"Utter relief," were the words from Conservative campaign headquarters on the news that Boris Johnson had given in and finally decided to seek the nomination to challenge Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London. It removed the bizarre story of the Ealing Southall by-election candidate, Tony Lit, off the front pages and whooped up a press office slightly jaded by unfavourable polls and generous Asians. "It was a textbook Tory story," says one official. "Everything is going perfectly - a few defections to our side, a candidate with a winning smile, positive press - and then it turns out that only weeks ago, Lit gave £4,800 to Labour. What's the f**king point?" The Boris news could not have come sooner.
The Tories recently conducted some internal polling, funded by Lord Ashcroft. After three months of focus groups, the most recognisable faces in the party were David Cameron, who came top, to the relief of all at CCHQ; he was followed by Margaret Thatcher; and then . . . Boris. A researcher notes: "Boris is miles ahead of even the shadow cabinet, never mind the other candidates. If he wins [the nomination], at least he'll give Ken a decent fight."
Headquarters has been renamed by some staffers the "Boris Call Centre". Yet formally its role is limited. Press officers are unable to take calls for any of the hopefuls during the candidate selection process. (Even Johnson's old chum Rod Liddle was frantically phoning on Monday trying to get hold of him.) The multitude of Johnson inquiries is passed on to Jo Tanner and Katie Perrior, two ex-Conservative Central Office war-room employees assigned to handle his press. Although described as the "Trinny and Susannah of political PR", they are south-east London streetwise. You do not want to mess.
Perrior is one of only a handful of Tory employees who has managed to work for David Davis, the shadow home secretary, without turning to drink or self-hatred, or openly weeping. When Davis claimed the scalp of the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes in 2004, Perrior told staff at the BBC's Today programme: "I've worked so hard, I haven't been home for days. I've had to check into hotels and buy fresh knickers daily." Dedication.
The Johnson campaign team is based at offices in Centre Point, where it is "wading through stats and planning lots of web-based, viral campaigns dealing with areas such as crime, housing and transport". At the time of writing, workers were collecting more than a hundred supporters an hour on www.boris-johnson.com. The original plan was to focus the campaign on a youth-orientated web offensive, but Perrior admits: "We have been surprised by the number of calls from people saying their granny wants to join Boris's campaign but does not have internet access." To deal with this, they are taking names and addresses of silver-haired Boris warriors fit for the cause.
His announcement on 16 July was, as expected, shambolic, but according to his people it did the trick. Says a team member: "He really enjoyed the scrum and was quite thrilled he was doing it outside City Hall right under Ken's nose." That a rather grumpy Livingstone then saw fit to start throwing insults before the day was over also was seen as "a very good thing".
One school of thought in Central Office is to hope that proceedings get really entertaining; some of the more sensible boys and girls are considering "an action-stations procedure" for when Johnson makes his first blunder. One minder says, "The only problem with this is, you don't know what that clanger will be. It's not as simple as knowing he might say 'arse' on prime-time television, berate an entire city or drop his trousers. He could do anything."
A member of Johnson's team says: "Yes, Boris has a reputation for playing the clown, but he is serious about this. This decision was not taken lightly. He knows the risks and doesn't want to make mistakes." The official added, ominously: "Over the next month we will be contacting the great and the good around London, Trevor Phillips-type people, to get involved. Boris is not pretending he knows everything; he wants to glean as much information as possible from those on the front line of London life."
Even those who have every right to be vexed with Boris cannot find words to berate him. A few months ago, Penny Mordaunt, the candidate for Portsmouth North, fell foul of Johnson's free-range tongue when he wrote, "Portsmouth is full of obesity, drugs, underachievement and Labour MPs." His remarks gave her a week from hell, but even she puts a rosy gloss on events. "It's true, his comments ruffled a few feathers. Since then, the council has invested more in literacy. His plain talking put a spotlight on an issue that needed to be aired." Cripes.