Is Boris faking it?

A new, serious Boris Johnson is now being offered to the voters of London - thanks to the heavy stag

Prominent on the home page of the Back Boris website (www.backboris.com) is a box counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the London mayoral election. For casual visitors it presumably serves as a gentle reminder that 1 May is drawing steadily nearer. For Team Boris, however, the countdown is loaded with tension and emotion.

That, they tell themselves when they look at the numbers, is precisely how long we must maintain our total vigilance. That, measured to the second, is the still painfully extended period through which we have to make absolutely sure Boris does not say one of those appalling, offensive, stupid things he has been in the habit of saying all his life.

At the time of writing they are succeeding. The word from Conservative Central Office is that exhausted members of Johnson's staff turn up occasionally to touch base, shaking their heads in disbelief that they are still getting away with it. "It's hard to believe they are talking about a grown man," says one insider. "It's like teachers describing a very bright child with naughty ways who is somehow starting to behave himself in class."

Many might say it is even harder to believe that they are talking about the front-runner in the election for one of Britain's most important jobs: the man who may lead a city of 7.5 million that will soon play host to the Olympic Games, the politician who may control an £11bn-a-year budget that comes with surprisingly feeble restraints on how it is spent.

But so it is. In what could be called a postmodern joke by the Conservatives, a man with a lurid history of verbal incontinence is playing the 21st-century election game, with all its gaffe-traps and correctness tripwires - and he is winning.

The Svengalis of Team Boris are doing their bit, but we have to acknowledge first that the trick couldn't work without a superhuman effort of self-control by the man himself. It is something even he once thought beyond him. Only three years ago he told my colleague Sholto Byrnes in an interview: "The real point is that if I did try to acquire gravitas in a calculated and systematic way, I'd probably fall flat on my face. So I think, better to fly by the seat of your pants."

Now the flying is over and the calculated acquisition of gravitas is under way. "Boris is trying very, very hard to be serious," says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, who follows affairs in the capital closely, "though personally I'm not sure he's very different underneath." A senior report er covering the campaign sees it the same way: "Boris has shown remarkable discipline. You can see that he has resolved some sort of inner conflict and is now struggling to achieve something in politics, in what may well be his last chance."

Like a man overcoming a stammer, Johnson has locked down that almost pathological compulsion to dazzle and shock whoever he happens to be talking to, which again and again has driven him to say the unsayable. He has also conquered his habit of either being late for appointments or not turning up at all.

But if the candidate is trying hard on his own account, the people around him are also straining every muscle. The joke on the campaign trail is that every time Johnson appears in public his chief minder, Lynton Crosby, keeps him squarely in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle, ready to bring him down the second his mouth runs away with him.

Crosby, who made his name helping John Howard to successive victories in Australia, and who ran Michael Howard's Tory campaign here in 2005, joined Team Boris after Christmas, adding some very expensive expertise to the mix. Though he is talked of as a master of the dark arts of election-fighting, his principal impact seems to have been straightforward. "He has injected urgency into the campaign," says that campaign reporter. "We're seeing swift rebuttals and quality attack lines every day. It's a professional operation of a kind we haven't seen before in a mayoral election."

Avoiding close contact

One trick, by the look of it, has been to expose the candidate as little as possible to close contact with the people most likely to lead him astray: his fellow journalists.

John-Paul Flintoff wrote amusingly in the Sunday Times of the struggle he had getting anywhere near Johnson, and my own efforts merely to catch sight of this supposedly tireless candidate also met with some frustration. His handlers showed little urgency in responding to the New Statesman, and when they did they insisted he was booked up, busy or concentrating on meeting campaigners. Next week will be better, they promised, in a jam-tomorrow sort of way.

It's not that he hides - he does all the set-piece debates, hustings appearances, television soundbites and photo opportunities - but there seems to be a keen awareness that the risks of any other form of exposure can easily outweigh the benefits. When Flintoff eventually managed to get close to Johnson he was treated with the sort of suspicious horror usually reserved for plague-carriers - and he was writing for a Tory paper.

It helps enormously that so much attention has been on Ken Livingstone: Team Boris can remain relatively policy-light while the incumbent is busy fighting off his critics, notably Andrew Gilligan at the London Evening Standard, our own Martin Bright, and others.

This increases the air of unreality about the Tory campaign. Day after day Johnson has been denying his known nature in the pursuit of gravitas, while carefully dodging unhelpful press exposure, and week after week he has escaped scrutiny because the heat is on Livingstone. He hasn't needed a Teflon coating because so little sticky stuff has been thrown his way.

And meanwhile, out of sight, an aggressive get-out-the-vote strategy is being hatched, which his handlers believe can tip the balance against Labour on polling day. It is precisely the kind of under-the-radar campaigning for which Lynton Crosby is known in Australia.

None of this is meant to imply that the candidate himself is an airhead. Johnson has been a successful editor of the Spectator and is manifestly shrewd, intelligent and articulate, so that when it comes to campaign debates he is well able to cope.

"Certainly we are seeing a more serious Boris," said another reporter covering the election. "He handled a grilling from Andrew Neil very well, for example, and Neil was out to give him a hard time." Johnson is also often good in meetings with voters and special interest groups, deflecting and disarming with his particular brand of bonhomous candour.

But still there is the disquieting knowledge that, as even his best friend is likely to admit, he doesn't do policy. Worrying about how the details of life might be tinkered with to bring benefits to large numbers of people has always been alien to him. When he talks about serious things such as housing or transport, his voice and expression are constantly fighting the temptation to put him at a distance, and to make his comments seem ironic and knowing or the topic daft. He only really seems to engage, in Victor Meldrew fashion, at the point where it might be entertaining, such as the threat posed by bendy buses to cyclists such as himself. There are plenty of policies, from reforming the congestion charge to increasing affordable homes (look at the website), and they even come with added Boris Johnson magic dust. The words "plethora" and "pristine" crop up; cyclists "dodge death", and the RMT union has its "thumbs on the windpipe" of commuters - all language familiar to readers of his Telegraph column.

But does Johnson care? Is he genuinely troubled, for example, by the prospect of a third Heathrow runway, which he says he opposes? Does he worry about the emissions and the noise and disruption that will affect people other than himself, as he now claims to? Twenty years of his journalism say no, and so do ten celebrity years in which he came to embody the idea that it was clever not even to bother understanding.

When Ken Livingstone says the mayoral election is not Celebrity Big Brother, he does so with a pained expression on his face. He knows that if it is Celebrity Big Brother, he is about to be ejected - he's quite a showman himself, but he has met his match in this Tory candidate. And if it isn't Celebrity Big Brother, then on the evidence to date it is about him, Ken, about his management style and about people wanting someone different now. No one is looking closely at Johnson.

And even if they start, Johnson is proof against a lot of things that would hurt another politician. If this Sunday's News of the World produced a scoop about him bonking another posh bird, London voters would think good luck to him. The one thing they would think twice about, though, is if he is guilty of a Jade Goody moment - some gross expression of patrician racism or some brutal quip about single mothers. Hence Lynton Crosby's sniper rifle.

This election is indeed a postmodern event, a personality contest in which the Tories have found a personality even bigger than Livingstone's (albeit one who, lacking known depth, may actually only be bigger in two dimensions).

It is the inevitable consequence, according to Tony Travers, of the presidential-style mayoral system confected by Tony Blair in the effort to distil local politics into a more entertaining form. And Travers believes it may even be the sort of contest modern voters really want.

"Britain is a postmodern country and London is its post-modern capital," he says. "Strip away the characteristics of today's Londoners and you won't find that at their core they are serious. They are hedonistic, and they are people who take the piss. And that's what Boris is, too."

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Boris: the CV

19 June 1964 Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, New York

1969 Family moves to farm on Exmoor

1975 Goes to Ashdown House prep school

1977 Enters Eton

1983 Goes up to Balliol College, Oxford, to read classics

1987 Marries Allegra Mostyn-Owen

1989 Joins Telegraph as leader writer and EU correspondent

1993 Divorces Allegra; marries Marina Wheeler

1993 First child, Lara Lettice, is born; three more follow

1999 Becomes editor of the Spectator

2001 Elected Tory MP for Henley

2004 Appointed shadow minister for the arts

2004 Sacked from front bench for lying over affair with Petronella Wyatt

2005 Steps down from Spectator; appointed shadow minister for higher education

July 2007 Resigns from front bench; announces bid for Conservative candidacy for London mayoral elections

Research by Simon Rudd

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