Position: Mayor of London
Last Updated: Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
After Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson failed to obtain the first class degree which his contemporary, David Cameron, gained at the same University. Lasting only a week as a management consultant, he went on to be sacked by the Times for falsifying a quote. Surviving the revelation of a phone conversation revealing a plot by a friend to assault a journalist, he was appointed as a Daily Telegraph columnist and Editor of the Spectator. Reneging on a undertaking to its proprietor not to stand for Parliament, he was elected as the Conservative MP for Henley. Following accusations of having lied to Michael Howard, the Party’s then leader, he was sacked from its front bench. Failing to be appointed to its Shadow Cabinet by David Cameron, he was backed by his old Oxford colleague to be the Party’s candidate for the Mayoralty of London after a prominent search for another candidate. Johnson then won the election, gathering in doing so the largest personal mandate of any politician in British history.
That this vinegary narrative stands no chance whatsoever of becoming popular history, and that its protagonist is universally known as “Boris” rather than “Johnson”, is a nod to the unsinkable properties of its subject. The Mayor of London is not so much a man as an event: a one-man TV reality show conceived on a Churchillian scale. Uniquely among modern politicians, he has unearthed a contemporary philosopher’s stone: that if you can persuade voters to laugh first at you, and then with you, there may be no limit to what your ambition may achieve.
This is just as well in Boris’s case, since his own is more or less illimitable. His attempts to wave aside questions about the Premiership – he has said, for example, that he has “more chance of being reincarnated as a baked bean” – are a barrage balloon of distraction. “It’s all gone tits up,” his sister, Rachel Johnson, tweeted as Cameron failed to win a majority on election night. “Send for Boris.” Be sure that the same thought has crossed his mind – often.
But a key fact to grasp is that, for the moment, the present incumbent’s interests align with his own. Both need a Boris victory in London next year – the Prime Minister as a springboard to the election victory he hasn’t yet won, the Mayor as a bouncy castle from which to bob towards the office he wants to hold. The ceaseless flow of stories over “rows” and “splits” between the two men – over the 50p tax rate, immigration, Europe, the broken society, housing benefit, Crossrail, “Boris Island” and now the riots – are thus both partly real and artificial, sometimes both at the same time.
Boris and Cameron both know that to win the election the former must campaign as a semi-independent – as the Big Man Who Stands Up For London. In an ordinary election year, London would be a Labour city. But next year will be neither. In one sense, the poll ought to be all downside for Boris. He will be campaigning against a Government implementing a draconian spending scaleback at what should be the most unpropitious point in its electoral cycle. In another, it is turning out to have an upside. Labour reflexively re-chose Ken Livingstone as its candidate, and there’s no sign that this ageing, often hateful dog can learn new tricks. And then there’s the wild card of the Olympics.
Boris’s CV to date is an epic of survival. If he loses London, a grateful Conservative Association and electorate somewhere will surely return him to the Commons in 2015. Don’t count on the same not happening if he wins, either. Some commentators have speculated that were he to be re-elected, and Cameron to look doomed as 2015 approaches, the Mayor would somehow find a way of bagging a convenient Westminster by-election, claiming a duty to the nation to return as local Tories threw the unfortunate incumbent of the seat out on his ear. It sounds like the stuff of fiction, and almost certainly is – but with Boris, you can never quite be sure.
As well as considering what elections he’ll stand in, there’s the question of what he stands for. Churchill was prepared to embrace unpopularity with open arms if necessary, as he did over appeasement and Edward VIII’s marriage. Boris, however, shuns it – and when confronted by it, as briefly on the streets of Clapham after the riots, looks lost. The politics of London, with its horseshoe assembly, patchwork of local councils, myriad of interest groups and almost inconceivably diverse electorate, tend to work by consensus, and this suits his purposes very well.
Despite those fabulous Euro-sceptic newspaper columns and his support for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – craftily timed to peak during a Party Conference – Boris is not a right-wing ideologue, and if the Conservative Party ever takes him for one it will repent less in leisure than in haste. His father, a former MEP, worked for the European Commission and for the World Bank. His wife is a liberally-minded barrister. His mother’s father was the President of the European Commission of Human Rights. For all his polyglot back story, Boris is essentially a well-connected member of one of Britain’s many Establishments, and one with wide sympathies at that.
His record in London is solid. He survived the loss of two Deputy Mayors early and has since been supported by a highly able team, of which the late Sir Simon Milton was the most gifted member. His natural supporters will have been delighted by his refusal to further extend the congestion charge. Labour core voters have been wooed by his strong stress on social housing. He has banned alcohol on public transport, campaigned against knife crime and introduced those Boris Bikes.
But despite this visible landmark, his first term will leave no legacy achievement to touch most voters. Perhaps this is impossible in a city in which power is so diversified and over which central Government looms so unmistakably. Its people will return their verdict next spring. But whatever happens, there will be no return by the Mayor to the self-sealing bubble world of books, novels and TV shows – at least, not on their own. For the under-perceived truth is that Boris, once dismissed by conventional politicians as a bumbling chapter of gaffes, blunders, howlers and mishaps, is starting to pass acquaintance as one of them himself.
The jokes are less risky. The errors are less frequent. The TV performers are more considered and assured. He survives hostile interviews untroubled. He is more than capable of appearing before a Parliamentary committee without messing up. In short, Boris is now on nodding terms with gravitas. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a dissolute Prince Hal resolves to throw off his loose behaviour: “And like bright metal on a sullen ground/My reformation, glittering o’er my fault/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” For the moment at least, the Mayor seems to be following his example. However distressing it may be, the truth must be faced squarely: Boris is in mortal danger of transmogrifying into a serious politician.