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Boris for Prime Minister?

Andrew Gimson says that David Cameron and George Osborne should prepare themselves for competition. The Mayor of London might well have his eyes on the ultimate prize.

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

Boris Johnson’s first year as Mayor of London has proved something of a shock, especially to his own side. His enemies, including the Tory parliamentary leadership as well as the sort of people who toil on the Guardian’s comment pages, find they have underestimated him. It suited them to write him off as a clown who would soon make a complete mess of things, if by some fluke he were to defeat Ken Livingstone in the election held on 1 May last year.

This belief in Mr Johnson’s ineptitude became unsustainable last October when he sacked Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The Mayor did not, in theory, have the power to sack Sir Ian: that prerogative belonged to Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. But Miss Smith was clearly not going to do the right thing, so Mr Johnson did it for her. He showed her up. Gordon Brown was furious, and raged to his friends in the press that the Mayor’s behaviour was intolerable. But those friends could not denounce Mr Johnson with any conviction. Sir Ian’s response to the shooting by his officers of an innocent Brazilian had been grotesquely inadequate. Having seized the moment to bundle Sir Ian out of Scotland Yard, the Mayor proceeded to mend fences with Miss Smith and agree with her on the appointment of a successor. No lasting political wrangle was allowed to undermine the policing of London.

So Mr Johnson has established himself as a serious player: a development which has caused consternation in the Tory leadership. David Cameron never wanted Mr Johnson to be the party’s mayoral candidate, and invited all sorts of other people to have a go, including, most ludicrously, Greg Dyke. One is told that when Mr Johnson’s name is mentioned, Mr Cameron and George Osborne make special little wriggly faces of disgust. Their dislike of him grows by the day, fanned by such incidents as his dissent on the question of raising the top rate of income tax to 45 pence.

The situation is worse for Mr Osborne. Mr Cameron has privately implied that he will serve only two terms as prime minister, by which time it is possible that Mr Johnson will have completed two successful terms as Mayor. This conjuncture can be dismissed as idle speculation, but since politicians spend much of their lives in idle speculation of their own prospects, it is a realistic guide to Mr Osborne’s situation. He is bound to wonder whether, after the Herculean task of sorting out the public finances, he will find his due reward, the prime ministership, snatched from him by Mr Johnson.

It is hard to exaggerate the anger and contempt which Mr Johnson arouses in serious-minded people of all political persuasions. His bold, light-hearted style seems to them the height of irresponsibility: an intolerable insult to their idea of politics as a weighty and solemn activity that can only be practised and written about by weighty and solemn people. To them he is the Berlusconi of City Hall.

Mr Cameron has tried, for cogent electoral reasons and with impressive skill, to revive the idea of the Conservative party as a broad church, which one can support without being in the slightest bit political, and certainly without being ‘right-wing’. Mr Johnson is a brilliant exponent of this art: no one attracts a broader church than he. But he represents a mortal threat to the Cameronian way of transacting business, which although pleasantly liberal in tone, is ruthlessly disciplined in practice. All those who sign up to it are meant to know how to behave, which means knowing how to obey.

The need for a broad church has led to doctrinal uncertainty, even to a certain paralysis. Mr Johnson is dangerous because while he revels in doctrinal uncertainty, he craves action. He is one of the most energetic and also one of the most evasive people imaginable: virtually impossible to pin down either about his exploits in the past or his intentions for the future. When he pretends not to remember some significant detail, he sounds unconvincing, for he has an amazing memory when it suits him. But he has an almost artistic disinclination to disclose anything so unromantic as a fact, and instead distracts his inquisitors by telling jokes, which for him perform the same function as the chaff thrown out of aircraft to divert incoming missiles.

There could be no man less likely to await orders from the small but gifted general staff around Mr Cameron. Mr Johnson is happy to accept reinforcements from that quarter, but its timidity is repugnant to him. The motive which makes so many of our politicians so dull, and reduces them to an indistinguishable mass of men in suits, namely the fear of saying something wrong, does not afflict the Mayor. For him, one of the great merits of having no explicit doctrine is that he can avoid digging massive fortifications at what will most likely turn out to be the wrong place, and can instead fight a war of movement, reacting at lightning speed to unexpected events and expressing the public mood before the public even knows what its mood is. To his detractors, this looks like opportunism, and recalls Lord Beaverbrook’s remark about Lloyd George: ‘He did not seem to care which way he travelled provided he was in the driver’s seat.’ But it can more generously be described as an adventurous pragmatism. The more one examines Mr Johnson’s audacious claim that Heathrow airport is in the wrong place, the more justified it appears.

This does not mean Mr Johnson is as reckless as his critics imagine. Max Beerbohm drew a cartoon entitled ‘Evenings in Printing House Square’, which shows Lord Northcliffe’s staff rushing towards him as he says: ‘Help! Again I feel the demons of Sensationalism rising in me. Hold me fast! Curb me, if you love me!’

Mr Johnson has sensibly assembled a staff of reputable men and women who perform the same function for him at City Hall. He is a good employer of people with gifts quite different to his own: good at appreciating what they can do for him, and at making the experience of working for him amusing. His administration is not yet mired in the cronyism which afflicted his predecessor. The recent Dispatches programme devoted to attacking Mr Johnson turned out to be a hatchet job without the hatchet.

And his ambition, of barely conceivable proportions to those of us whose idea of a good time is pottering down the allotment, compels him to be prudent. His mayoralty is an extended audition for the role of prime minister, and he is determined not to make a fool of himself, except in the eyes of the pompous, for annoying them appeals to his anarchist streak, and is a good way of cheering everyone else up.

If Mr Johnson were ever to reach a run-off against Mr Osborne for the Tory leadership, there can be no doubt which way the rank and file would vote. For as Robert Blake wrote of the Tories’ reaction to Disraeli’s dazzling exploit in carrying the Second Reform Bill: ‘They loved the sense of victory which he gave them: it was a feeling they had not had for years, some of them never before. And they were with a few exceptions so delighted to see the question settled over the heads of the official opposition that they blinded themselves to the magnitude of the concessions made to the Radicals.’

Andrew Gimson is the author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson (Pocket Books, £7.99).

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