It is more than 20 years since the Conservative Party last won a British general election. Even when David Cameron took on Gordon Brown, a tumbledown leader heading a despondent Labour Party, he could not match John Major’s performance against Neil Kinnock in April 1992. He became Prime Minister but failed, in his own words, to “seal the deal” and secure a parliamentary majority.
The most confident suitor would be scarred by two decades of rejection and, beneath the governing swagger that is their cultural trademark, Tories are wracked by insecurity about electoral unattractiveness. So it is not surprising that many Conservatives are obsessed with the one high-profile candidate who seems able to win public affection as well as office: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
He won the London mayoralty in 2008 despite the capital’s historical Labour bias and held it four years later on the very day that his party took a pummelling in council elections. His reward is to host the Olympics, which will be for Boris – the only Tory whose first name is a political brand – a festival of self-promotion.
Johnson’s unique achievement is to have seduced Labour voters while also tickling the fancy of the Tory right. The inability of his party’s leader to do the same is an open wound in Downing Street to which the London Mayor gladly applies salt. Boris touts his horror of the European Union when Cameron would hose down his party’s aggressive Euroscepticism; he defends the City when George Osborne is under pressure to decry fraudulent fat-cattery.
Both sides, now
Cruellest of all – O, fickle public! – while the Prime Minister seems weighed down by the baggage of an Eton education, Boris flaunts his elite training at the same school, winning ovations with Latin orations. Cameron’s leadership has been driven by the urge to apologise for his party’s alienation from modern Britain; Johnson is celebrated as a cartoon Conservative.
Boris has never confirmed that he wants to be prime minister but he reeks of grandiose ambition. A career in media pursued alongside politics – he edited the Spectator magazine and writes a column in the Telegraph – has acquired him a coterie of cheerleaders who routinely advertise his leadership credentials.
In reality, Boris’s wins must be draped in caveat. In 2008, Labour was at a low ebb and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent mayor, looked spent after two terms in office. The barrel of Londoners’ goodwill towards Livingstone was scraped bare by 2012, when he stood again. A rematch against the day-before-yesterday’s man gifted Boris victory. The race was still closer than most commentators had anticipated.
The London mayoralty is also a job without much executive power. Voters know that the post is symbolic and so are prepared to fill it with someone more characterful than competent. Johnson is bored by municipal detail. He has no appetite for transport strategies, air quality control or waste disposal. His management style is marked by chaos and neglect.
Vital decisions are made and unmade several times over. There are planning disputes in which opposing parties have both produced letters supporting their case from the Mayor’s office. Boris can be won over by one side and then, forgetting the earlier conviction, be persuaded of the opposite view days later.
Johnson’s first year in office saw a succession of minor scandals resulting in the departure of five senior appointees – including three deputy mayors. His most successful personnel decision was to retain Neale Coleman, the man his predecessor had appointed as chief adviser on the Olympics. Livingstone is said to have warned his successor that the Games would fail without Coleman’s expertise.
It is to Johnson’s credit that he heeded that counsel and has since formed a close partnership with a former Labour councillor. However, Coleman is also an erudite, Oxford-educated classicist, which counts for more in Boris’s estimation than political allegiance.
That ecumenical intellect is the side of Boris that disorients the left. His Labour detractors want him to be a Tory fanatic whose affable mask can be prised away. Yet he can be sincerely swayed by liberal-left argument – and just as sincerely swayed back. It is a trait also ignored by his fans on the right (where, for example, his interest in an amnesty for illegal immigrants
is conveniently forgotten).
The devil’s work
He is, in that respect, a very different political animal to his great rival – not Cameron, who has already beaten him to Downing Street, but Osborne, against whom he competes in an undeclared succession battle. The Chancellor is a tribal Tory who does not squander brain power on ideas that are anathema to the party. The antipathy between the two men is potent, although the race they are running takes place largely in their heads, cheered on by their tiny retinues. “I keep hearing about ‘Team Boris’ and ‘Team George’ but I don’t meet many people who belong to either,” says one Tory MP.
Unlike Osborne, Boris has no base in the parliamentary party. His service as a shadow minister under Michael Howard’s leadership was distinguished by gaffes and scandal – including tales of sexual indiscretion that would disqualify him from playing the wholesome family man, a role required of all prime ministers.
Boris ought to be satisfied with his current job. He has hit a cruising altitude at which a high profile can coexist with base irresponsibility. But he is restless. He has told aides he intends to perform his mayoral duties on an unofficial part-time basis after the Olympics. (He has seven deputy mayors to run the capital.) That leaves Johnson with more than three years of idleness on his hands, which from Downing Street’s point of view means endless scope for political devilry.
Despite some midterm chatter, no one expects a vacancy to arise at the top of the party soon but that is not the point. Boris’s popularity is in any case too peculiar to the capital to be replicated at a national level. He is not a future leader; he is a living taunt directed at the current one, a vehicle for Conservatives to wound the Prime Minister without flagrant disloyalty. Cheering their London winner is the sporting way Tories call Cameron a loser.