On 9 May 2003 I was having dinner with Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi and Dominic Lawson at the Rib Room of the Carlton Tower Hotel when the subject of who would make a good leader of the Conservative party came up. Iain Duncan Smith was struggling and didn’t look as though he’d last the year.
‘I think Dominic would be perfect,’ said Charles.
‘I think I could do it,’ said Nigella. ‘I could get a seat and be leading the party within five years.’
I suggested Boris Johnson, at that time the editor of this magazine and the Conservative MP for Henley. I hadn’t meant it particularly seriously, but when Nigella dismissed the idea I felt an unexpected surge of loyalty. Not only was he my boss, but I’d known him on and off since we were at Oxford together in the mid-Eighties. I regarded him then —and still do —as the most naturally gifted politician of our generation.
‘Care to make a wager?’ I said.
Nigella suggested £15,000.
At that point I should have laughed and changed the subject. But I didn’t.
‘Within what time frame?’ I asked.
‘Make it 15 and you’re on.’
She agreed and — God help me — we shook on it. As the Tories gather in Manchester, under the threat of an economic meteorite strike, talk will inevitably turn to who might succeed David Cameron if the deficit-reduction plan collapses. Is Boris really a serious contender?
Back in 2003, few people in their right mind would have put £15,000 on Boris becoming the leader of the Conservative party by 2018, but it looks less idiotic today. Ladbrokes has him down as the favourite to succeed David Cameron by 2015, with George Osborne trailing him in second place. Of course, the Prime Minister would have to lose the next general election for Boris to have a realistic chance of succeeding him in four years — or, at least, not win an overall majority — and there’s the small matter of the Mayor of London not currently having a seat in the House of Commons. But it’s not inconceivable that Cameron will do well enough next time to cling on and then go in 2018, leaving his chosen successor (Osborne) with a year to settle in before the election. That gives Boris plenty of time to get back into the House of Commons and mount a credible challenge.
Alas, it’s all wildly speculative because it depends on so many variables. For one thing, Boris would have to win next year’s mayoral election. According to a YouGov poll in the October issue of Prospect, he currently enjoys an eight-point lead over Ken Livingstone, but that could evaporate in the next eight months. It’s worth noting that speculation about Boris’s leadership ambitions won’t help Boris’s re-election campaign, since it lets Ken accuse him of treating the mayoralty as a stepping-stone rather than as an important office in its own right. Having said that, his first term has gone better than most pundits predicted. No major snafus; he kept his promise on the Congestion Charge extension and he managed to extract the lion’s share of the £16 billion cost of Crossrail from the Chancellor. Then there are the Boris bikes. Not actually his idea and sponsored by Barclays, but who cares? He’ll get the credit anyway.
But even if he is re-elected, what then? The conventional political wisdom is that Londoners look for different qualities in a mayor than the country does in a prime minister. Boris has done his best to enlarge the role, including an early power grab for control over the Metropolitan Police, but the Mayor of London is a glorified transport commissioner and his record on TfL is a bit patchy. He’s good at the less tangible stuff — embodying and symbolising and empathising — not so good at radiating quiet competence. Imagine a scenario in which Britain is facing nuclear armageddon. Would you trust Boris to find the Trident launch codes in time? ‘I could’ve sworn they were round here somewhere…’
Then there are the sex scandals. So far, the tabloids haven’t had much luck in whipping the public up into a prurient rage over his various indiscretions, and Sonia Purnell’s muckraking biography — timed to coincide with the Tory party conference — hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But his Falstaff-ian appetites might count against him in less licentious parts of the country. ‘You are a self-centred, pompous twit,’ said Paul Bigley, brother of murdered hostage Kenneth Bigley, during Boris’s apology tour of Liverpool. ‘Get out of public life. Go and do something in the private sector.’
Yet somehow, in spite of everything, Boris remains a potent threat. This is clear from the ongoing rivalry between Downing Street and City Hall. Ken Livingstone believes this is a clever piece of political theatre to insulate Boris from the government’s unpopularity. In Ken’s view, whenever Boris attacks the government — describing the proposed housing benefit cap as ‘Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing’, for instance — it is done with Cameron’s blessing. He imagines the two old Etonians exchanging high fives in the Rose Garden as YouGov’s Peter Kellner tugs his forelock and informs them that one in five Londoners who intend to vote Labour at the next election will vote for Boris in the mayoral election.
In fact, the rivalry is all too real. Bring up Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in front of anyone in Cameron’s court and an involuntary spasm of disgust will cross their brow. He’s regarded as an irritant, too vainglorious to be a serious politician. And why should he be able to get away with having two of everything — ‘two jobs, two women’ as one of his former employers put it — when they have to make do with one? According to Downing Street insiders, Cameron’s recent jeremiad against fathers who abandon their kids was aimed at Boris.
The Mayor, in turn, regards the Prime Minister as an intellectual lightweight who’s stolen the glittering prize that is rightfully his. Charles Moore believes this dates back to their time at Eton together, when Boris was a King’s Scholar and Cameron a fee-paying Oppidan. Don’t be fooled by Boris’s pantomime toff exterior, the theory goes. Beneath the Wodehousian bonhomie lurks a middle-class scholarship boy whose posh schoolmates never allowed him to forget the family’s roots as Turkish immigrants. This is where his extraordinary drive comes from. It is a combination of wanting to fit in — to outdo his schoolboy rivals in Britishness — and wanting to rub their faces in the mud. David William Donald Cameron represents precisely the type of supercilious blueblood Boris must triumph over in order to prove himself.
There’s no doubt that the boy who told his sister he wanted to be ‘world king’ when he grew up still nurses leadership ambitions. Since entering City Hall Boris has wasted no time trying to curry favour with backbench Conservative MPs, a constituency he must win over if he’s to have a chance. He has positioned himself to the right of Cameron on a range of issues, including bankers’ bonuses, police cuts, sentencing reform, the 50p tax rate, strike laws and a European referendum. This is a difficult thing to pull off when he simultaneously has to persuade the London electorate that he’s to the left of the party when it comes to immigration and welfare reform, yet he’s done it. In addition to being the people’s mayor who sits above party politics, he’s the true blue Tory in contrast to Agent Zigzag in Downing Street. In this, as in so many areas of his life, Boris has managed to have it both ways. ‘My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it,’ he told Time magazine in 2007.
If Boris does win re-election next year there’s some speculation that he’ll try and re-enter parliament straightaway and not wait for his term of office to expire. That way, he’ll be able to throw his hat into the ring if Cameron trips up in 2015. James Macintyre asked him about this in a recent profile for Prospect and he gave his usual non-committal response. ‘He declined to comment but gave a low laugh,’ wrote Macintyre.
Occasional Guardian blogger and full-time Boris stalker Dave Hill looked into this and duly reported his findings. ‘The GLA tells me there is no legal or constitutional impediment to Boris subsequently becoming Mayor Johnson MP,’ he wrote — no great revelation since Livingstone remained an MP for the first year of his mayoralty. There would, however, be a financial penalty: a London mayor who becomes an MP loses two thirds of his mayoral salary. Since Boris reportedly gets paid £250,000 a year for his Telegraph column — an amount he famously described as ‘chicken feed’ — he could probably cope.
If Boris does re-enter the House of Commons during this parliament it would be a blow to Cameron, because it would inevitably lead to more media speculation about the rivalry between them. When the two of them are placed side by side, the Prime Minister is not a contrast gainer. He seems slightly inauthentic, as though he’s trying to conceal who he really is in order to avoid alienating ordinary people, whereas Boris seems incapable of being anything other than himself. This is Cameron’s Achilles heel, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling — the suspicion among the electorate that he isn’t one of them and cannot relate to their problems.
The weird thing is, Boris doesn’t suffer from this problem. Quite the opposite. As anyone who’s spent any time with him on the streets of London can tell you, he enjoys a connection with the public that Cameron can only dream of. Taxi drivers honk their horns with delight and newspaper vendors greet him with cries of, ‘Awright Boris?’ Precisely because he’s less inhibited about being a toff, he enjoys the popular appeal that Cameron lacks — though, to confuse matters, it’s all a music hall turn. It’s one of the great paradoxes of contemporary politics that Boris is more comfortable pretending to be something he’s not than Cameron is about being who he really is.
Perhaps it comes down to the fact that Boris is more emotionally available. Andrew Gimson puts his finger on this in his excellent biography. ‘People love him because he makes them laugh, but also because they glimpse the hurt young kid behind the laughter,’ he wrote. ‘Boris’s vulnerability is akin to someone like Marilyn Monroe’s: it is part of his attraction, and like her he can use it to seduce audiences pretty much at will.’
I felt the full force of this when I first set eyes on Boris, standing at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union. The emotional neediness beneath the bluff self-confidence — the flash of humanity — is deeply affecting. It’s at the root of his charisma. It’s why, sitting in the Rib Room eight years ago, I was moved to make such a ridiculous bet.
‘Oh dear,’ said Boris, when I emailed to tell him about it shortly afterwards. ‘I’d try and weasel out ASAP but I’m deeply touched.’
I ignored his advice and, so far, I’ve had no cause to regret it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 1, 2011