Boris Johnson strides into the Uxbridge Conservative Club, asks after the barmaid’s health and sits down beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Churchill and Harold Macmillan are on the other walls. The room comes from the days when the Conservatives were not just a political party but a huge social network: a natural party of government. Times have changed, however. The Conservatives’ membership has dwindled and the party is in a desperate fight to hold on to power.
But Johnson is full of optimism. He assures everyone that this election is going to have a happy ending. He has a vision for Conservatism, too — one that has already enabled him to win twice in London, traditionally a Labour stronghold, and may be the party’s last best hope of a return to majority politics.
During the 2001 and 2005 elections, he was editor of The Spectator — which he described as being ‘by some margin the best job in London’. So what would he write in the leader column this week if he were still editing? He starts to dictate copy, addressing himself directly to you, the reader. ‘If they want Britain to be a strong independent nation, if they want Britain to lead in Europe, if they want an economy which is dynamic and competitive and is based on the spirit of enterprise, then they should vote Conservative. If they believe in a culture of aspiration and achievement rather than scrounging and trying to pull people down, if they believe in levelling up rather than levelling down, they should vote Conservative. If they believe that it is wrong in principle to try to settle the problems of the economy by decapitating the tall poppies in society, they should vote Conservative.’
Johnson is concerned about more than just protecting tall poppies. ‘If they believe that the job of government is to nurture all the flowers in the flower beds rather than attacking some, then they should vote Conservative. That is the essential difference between us and Labour. Every single policy of Ed Miliband and his lot is precisely calibrated to divide society, to foster a sense of injury and injustice. We want to heal any sense of injury and injustice, to bring society together.’
Such rhetoric would go down a storm at every Conservative club in the country. But Johnson has more. He reveals something ‘that people are not aware of and that goes to the heart of what we are trying to do’, which is that the life-expectancy gap between Kensington and Dagenham is now narrowing. He attributes this to policies pursued both by him at City Hall and by Conservatives in Whitehall. In other words, inequality is narrowing — and that, he says, is the great Conservative mission.
He didn’t always say this sort of thing. Just 18 months ago he was proclaiming that ‘some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’ Like others in his party, he has revised his arguments. He now fumes that current gap between rich and poor is ‘outrageous. The wealth gap has been allowed to get too big.’ It is an issue he has sought to address by promoting the living wage of £9.15 an hour in London, and £7.85 nationally — both substantially higher than the £6.50 minimum wage.
It’s hard to force companies to pay more than the minimum. But Johnson believes companies that don’t shouldn’t be given government contracts. ‘It’s not reasonable for companies that have chief executives and board members who are paid very considerable sums to subsidise low pay through in-work benefits.’
Isn’t this all a bit left-wing for a Conservative? He thunders back, ‘I don’t care.’ And then: ‘I actually think it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it and to care about it. Look at the income differentials in any company in London and in Britain, they have massively expanded in the last 30 years. The multiples that we now tolerate are extraordinary.’
Isn’t all this talk about ‘tolerating’ high pay a bit, well, Miliband? Johnson runs his hands through his hair in exasperation before replying, ‘Look, we’re all part of the same ball of wax. We’re all cut from the same cloth, made of the same timber. I do think human beings cannot be faulted for wishing to judge themselves and their lives and their achievements by others around them, that is a natural human feeling.’
This cuts to the heart of the debate taking place at the top of the Conservative party: should the right care about the gap between rich and poor or just whether the poor are better off in real terms or not?
Johnson reaches for another metaphor: ‘I don’t mind people in the sharp end of plane guzzling Château Margaux, if that’s what they want to do. If beloved people that we know want to get on a plane, turn left, ensconce themselves in some ludicrous boudoir where hot towels and free copies of The Spectator are thrust on them every 30 seconds, then let them. It provides jobs. But what people won’t accept is those at the back of the plane finding their inflight meal getting smaller and smaller and their conditions getting more and more cramped.’ His solution to this problem is that ‘as Conservatives, we should be bustling about the plane making sure that everybody feels they are getting a gin and tonic at the right time’.
So David Cameron talks about the ‘good life’, Boris Johnson about gin and tonics. Both are motivated by party political as well as philosophical concerns. The Mayor believes that the wealth gap in London is one of the reasons the Tories struggle there in national elections; even the most optimistic Conservative cabinet ministers concede that they will lose seats in the city next week. Partly this is a result of London’s ethnic mix: around half the capital’s population is non-white. Boris puts the party’s poor performance among ethnic minorities down to a ‘mutual diffidence, the Tories have been insufficiently exuberant in their engagement. We haven’t gone in there and made the case.’ But, he adds, ‘The Conservatives have got to win everywhere. Everywhere. There should be actually no no-go areas. I won a ward in Hackney, I’m proud to say. And Greenwich. Somewhere else too, I can’t remember.’
To win in those places, Boris took a different line from the Conservative position on immigration. Now, he is more guarded. You won’t hear him calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants any more. Instead he uses phrases like ‘welfare scroungers’ when discussing border controls. He talks about the benefits of immigration, especially in regard to those who come to London. ‘How many Brits working in Paris? 16,000. How many French working in London? 400,000. It tells you all you need to know about the difference in dynamism between the two places. But if you want to say, “Hop off, you frogs”, that is not my position.’
He takes a short break to inhale some sandwich and swig his pint before getting back to the case for Conservatism. Given his enthusiasm for the cause, why can’t his party’s campaign instil in voters the kind of excitement that the SNP is generating north of the border? ‘If they are not throbbing with excitement by the end of one of my sermons, if they are not quivering in the aisles, then we are obviously not doing our job,’ he replies. Aren’t the Conservatives, as David Cameron told The Spectator last week, a bit like car mechanics — practical people who fix things rather than excite? Boris neatly goes into reverse, declaring, ‘You’ve got to have a decent mechanic if you want any kind of throb at all in your motor.’
This Conservative election campaign is being run by Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who ran both of Boris’s mayoral campaigns. Johnson begged the Conservatives to pay whatever it took to hire Crosby. They followed his advice, and it is now widely said that the Conservative election campaign has been ineffective. Is that Boris’s fault, as Ed Miliband suggested in their joint TV appearance on Sunday? ‘It’s an effervescent campaign being made ever more sparkling by the Pol Roger of The Spectator’s coverage,’ he says. He defends his friend ‘the Crosbinator’, puts on an Australian accent, and says, ‘Jeez mate. They can stick their head up a dead bear’s bum. Don’t come the raw prawn with me.’
Boris is now so used to talking down his own political ambition that he almost begs not to have go through one of his not-quite-denials. ‘David Cameron is going to be Prime Minister — and all the rest of it,’ he says. We leave it at that. As we all know, it’s possible that, if defeated, Cameron will resign within a fortnight, in which case Boris would be the bookmakers’ favourite to take over. His ambition, when giving interviews nowadays, is to say nothing that encourages such speculation. ‘I hope I haven’t said anything remotely useful,’ he offers, as the interview draws to a close.
He heads to his car, a dented green people-carrier, to drive his team to Enfield to campaign for its Tory incumbent, Nick de Bois. Upon arrival, he clambers on to a Courage beer crate and then belts out a few points to those assembled at the street corner. He relishes the heckling and quickly draws a crowd, including some schoolgirls who want a photo with him. Five minutes after one woman has berated him for the closure of the A&E unit at the local hospital, she comes back to take a selfie with him. The contrast to the controlled environments in which the party leaders have been campaigning is striking.
Next Johnson marches off down the high street. His celebrity trumps the fact that he’s a politician: even the kids sitting in the naughty seats on the top deck of the bus lean out of the window to cheer him.
Whatever the result of this election, we suspect it will have a happy ending for Boris.