2 August 2012

On the high wire with Boris

Now that the Olympics are underway in London, they provide an irresistible opportunity for the advancement of its Mayor. Boris Johnson having been re-elected in May (at 51.5% of the vote on a 38% turnout), his supporters are staking out claims while the going is good. For example, before the games started Iain Martin provided the cover story for the July/August Standpoint, I came, I saw, I’ll conquer, Boris Johnson covets supreme power, and told us that “… we should take the Conservative clown prince seriously”. And “To some in the Conservative Party he is a scheming charlatan with no policies. To others his star power could be worth harnessing”. But it was Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, who stirred it up yesterday in an article headlined As donors stampede to back Boris, the PM can only watch.

Brogan’s article didn’t say much that was new: the Conservatives now think they are unlikely to win the next election, George Osborne is a write-off, “… the normal rules of politics do not apply to Boris”. But there were a few sentences which made it of real interest:
I hear, [Boris Johnson] met Rupert Murdoch recently to discuss how his candidacy might be promoted, and has invited the media tycoon to join him at the Olympics. It is said that Mr Murdoch wants to get rid of Mr Cameron. Westminster has noted the Sun’s growing enthusiasm for Boris, and how it contrasts with the vitriol the newspaper now reserves for Messrs Cameron and Osborne.
A few sceptics alighted on the “It is said that”. No-one, as far as I know, has picked up the text of the URL for the article, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/benedictbrogan/100173707/boris-is-unstoppable-and-now-murdoch-wants-him-to-lead-the-tory-party/, which suggests that the original headline was rather more pointed than the one the Telegraph finally ran with. Indeed, Brogan later ran an emollient blog piece Whatever it brings, the reshuffle is just part of a wider recovery programme for David Cameron. Although this morning, for obvious reasons, he took the opportunity to tweet:

And then blogged again for the Telegraph: David Cameron's Olympics torment, reporting from the beach volleyball in Horse Guards:
… The beach volleyball MC has a line of patter he deploys several times a night. "We've just had a call. It seems the Prime Minister is trying to get an early night and wants less noise. What do we say to that?" Cue a roar of mockery and plenty of boos. … Every night then the PM is being mocked, and there's no sign of that political bounce he might have hoped for. For Boris, certainly. … But the Prime Minister must be wondering whether any Olympic gold will come his way.
All good fun and it helps fill the papers and websites, as did the Michael Gove love-in for a while back in February. More seriously, YouGov asked people in early May (during the London mayoral election) and again on 31July/1 August what the impact of Boris Johnson’s taking Cameron’s place would be on their voting. In May there was no significant difference: Con/Lab/LD/Other moved from 32/40/10/15 to 32/41/11/15. Now, during the Olympiad, the effect is significant: from 34/40/10/17 to 37/38/10/14. But when asked the normal straightforward voting intention question (and presumably unprompted with the leaders’ names), the same sample of voters yielded 32/43/10/15!

Examining the YouGov data it can be seen that the current movement towards Boris is: among women, but not significant among men; among the over 40s, but not under; among C2DEs, not ABCs. Just as interesting is the polling carried out for Lord Ashcroft later in May, extracted below:

Of course, Boris Johnson is in the happy position of being popular but subject to little critical scrutiny. If he were to become an MP again, let alone party leader, various aspects of his life might become better-known, and at the same time he would have to relaunch himself as a serious character capable of providing answers with real content to questions about the economy, or Iran, or the future energy needs of the UK, or Trident replacement, or a load of other difficult issues. The public’s evaluation of him as a possible future Prime Minister may not be as tolerant as it is to London’s Mayor during an Olympics which seems to be going well. Perhaps the last words should be from today’s The Times (£), reporting on a slight mishap:
Getting stuck on a zip wire, while clutching two Union Jacks and shouting “get me a ladder”, was, it turns out, one of [the relatively few things Boris Johnson could have done yesterday to make the national papers]. The Mayor of London was suspended about six metres up for five minutes as he tried out a 320 metre (1,050ft) zip line at Victoria Park yesterday afternoon. The wire apparently sagged so much as he sailed along that he lost momentum about 20m from the end. … As the incident trended on Twitter, David Cameron summed it up perfectly. Speaking at a health policy summit, he said: “If any other politician anywhere in the world got stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster. For Boris it’s a triumph. He defies all forms of gravity.”
Perhaps the Conservatives will go into the next election with Boris and take the risk of “lost momentum about 20m from the end”.


In the press the Boris coverage  continues, amplified because of the Olympics and probably approaching its peak.  Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian today is in the incredulous-but-not prepared-to-rule-it-out camp.  Philip Collins in The Times is totally unconvinced:
None of this [the Olympics fun] means that Mr Johnson is a credible Prime Minister. The only way back to popularity for the Tory party is for David Cameron to improve his personal best, not to pretend that there is any prospect of salvation from the Olympic Village idiot.


Contrasting views today from Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph and Janan Ganesh, newly arrived at the Financial Times. Moore, when editor of the Telegraph, employed Boris Johnson, so his opinion should be insightful.  He prefers ‘post-modern’ to the ‘postmodern’ I used here in the same context a few days ago:
As you could tell from the London Olympic opening ceremony, we now have a post-modern public culture. We are ironical, eclectic, genre-subverting, fusion-cooking, mixing up Chelsea Pensioners and lesbian kisses. We are high-brow and low-brow at the same time. The only politician who “gets” any of this is Boris. He can mix Virgil and James Bond, a posh accent and street cred, conservative politics and a liberal spirit. Mr Cameron is the moderniser, but Boris is the post-moderniser.  
To the many – possibly including myself – who would prefer our politics plainer, all this may seem footling. What has it got to do with righting our ghastly economic wrongs? Very little, perhaps. Boris Johnson’s instinctive, freedom-loving, anti-statist optimism is attractive, but certainly does not amount to a policy. Besides, the fashion for writing off Mr Cameron has gone far further than the facts warrant. … All I would say, though, is that conventional politics is now failing more comprehensively than at any time since the 1930s, and that Boris Johnson is the only unconventional politician in the field.
Ganesh does not mince his words in the FT (£), arguing:
If a Johnson ascendancy is improbable in the near future, it is far from certain in the long run either. By the time Mr Cameron does depart, the field of potential replacements will be rather more crammed than it is now. Michael Gove, the reforming education secretary, is coming to be seen as the government’s biggest success story. ...
By far the biggest threat to Mr Johnson, however, is not any other individual. It is the pitiless scrutiny that comes with national politics, a realm so much more demanding than London’s relatively weak mayoralty that it barely makes sense to describe Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson as being in the same line of work.  
… Winning in London is not the same as winning in Bolton West, Birmingham Edgbaston or many of the other seats that the Tories failed to secure in 2010. Running City Hall is not the same as running a state that occupies half of gross domestic product. Mr Johnson is brilliant, magnetic, optimistic and cosmopolitan, and he knows how to use a bully pulpit. He is, in short, perfect for the job he already has.
  Surely Ganesh is aware of the Peter Principle by which people tend to rise above their level of competence?  Perhaps this only applies to advancement in organisational  hierarchies rather than the greasy pole ascended by politicians.  Ganesh, by the way, has a biography of George Osborne coming out in October.


This story is obviously going to be long-distance!  Today Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, writing in the Observer, regards him as far from perfect in his current job:
While his stint as mayor has undoubtedly been brilliant for Project Boris, it is far from clear that London has equally benefited. The capital has some of the highest public transport fares in the world, yet offers an unreliable service. Its police force has undergone its worst internal crisis for a generation, with the mayor burning through three commissioners in as many years. The Boris Bike hire scheme, while popular, is a financial swamp costing more than £100m; we are in danger of breaching EU rules on pollution; the cycling death rate is rising; there are disturbing trends in some areas of crime. Does this qualify him to become prime minister in times like these?  
Boris Johnson is unparalleled in politics in terms of self-promotion and even occasionally cheering us up. He is hugely clever and politically astute. But after more than four years as mayor, he has yet to prove himself in action, let alone as a contender to be prime minister.
She also regards Johnson as lacking in team spirit and offers a biographer’s insight into his personality:
And yet for all his apparent friendliness, Johnson is rarely a friend. In fact, although many might describe themselves as a pal, they are usually mistaken. As a critic once observed, as with Lord Palmerston, Johnson "does not have friends, merely interests". Indeed, when questioned, these self-professed "friends" often admit that they have seen the mayor socially perhaps only a couple of times in the past few years. Those who are no longer "useful" have not seen him at all.  
Most admit they have rarely if ever conducted a lengthy conversation with Johnson; he is not one to share a pint at the pub or a club with a mate, for instance, and also only likes to run alone. One former female aide recalls how she dreaded car journeys with him as conversation would either be painfully stilted or simply non-existent. At gatherings, it has been his habit to avoid "one to ones" and escape the embarrassing intimacy of such encounters by constantly introducing people to someone else. Even at private dinner parties, senior Tories say he will offer to make a speech to avoid the agony of cosy two-way chats at the table and the possibility of direct questions. He prefers to be in "transmit" mode rather than "receive". It is as if he erects the highest walls around himself to avoid any of us really getting to know him.
Some of these traits are associated with only children and it has been said that an only child is a special case of the first-born child. The last first-born child to become British Prime Minister was Edward Heath, a statistical curiosity discussed with handedness in a previous post. The Sunday Times (£) covers the story so far and adds some polling of its own:
A poll by YouGov for The Sunday Times today suggests he has some way to go. Asked who they would most like to see replace Cameron if he stepped down before the next election, 24% backed Johnson, ahead of William Hague, the foreign secretary, on 14%, David Davis on 6% and George Osborne, the chancellor, on 3%. Yet such change might make little difference to the party’s electoral fortunes: while 19% said this would make them more likely to vote Tory, 17% said it would not.
They also look at possible routes to the top:
– David Cameron fails to win a majority in 2015 and Tory MPs are desperate for Boris, the king across the water. Cameron hangs on as leader for a few months to allow an orderly transition. An obliging MP is persuaded to give up his seat quickly and Johnson returns to the Commons via a by-election. He wins the ensuing leadership contest. 
– Cameron narrowly wins the election but announces he won’t serve a full term. He stays on until 2017 or 2018, giving Johnson plenty of time to finish his term as mayor, get back into parliament and win the fight to succeed him. 
– Johnson stands in 2015 — despite having said before there is no chance of his doing so — insisting he can be both an MP and mayor. This puts him in a position to make an eventual move on No 10 whatever the election result.

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