With a second term of London mayoralty looming for Boris Johnson, A.P. Schrader asks whether another four years as London Mayor is necessary to shed his buffoon image? And, with the shedding of the buffoon image, what are his prospects for party leadership?
What is Boris up to? It is a question I find myself pondering more and more of late as the Mayor of London continues to run foul of his colleagues in government. I first recall considering the future of Boris Johnson about a year ago, just after the 2010 General Election. Prior to that, Boris had been the most powerful elected Conservative in the land. In July of that year, Matthew d’Ancona wrote an article for GQ speculating on who might succeed David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party. A friend pointed it out to me and, before he had time to elaborate on the object of Mr d’Ancona’s speculations, I replied: “Boris, I betcha’.”
Of course, in July 2010, this seemed an absurd matter to even be debating. Mr Cameron had only been Prime Minister a couple of months (the youngest since the Earl of Liverpool) and lead an exciting new Coalition Government, which – at that stage at least – was the source of high hopes among many people. Nevertheless, I read Mr d’Ancona’s piece with some interest.
I got it wrong on that occasion. Mr d’Ancona was actually tipping the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as the “man to watch”. I must say, I found myself unconvinced. Mr Hunt comes from a very similar background to Mr Cameron: son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, former C-in-C Fleet; Head Boy at Charterhouse before reading PPE at Oxford; ex-PR man, etc. In short, he is just a carbon copy of David Cameron. My thoughts immediately turned to Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson is, of course, not of dissimilar background: went to Eton; studied at Oxford; ex-journalist. But, if there is one thing Boris is categorically not, it is a carbon copy of David Cameron.
Presentationally, the two could not be more different. Mr Cameron is telegenic, personable and has a certain ‘clean-cut’ style. Mr Johnson, on the other hand, has adopted an undoubtedly compelling media persona but he is far from telegenic. He is personable, in a slightly bumptious sort of way but – rather cannily – has carefully cultivated the impression that he is a foppish, bumbling buffoon and, where our Prime Minister rarely has a hair out of place… well, the same could not be less true of dear old Boris!
Deciding to play along with Mr d’Ancona’s game – even though it was clear to me a contest was by no means imminent – it seemed Boris was a possible runner to succeed Mr Cameron to the leadership if for no other reason that he would simply present such a completely juxtaposed image and style. As well as being the highest elected Tory politician in the land prior to Mr Cameron’s accession to the premiership, Mr Johnson was also easily the most well-known Tory figure in the country (by no means hampered by a couple of highly successful appearances on Have I Got News For You).
Mr Johnson possessed at that time, however, what seemed to me to be two key obstacles: Firstly, whereas most potential rivals to the PM’s mantle are able to scheme either within Cabinet or from the backbenches of the House of Commons, Mr Johnson resigned as MP for Henley upon his election to the mayoralty, thus removing himself from the epicentre of power (surely essential for anyone seriously contemplating the ‘top job’). Notwithstanding the power and prestigue of the London mayoralty, Mr Johnson had been, at that time, outside the vortex of the Palace of Westminster for two years and counting! Secondly, it is probably fair to say that he is not widely seen as “a man of substance”. His coveted media persona as a self-deprecating, mop-haired, toff with ‘foot firmly in gob’ was key to developing a rapport with the British public and giving him something akin to brand recognition. He is one of the few political figures in contemporary British politics who can be referred to exclusively by his Christian name and possibly the first person since Sir Alfred Hitchcock who is recognisable simply from his silhouette. The success of this persona, however, comes at the price of credibility. Still, it was clear that steel lurked behind the fuzzy, hair-tousling, rambling, ‘hail fellow well met’ nonsensical façade.
Mr Johnson has made great strides since 2008 and it is now far more difficult to dismiss him as a serious contender for Mr Cameron’s job. This is probably evidenced by the rivalry that allegedly now exists between them. This has come about in part, no doubt, due to the Mayor’s frequent bouts of disagreement with government policy, starting off with the Mayor’s dramatic rhetoric about the Coalition’s plans for Housing Benefit, in which he talked about “Kosovo-style social cleaning of London”. Though on that occasion he later issued a ‘clarification’ of his remarks, it was hard not to interpret them as a direct attack on the Prime Minister’s authority. His murmuring interventions on Europe and the 50p tax rate – while superficially of less import – have been far more upsetting for the PM, who is vulnerable to attacks that appeal to his recalcitrant Right-wing. The PM put the clearest possible shot across the Mayor’s bow in a speech at last year’s Spectator Parliamentarian of Year awards. It is worth quoting in full:
“I think the great thing about the Spectator is your extraordinary heritage, the remarkable figures who’ve sat in the editor’s chair. I’m thinking of people like Iain Macleod, Nigel Lawson and obviously not forgetting my own particular favourite. We went to the same school, the same university and of course I’ve got a soft spot for him. A man of high intelligence and huge ambition. An irresistible charmer with an enviable head of hair. Always bursting with brilliant turns of phrase and bright ideas. Yes, my kind of political maverick… Ian Gilmour. I’m not quite sure what went wrong for Ian. I suppose he rubbed the Prime Minister up the wrong way and never really recovered. Sh*t happens. Anyway, there’s always the chance of becoming our ambassador in Pristina I suppose.”
The next day, Fraser Nelson described the PM’s remarks in the pages of The Spectator as “the verbal equivalent of a horses’s head thrown into the bed”. It is hard to disagree with that analysis. The Mayor seemed to take the hint and by the New Year people were talking about ‘BoCam’, as the Mayor and the PM put up a united front when the trade unions where threatening to stage industrial action designed to disrupt the upcoming royal wedding and the 2012 Olympics. I doubt that their rivalry approaches the same heights and vicissitudes as the immortal Blair-Brown vendetta that existed throughout Tony Blair’s premiership. One suspects the dynamic of the two relationships are very different (Messrs Cameron and Johnson have very similar backgrounds and viewpoints, pointedly unlike Mr Blair and Gordon Brown). Also, one suspects Mr Johnson has far less reason to be bitter than Mr Brown, given the absence of any Tory version of the so-called ‘Granita pact’ for Mr Cameron to dishonour. That said, in June of this year Benedict Brogan reported in The Telegraph that David and Samantha Cameron had hosted Boris and his wife, Maria, at an intimate dinner at Number 10. The ‘Downing Street deal’ perhaps?
Whether or not the meeting amounted to a Granita-type pact seems doubtful but it did demonstrate that, for all their rivalry, Dave and Boris’ fates are intertwined. Mr Cameron is reported as having made it clear to Mr Johnson that securing a second Tory victory next year’s London mayoral election is crucial not only for Mr Johnson but also for the Conservative Party as a whole and for Mr Cameron’s premiership. Mr Cameron was reported as having gone so far as to have told Mr Johnson: “I recognise that there is no way you losing would be seen as anything but a disaster for me.”
It does seem, on the face of it, that Mr Johnson has put aside any thought he may have had of taking on Mr Cameron directly, at least this side of winning a second mayoral term. There also seems to be an unspoken recognition on the part of Mr Johnson and his backers that two terms at City Hall is the minimum requirement for him to convincingly shed his superficial, blustering ‘BoJo’ image.
Mr Johnson’s main rival to the leadership post-Cameron would appear to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. His comments on Greece certainly seemed designed to show the Chancellor up. Or is that too cynical? He’s since gone on to hammer Mr Osborne on tax cuts (specifically the 50p tax rate and National Insurance). A year on from Mr d’Ancona’s article and, to my mind, the question remains: What is Boris up to?
Labour, by rights, should be walking away with the mayoralty but it does not seem to be going to plan for them, For reasons best known to themselves, Labour have readopted Ken Livingstone as their candidate – an astonishing decision. Here is a man whom Boris has already beaten to this job once before and, if recent polls are to believed, a full fifth of Labour’s own voters in London would rather see Boris stay on than Red Ken come back. Ah well, there you go. If Mr Johnson is re-elected Mayor of London – and thanks to Labour’s curious electoral strategy of nominating a candidate they already know the incumbent can beat – I think it highly likely that he will, then I would say ‘watch this space’.
Last month my colleague, David Vaiani, asked a similar question: “What is Boris up to?” It was certainly Mr Vaiani’s impression that Boris was pitching to the Tory faithful and that Mr Cameron should watch out. I do not think that Mr Cameron has anything to fear from Boris. If Mr Cameron fails to secure a Conservative majority at the next General Election then it is his parliamentary colleagues he will need to fear.
When a young MP was first elected to the House of Commons many years ago, he plonked himself timidly on on the green benches next to Sir Winston Churchill. Staring across the chamber at the Labour MPs sat in front of him, he remarked to the great man “Ah, so there are the enemy”. Sir Winston growled, “No, young man. That is the Opposition. The enemy are behind you.” As C. D. Marsden pointed out on this website recently, the Tory Party has a history of scalping its leaders and when they fail to deliver the goods. The next GE is scheduled for 2015. Assuming he’s been re-elected, Mr Johnson will be in the final year of his second four-year term as Mayor of London. If he started casting around for a safe Tory seat and stood down early then I think both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne could take that as a declaration of intent.