A Mayor With a Prime Minister in His Shadow
By Sarah Lyall, NY Times, October 9, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, England—With so many to choose from, it is hard to know which Boris Johnson-related incident must have annoyed Prime Minister David Cameron most in recent weeks.
Was it when Mr. Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, called the airport-expansion policy of Mr. Cameron’s, the Conservative leader, an economically disastrous “fudgerama”? Was it when he declared that a member of Mr. Cameron’s cabinet should be arrested over swearing at the police?
Or maybe it was when, arriving here on Monday for his “Boris: Re-Elected and Olympo-tastic” rally before 1,500 cheering fans at the Conservative Party conference, Mr. Johnson was greeted by a crush of people asking about his political ambitions, chanting “Boris!” and yelling “You’re beautiful!” as if he were some superhuman combination of Bill Clinton and Justin Bieber.
Mr. Cameron faces many vexations: a sustained economic downturn that his austerity program has so far failed to reverse; a disillusioned electorate; rumblings of unhappiness from his party’s right wing over issues like Europe and abortion rights. But his biggest immediate irritation seems to be the blustery, crazy-haired, unguided-missile-like force of nature that is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, incorrigible provocateur, political loose cannon and possible future Tory party leader.
Mr. Johnson has consistently denied that he wants Mr. Cameron’s job, at least for the time being. But he has lost few opportunities lately to torture the prime minister over various policy issues, including immigration, housing and the plight of the middle class. In a recent online poll conducted by Opinium Research for The Observer of London, 51 percent of likely voters said they had a favorable view of Mr. Johnson, compared with only 29 percent for Mr. Cameron.
“Clearly the party has fallen for the guy big-time,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the University of London and author of “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron,” speaking of Mr. Johnson. “He has the same advantages as Cameron—both have great educations and are extremely bright. But he also has this populist touch, this ability to connect with ordinary people that Cameron doesn’t seem to have—or, if he ever had it, it has deserted him.”
Mr. Cameron tries, really he does. Sensing that to show weakness in the face of Boris, as Mr. Johnson is universally known, would be fatal, Mr. Cameron has decided to manage the situation by pretending not to care and treating Mr. Johnson as if he were some kind of humorous pet. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, the prime minister laughed off the mayor as a “blond-haired mop sounding off from time to time.”
But Mr. Johnson has a way of turning even the biggest lemon into lemonade. Somehow, a mishap in which he was left dangling from a malfunctioning zipwire above a crowd this summer only increased his popularity. And during a speech to a packed auditorium at the Tory conference on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson addressed the mop remark head-on.
“If I am a mop, David, you are a broom!” he told the prime minister, who was sitting in the eighth row of the auditorium and trying to look as if he were enjoying himself. “A broom cleaning up the mess left by the Labour Party!” He went on to compare the chancellor of the Exchequer to a dustpan and the education secretary to a kitchen cloth.
Peppering his speech with jokes, some of them at Mr. Cameron’s expense—he praised the prime minister for making hard decisions like “coming along to hear my speech today”—Mr. Johnson took care to say that he was loyal to the government. But he also talked like a politician with national aspirations.
He said the whole nation could learn from what London proved in the Olympics, that Britain is a “confident, can-do country.” It is up to the government, he said, to provide the right conditions for business and growth to thrive, just as London provided the right conditions for the Olympics to succeed.
Mr. Cameron is himself relatively personable and well spoken, but he tends to look stuffy, almost plodding, whenever he appears next to the verbally pyrotechnic, eternally amused-with-himself Mr. Johnson.
A classic example of this came this summer when the two men gave back-to-back speeches after the British athletes’ parade through London after the close of the Paralympics. Mr. Cameron was dutiful and predictable; Mr. Johnson wandered off happily into Boris-world, where words and thoughts fly around and return to earth in new and unusual configurations. “We’ve come now to the final, tear-sodden juddering climax of the summer of London 2012,” he told the athletes. “You routed the doubters and you scattered the gloomsters,” he said, alluding to a British wheelchair racing champion, “propelled by no stimulant more sinister than the beetroot juice unaccountably favored by David Weir.”
The conference audience loved Mr. Johnson, although some people said in interviews that they did not think he was serious enough to be prime minister. In any case, he is a long way from it: to become party leader, he would first have to give up his mayor’s job and return to Parliament.
Others said he should go for it.
“I think he speaks the truth in a way that’s unusual, and I think he would win us the next election,” said Barbara Taylor, a local Conservative volunteer.
As for Mr. Johnson, he seems to be reveling in the chance to have it both ways. In a radio interview on Tuesday, he professed to be sick of all the speculation about his political ambitions.
“I would welcome the spotlight moving away from what I think is an increasingly tired, hackneyed, desiccated, super-masticated issue,” he said. On the other hand, as Tim Shipman, the deputy political editor of The Daily Mail pointed out on Twitter, Mr. Johnson said so during his “5th major broadcast interview of the day.”