Boris Johnston has a history of contradicting his leader, David Cameron. During the Hackgate scandal, Boris has failed to provide unequivocal support to Cameron. Just what is he playing at? Asks David Vaiani.
Just when you thought he’d learned his lesson, Boris does it again by putting his size 10 foot right back into it. Not content, seemingly, with ruffling a few feathers at a recent Tory Party Conference with his call for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the Mayor of London has, once again, managed to irritate Downing Street, by failing to provide the unequivocal support over ‘Hackgate’ that the PM, quite understandably, demands. This is what Boris had to say, when questioned by Michael Crick about Cameron’s position following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson: “This is a matter you must direct to Number 10.”
Although he tried today to paper over the cracks of his relationship with the PM by branding critics of Cameron as “hysterical and malicious”, this is not exactly unchartered territory for Boris. He has done this sort of thing before. Indeed, he is something of a veteran when it comes to sniping at the Tory leadership. It was only last year that he openly criticised David Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’ line in one of his regular Telegraph columns, not to mention his repeated digs at Cameron’s stance on grammar schools. His calls for a cut in income tax to boost the economy and his vocal support for bankers have not gone down well in Downing Street either.
So what is Boris up to? In order to understand who Boris is and what he is trying to do, it is important to look beyond the bumbling, Bertie Wooster façade. Boris is a hugely intelligent man who got into Eton on the back of a scholarship and then went on to gain a First in Classics at Balliol. In short, he is nobody’s fool. He is also a very ambitious man. At Oxford, he became Union President and edited one of the student newspapers. Even then, contemporaries marked him out for future greatness. So Boris has always had a very good idea of what he wants to achieve, and there can be no doubt that he sees himself as a potential candidate for Number 10. Nor should he be dismissed out of hand. Many thought that the idea of him as Mayor of London was little more than a preposterous joke, but Boris proved the doubters wrong by thrashing Ken Livingstone at last year’s election.
David Cameron is certainly intelligent enough to understand this. As an almost exact contemporary of his at Eton and Oxford, he has known Boris long enough to have a sound grasp of the man’s strengths and weaknesses. As a result, Cameron undoubtedly views Boris as one of his main rivals, even if this may strike some as entirely ridiculous. That is one of the reasons why he did not give Boris a frontbench position when he became leader. Moreover, Cameron knows that Boris is using London as a base from which to launch his leadership bid, and he also knows that Boris will have no difficulty in securing a safe seat, once he stands down from City Hall. Although Boris has his fair share of enemies among the Tory back benches (many do not see him as a team player), Cameron knows how popular he is among the party’s grassroots and he understands that if he should ever slip up, Boris will be waiting in the wings to take over.
So it is against this background that the Mayor’s recent comments need to be viewed. He is trying, among other things, to stake out a distinctive position for himself within the party and he wants to make sure that – whether it is on ‘Hackgate’, Europe, education, or taxation – there is clear blue water between himself and David Cameron. So far, he is doing a very good job on that front. I, for one, would not discount a Boris vs Dave showdown for the leadership at some stage in the not too distant future. Although the smart money is on either Theresa May or George Osborne at present, I would not bet against Boris. Either way, the Boris vs Dave show should certainly make for entertaining viewing over the next few years.