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Status anxiety

Status Anxiety: The destiny of Boris Johnson

4 May 2012

11:00 PM

4 May 2012

11:00 PM

I’ve spent most of the past few days tramping the streets of Hammersmith, doing whatever I could to get out the vote. Like most Conservative party members in London, I’m nervous that Boris’s strong showing in the polls might lead to complacency. Ken Livingstone may be a weak candidate in many respects, but he’s a formidable machine politician. Every last drop of effort needed to be expended if Boris was to be sure of re-election.

Having said that, I’m cautiously optimistic. Not only will a Boris victory be good news for London and the country — can you imagine the Olympics opening ceremony being presided over by Ken? — it will be good news for my bank balance, too. As I mentioned in these pages last year, I bet Nigella Lawson £15,000 in 2002 that Boris would become leader of the Conservative party within 15 years. His re-election as Mayor will make that considerably more likely.

Until about a month ago, I imagined a Boris victory would hurt Ed Miliband. But David Cameron’s star has fallen so far in recent weeks it might end up hurting him instead. The Cameron-hating Conservative newspapers are bound to float the idea of ousting him in favour of Boris before the next election. A little bit far-fetched at the moment, perhaps, but it’s hard to predict how much damage the Leveson inquiry will inflict on Cameron’s premiership. Between now and 2015 — if the government lasts that long — Boris will be talked up as an alternative leader every time the Prime Minister takes a hit.

Boris will pooh-pooh this speculation, as he always has done. He’ll point out that he already has an important job in politics. In any event, how could he replace Cameron when he doesn’t have a seat in the House of Commons? Neither of these are insurmountable obstacles, of course. I’m sure he could find some tame Conservative MP to resign his seat and there’s nothing in the rules to stop him being both Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. But if he were to seek the Conservative leadership before 2015, it wouldn’t do his chances of winning a general election much good. Don’t forget he’s promised to serve a full term as Mayor if he’s re-elected. Labour would accuse him of going back on his word.

No, it’s in Boris’s interests for the Prime Minister to hang on in there. My view is that Boris could risk standing for Parliament in 2015 provided Cameron is still in harness. If it’s a London constituency — Kensington, for instance — he’ll be able to combine being an MP with the mayoralty for a year, just as Ken did in 2002. If the Conservatives then lose, chances are Cameron will postpone resigning for a year so the party can hold a proper leadership contest, just as Michael Howard did in 2005. That will enable Boris to throw his hat into the ring in 2016, having served out his second term.

Alternatively, the Conservatives will win a small majority or the coalition will be re-elected, in which case Cameron will remain as Prime Minister until 2017 or 2018. (He’s said he doesn’t want to fight more than two elections.) I hope it’s 2017 for the purposes of winning my bet, but either way Boris will be in pole position.

At least, it looks that way now. One of the consequences of the omnishambles is that Boris’s three closest rivals for the leadership — George Osborne, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt — have all been tarnished. No doubt other challengers will emerge — my money’s on Grant Shapps — but none will have two election victories under their belt. And, critically, none will be able to say that they won an election when the Conservatives were trailing Labour in the polls. That will be one hell of an argument in Boris’s favour.

Assuming Boris is re-elected as Mayor, his only serious rival will be Michael Gove. I think Michael would be a great candidate, but he has repeatedly said he’s not interested and, as far as I can tell, he means it.

I’m not a superstitious man, but the gods do seem to be conspiring in Boris’s favour. At Oxford, where I first met him, he was known as someone who had a powerful belief in his own destiny. It was so presumptuous in a boy of 19 it was almost comic. By this time next week, it could be the conventional wisdom.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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