“He was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said a London Tory councillor of Boris Johnson’s dilemma over whether to stand again as mayor of the capital. My source, who knows Johnson, explained that Johnson knew that had he pulled out, he risked being branded a “bottler” in the inevitable subsequent attempts to find a Parliamentary seat. His ambition to return to the Commons, compete with the current Tory leadership and climb the greasy poll, would also have been fully exposed at last.
On the other hand, there are real risks in his decision to run again. Labour did especially well in London in May, and senior Tories in the city are worried about Johnson’s chances of winning again amid cuts and transport hikes. Different Tories say different things about who Boris fears most of his potential Labour opponents Ken Livingstone and Oona King. But there are always bluffs in that game, as there were when Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell deliberately put it about that Michael Portillo — not Kenneth Clarke — was the opponent they feared, as confirmed in Campbell’s diaries.
My hunch is that Johnson has come very reluctantly to this decision. There was something unusually flat in his normally Wodehousian tones today. He maintains that he has “more chance of being decapitated by a Frisbee” than reaching Number Ten. He still wants it. But the reality may be sinking in that the plan has taken a knock back now. “He didn’t really have a choice in the end,” concludes my source. Johnson’s best hope now is fighting Cameron and George Osborne on cuts and Crossrail, distancing himself perhaps a little more subtly than he has up to now, and remaining one of the most powerful Tories in the country. The fresh dilemma for him is that if he wins, he is locked into London for another term. if he loses his reputation will have been damaged before the early re-entry into the Commons that some say he seeks.
Whatever happens, there will be further clashes between this particular Tory and the Cameron top team, almost certainly starting at the Conservatives’ conference in a few weeks’ time.