He may end up like would-be PMs Portillo or Parkinson. If anyone can pull it off, though, it’s magic Johnson
The face of the Olympic Games of 1972 was Mark Spitz. In 1984 that honour went to Carl Lewis. In 2008 Usain Bolt. And the face of London 2012? That would be Boris Johnson.
All right, maybe Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy and Jessica Ennis will sneak ahead of the mayor at the finish line. But so far, in the Self-Promoting competition, politician class, Boris is winning serial gold. Every day the mayor has generated a phrase or image that has put him at the top of the publicity podium. Whether hailing female beach volleyballers “glistening like wet otters”, or suggesting Vladimir Putin “strip to the waist” and compete in the judo, taunting Mitt Romney in front of a cheering Hyde Park crowd or dangling from a zip-wire, Johnson has ensured that he is the one politician to feature in sport-dominated TV news bulletins that feature no domestic politics at all.
One can only imagine what this is doing to David Cameron, who might have hoped for an Olympic bounce but is instead taunted for jinxing whichever Team GB competitors he turns up to see: “CurseofCam” they called it on Twitter. But there will be a clutch of other politicos surely steaming at the sight of Boris sweeping in to claim credit by association for a London Games to which all of them devoted more work, time and effort than him. Sebastian Coe has done nearly a decade’s hard graft, but has been almost invisible since the opening ceremony. To say nothing of the Labour trio of Tessa Jowell, Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair, who all deserve more kudos for London 2012 than the man currently gobbling attention.
Inevitably, the Westminster chatterers are asking whether Boris might convert his Olympic dividend into enough political capital to carry him all the way to Downing Street. Tory MPs and donors, anxious at their party’s stubborn deficit in the polls, are said to be wondering whether there’s any chance they can get Boris into the top job ahead of the general election timetabled for 2015.
There are good reasons to dismiss this as overheated, Olympic-induced silliness. One Cameron ally recalls the Thatcher era fads for John Moore and Cecil Parkinson: in the Westminster, as opposed to Olympic, village, they’re always speculating about who will take over. If you want to know how seriously to take the current Boris boom, say the PM’s supporters, just remember Prime Minister Parkinson. While you’re at it take a look at this week’s YouGov poll that found Tories led by Boris doing not much better than they are now.
Others point to the obstacles in the mayor’s way. His appeal is clownish: fine for a fun job like City Hall, but a liability for anyone aspiring to lead the country, in charge of the military and the NHS. The court jester rarely becomes king. And there is a more basic problem, they say. Boris Johnson is simply in the wrong job: to become PM you first have to be an MP.
It’s true he has no seat now. But does anyone really believe Johnson would struggle to find a local Tory association that would select him to replace a retiring MP and contest the 2015 election? Ah, but then he would have to quit as mayor, thereby reneging on his promise to serve a full second term in London. Who says? Ken Livingstone was both mayor and MP for a full year from May 2000. That precedent will provide Boris with ample cover.
But it would look so transparently ambitious and self-serving, so clearly a leadership bid. That’s true and such naked desire did undo the Michaels, Heseltine and Portillo. But that’s to reckon without the Boris difference. He makes his own rules, which apply only to him. Take the apparently trivial example of the zip-wire. If that had been Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband stuck up there, trussed up in a suit and a silly hat, waving union flags, dangling not for a few seconds but a long 10 minutes, it would have been deemed an utter humiliation: a leader reduced to a laughing stock. (Simply being photographed holding a banana was enough to derail David Miliband.)
But Johnson is different. Everyone had a laugh at, but also with, “good old Boris”. So if he returned to the Commons, he’d wave aside accusations of a coup with a smile, a Latin tag and a heartfelt “Cripes, no!” – and promptly get away with it.
Admittedly, getting into parliament before 2015 to mount a pre-election challenge will be harder to pull off. But if the moment were right, you wouldn’t bet against him finding a way. His anti-politics act may just be a shtick – pretending he’s still on Have I Got News for You, satirising politics even though he’s right at the centre of it – but it liberates him from the usual constraints. Other politicians can’t compare women to otters or invite Rupert Murdoch to the Olympics. But he’s not other politicians.
More serious is the charge that he’s not serious, that being Funmaster-General at the Olympics is no qualification for the national stage. This could prove his fatal flaw, that he’s all sizzle, no steak. And yet it might prove a great advantage to be associated with the different kind of London, and Britain, that has been on show this week: optimistic, pretty efficient, welcoming of the world yet proudly patriotic, and motivated – both athletes and volunteers – by an ethos that has nothing to do with money. If Boris fuses himself with all that, his appeal will be strong indeed.
One pollster says that, though he has done hundreds of focus groups about politicians over the years, “I’ve never had the reaction that he elicits. Ever.” Boris Johnson pulls off the old Ronald Reagan trick of being the happy warrior, selling a conservative message – say, bashing Europe or supporting the banks – with a smile. Tellingly, even the left can’t bring themselves to hate him.
Right now, it still seems unlikely. Johnson’s appeal outside London is untested. As one Downing Street source puts it: “We’re debating someone who’s not an MP against someone [Cameron] who remains the public’s preferred choice as prime minister.” Yet Boris remains the one person in British politics who passes both the Madonna test – no surname necessary – and The Simpsons test, a character recognisable by his silhouette alone. He may be unserious, but it’s time to take him very seriously indeed.