29 March 2013

Cockerell’s Life of Johnson

On Monday 26th March BBC2 showed Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise, a one-hour documentary by Michael Cockerell, the latest in his long series of political profiles. It had been preceded by an interview on Sunday 25th’s The Andrew Marr Show, hosted in absentia by Eddie Mair. The interview was a little abrasive but Mair regularly lurches from the whimsical to the brusque as host of BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. Having revisited some of Johnson’s less glorious moments, Mair asked:
Aren’t you in fact, making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted? You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?
Not so surprising then that the interview generated nearly 600 complaints to the BBC, according to the Press Association.

Before transmission Cockerell provided an account of the making of his programme to the Daily Mail and afterwards he discussed it with Johnson’s Deputy Mayor of London, Munira Mirza on BBC2’s Daily Politics. Having read two biographies (see below) of Boris Johnson, I didn’t feel I learnt very much from The Irresistible Rise. Cockerell seemed to have succumbed to the charm of the Johnson clan and their never-before-seen (or even developed according to Cockerell) home cine-films. The time spent on Johnson’s childhood and days at Eton and Oxford was at the price of only a cursory examination of his time as Mayor of London, and even that emphasised the 2012 Olympics. Whether the “Boris bikes” (Barclays Cycle Hire) have been as good for Londoners as for Barclays, and the value of the “cable car” (Emirates Air Line) never came up.

I did notice that Cockerell referred to Boris’s father, Stanley Johnson’s involvement with MI6 (SIS) which sent me back to the biographies. Andrew Gimson in Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson (2006 and 2012) said:
Stanley took a second degree in agricultural economics, and in the spring of 1965 he also joined the Foreign Office from which he resigned in the autumn of the same year, because ‘by then the World Bank had come through with an offer for me to go to Washington’. (page 14).
Whereas Sonia Purnell in Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition (2012) was slightly more explicit:
… [Stanley] struggled to launch a career that would put food on the table for his new family. He had tried his hand unsuccessfully at teaching and studying for a Masters in Agricultural Economics before apparently being recruited as a spy and offered, according to his own account, ‘the most intensive training in clandestine techniques known to man’. (Chapter 1)
Purnell referenced Johnson père’s Stanley I Presume, (2009) which I haven’t read and probably won’t. However, he seems to be quite open about his time in SIS, for example, to the Exeter and District (Devon, SW England) branch of the English Speaking Union in February 2012:
Stanley Johnson, our guest speaker, gave a highly entertaining account of his life from his days at Sherborne School and Exeter College, Oxford, to the present day. After leaving school he travelled alone through South America and as an undergraduate rode 4,000 miles on a motorcycle along the Marco Polo route to Afghanistan. Having won a poetry prize at Oxford and being award a Harkness Fellowship to the United States, Stanley embarked on a fascinating career, training as a spy with MI6, working at the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union.
In the 2005 general election Stanley stood unsuccessfully as Conservative candidate for the nearby Teignbridge constituency.

Reaction in the media to Johnson’s BBC double exposure suggests that nothing much has actually changed - the enthusiasts’ faith didn’t waiver and the unconvinced remained so. Usually the London Evening Standard is firmly enthusiastic, but Simon Jenkins sounded a sceptical note on 26 March:
London’s golden boy is soaring too near the sun. Boris Johnson has been flapping his Icarus wings on television these past two days in his frenetic bid for the Tory leadership. But Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show and last night’s documentary ignored his achievements — or lack of them — as London Mayor, to portray him as a variously flawed celebrity, oozing ambition. As the cameras glared and the questions grew hot, we saw the wax melt and the feathers start to fall. As they fell, I began to wonder whether any clear political ideology motivated England’s most famous “toff on the make”.
And in the same paper the next day, Andrew Neather was harsher:
He could fudge the awkward timing of his mayoral term finishing in 2016: I expect him to pick up a safe seat in 2015 (Paddy Power is offering odds on which one) and fob Londoners off with the fiction that he can do both jobs for a year. But as Johnson proved when he was an MP, he doesn’t have time for the hard graft or detail of the Commons. He is the opposite of a team player: he failed to build the alliances any leader needs, while proving an embarrassment even in the Westminster McJobs of shadow arts and higher education minister. And the sorts of failings that he manages to laugh off in City Hall, with its minimal media scrutiny and paucity of heavyweight opponents, would quickly ensnare him on the front benches.  
In fairness, some Conservative MPs realise this. He can expect a vigorous “Stop Boris” campaign. That will not prevent plenty of Tories backing his blond ambition: he is the darling of the party’s grassroots and media supporters. But if the Tories think Boris is the answer to their problems, they’re asking the wrong question.
On 28 March the Standard seemed to pull itself together behind its chosen one, with a front page story by Joe Murphy, Voters say Boris Johnson must lead Tories. Boris Johnson would smash Ed Miliband’s lead in the opinion polls if he took over as Conservative leader, an exclusive poll reveals today. Though the poll data below quoted by the Standard (LES) from a YouGov survey of 1,867 adults online from March 26-27 didn’t exactly bear this out:

According to the Standard “A Boris leadership would lure a third of Ukip supporters to the Tories from Nigel Farage’s party” but there were no statistics provided to support this. Another poll of 1867 adults carried out by YouGov on the same dates and reported in the Sun showed the above “Headline Voting Intentions” (for which presumably those polled are not reminded of the current leadership’s names) with the now usual double figure Labour lead. In this poll within the 19% ‘Other’, 13% were Ukip, 4% SNP or Green and 1% other ‘Other’.

One of the shrewdest comments about Boris Johnson that I’ve read so far comes from Rod Liddle in the Spectator (30 March issue):
To give the bloke credit, at least Boris doesn’t pretend that he is One of Us, that he has had to struggle to achieve the position in life he now occupies — i.e., Mayor of London and heir to Downing Street. Because of course he hasn’t — and neither has Clegg, or Cameron, or Osborne or any of them; it has been a gentle and easy elision from top public school to Oxbridge to running the entire country, the passage eased by immense affluence, ready-made connections and, often enough, when all this has proved insufficient, a little bit of -Daddy’s help. This stuff, the Eton-Bullingdon-king-of-the-world business, bothers me, and it may well do for Boris in the end, when the people of the country have had enough of it all. It is not a good way to run a country, as indeed we are now seeing.  
But still, as a person, and shorn of all this stuff — if that’s possible — Boris is a more likeable politician than most we have around at the moment. If the chaotic buffoonery is all an act, then it is a good act, and an endearing act. He seems to me a less nasty piece of work than most of his Conservative political rivals.
What doesn’t seem to have appeared so far is an informed logical analysis of the timing issues. Presumably if the Tories are going to change leader before the 2015 election, they almost certainly have to do it by the end of this year. So how does Johnson get to be an MP before then? If he leaves it any later, he has to wait for the outcome of that election whether he stands as an MP in 2015 or not. 

If Cameron wins in 2015, or even continues in a coalition, he will almost certainly go when he chooses, say 2016 or 2017. And his successor will probably be someone who has played a part in achieving what looks at present to be an unlikely success and will almost certainly be someone who was an MP between 2010 and 2015.

If the Tories lose they will have to choose a leader who has the stamina to be an effective leader of the opposition to a Labour government, or Labour/ Lib Dem coalition, for five years and lead them to victory in 2020 (when Boris will be 56).

Can Johnson be both Mayor and MP at the same time? If he does try that on, would there be a backlash at the next mayoral election in 2016 or even in the London parliamentary seats in 2015? If he stands down as Mayor, who takes over - Munira Mirza? Or does there have to be a mayoral by-election which Labour could end up winning in the run-up to 2015? Mirza, who has a PhD in sociology, to judge from her showing on the Daily Politics (see above) could go far, but has a low profile so far.


Johnson's two biographers debate his chances in today's Independent on Sunday.

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