GOLLYGOSH! He’s back – Boris the mop-haired, overgrown public schoolboy and nemesis of the bendy-bus has shambled back into office as the Dick Whittington de nos jours, a lone Conservative salmon swimming upstream against the tide of electoral rejection.
It is an irony of voter caprice that the most caricature Etonian in public life should have escaped the tumbrils that came for so many of his less flamboyant Tory colleagues.
That, of course, is what Boris always intended. His carefully contrived persona derives from a calculated revival of a British leadership template rejected by the rest of his contemporaries. It harks back to the Tory cult of the amateur, to the seemingly ineffectual upper-crust character whose foppishness conceals serious purpose. Other public school Tories take off their ties and mouth PC management-speak gibberish with the pseudo-gravitas of a Haringey councillor; but Boris has elected to revive an old-fashioned leadership model. Those are the contrasting styles invoked by Sir Cathcart D’Eath in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue: “Look serious and are fools. Different in the old days. Looked fools and were serious.”
Any schoolboy in the pre-iPod age would have recognised that the effete Sir Percy Blakeney conceals the Scarlet Pimpernel. The apparently bumbling Boris wears a mask that conceals the fiercest ambition in the country – hungrier even than that of his schoolmate and fellow Bullingdon member Dave in No 10. Boris has the knack of blundering into high office, in a manner reminiscent of the apparently unwilling elevation to power of the stammering Emperor Claudius, swept forward on a tide of media fascination and carefully perpetrated gaffes endearing him to the public. It is a phenomenon that politicians of earlier generations would instantly have identified. It can do nothing for David Cameron’s tranquillity, for he is of a tribe that recognises such subterfuge.
Dave was in a no-win situation as regards the London mayoralty. A victory by Boris notionally blunts the edge of Labour’s landslide last week, while keeping a dangerous rival in a high-profile position. On the other hand, Boris’s defeat would have added to the list of disasters on Dave’s CV and it would not have been long before a blond haystack manifested itself on the back benches at Westminster, throwing bread rolls. Last week’s local elections were a disaster for Cameron and not simply because of the Labour electoral surge. This was more than a mid-term reverse for the coalition.
The key phenomenon was the exceptional performance of UKIP – at local elections that were not held in tandem with a European poll. UKIP polled 13 per cent of the vote. That amounts to a sentence of death for the “modernised” Tory Party. At the general election UKIP deprived the Conservatives of 21 parliamentary seats and hence of an overall majority. That failure to win (against Gordon Brown!) highlighted the scale of defection from the Tories even at that stage. Now the threat is terminal and the Tories know it. When a government minister on election night openly warns his leader of the suicidal consequences of pursuing policies such as the destruction of the House of Lords and same-sex marriage, it is evident that fear is driving out deference.
Yet Cameron is locked into a Queen’s Speech, already written, which this week will affront disaffected Tory voters with exactly those policies. Turkeys and Christmas are an inadequate metaphor. UKIP has metamorphosed beyond being a single-issue Eurosceptic party: it is now the natural home of traditional Tories. Cameronian spin doctors, for public consumption, point out that UKIP only won a handful of seats. That is irrelevant. The threat is not of UKIP appearing in hordes on the benches at Westminster to displace the Tories. UKIP does not need to win a single seat – even a council seat – to destroy the Cameron-occupied Conservative Party.
All it has to do is secure 5 per cent of the vote at a general election and the Tories will be out of office, without having won a single general election since 1992. Dave’s proposal for directly elected mayors was rejected by every English city but one. That shows how much appetite there will be, in a double-dip recession, for Lords reform – driven by a party that no longer has even a minuscule electoral mandate.
If the Tories imagine that a chameleon like Boris Johnson, just because he has made some tactical Eurosceptic noises, is the appropriate substitute for Cameron, they underestimate the scale of disaffection from the metropolitan, modernising clique. Dave, George, Francis Maude, Mad Oliver the medieval magus tugging at the leader’s sleeve (“Sire, I have a project…”) – all must be consigned to oblivion or the Conservative Party itself will suffer that fate, possibly permanently. Boris is not the answer to the problem that is Dave.