politicians. But this theory supposes that past generations were represented at parliament by row upon row of free-thinking, intellectual giants when the truth is that the political class has always had a large proportion of dunderheads. And in the old days they were even less accountable than their contemporary counterparts.

Political stars have always been scarce. We should enjoy them when they come along.

There is the matter of Johnson finding a constituency in which to stand. At the moment, he does not – officially, at least – have anywhere particular in mind. But let’s not be so naive as to believe that a seat has not already been identified.

The mayor has never worn his ambition lightly and when asked last week whether he had any interest in becoming leader of his party, he gave the traditional “there is no vacancy” answer. This, of course, means “yes, just as soon as I can engineer the circumstances to create a vacancy”.

The prime minister welcomed Johnson’s announcement, saying he was determined his party should put forward its brightest and best in next year’s election. He had to say that.

The rest of us should welcome the return of this singular character to the House of Commons. One doesn’t have to share his politics to see the sort of force of nature that brings a debating chamber to life and makes our politics more interesting.

Johnson is a compelling performer on the political stage. His bumbling buffoon routine – read literally by many of those who dismiss him – is a pitch-perfect turn, a persona that serves him quite remarkably well. He plays up on his poshness, adds a sprinkle of faux confusion, and gets away with more than most any other political figure might. Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Yes campaign may well be right. It is very far from unthinkable that Johnson might succeed David Cameron as his party’s leader and go on to fight a general election. Given that he was able to woo left-leaning Londoners, he may not be quite the divisive figure his opponents hope. Yes, he’s posh, yes he’s a Tory, but he doesn’t half get stuck in and that sort of thing plays well with voters.

Boris Johnson’s quest to fulfil his ambitions promises to be hugely entertaining. I’m looking forward to it very much indeed.

 

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