Published by Daily Mail
Only the chosen ever attain the level of fame or notoriety which propels them to first-name familiarity with the wider public. I’m not taking about the manufactured pap of celebrity pop – those who are thrust onto the world stage all carefully processed and packaged, like Rihanna, Beyonce and Bjork (though with a surname like Buomundsdottir, I can understand why she dropped it). No, I’m talking about those whose mononymous identity emerges organically, as recognised by the people. In antiquity, one thinks of names like Galileo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Dante and Raphael, not to mention Jesus and Mohammed. In modern times, there’s Cliff, Oprah, Vangelis, Diana…
How many politicians rise to such dizzy heights of popularity that the whole country knows them by their first name? Of course, you get ‘Call me Dave’ (Cameron) contempt, or ‘Gideon’ (Osborne) scorn. But mention the name of Boris and eyes dilate with visions of huggable amiability: people glow inwardly at the mere thought of his aura; they are endeared to his eccentricity.
Boris looks you in the eyes, and manages to makes you feel known as he is known, while David Cameron is constantly glancing over your shoulder, looking for someone more interesting or important. Boris inspires loyalty, with an almost cultic following: in an era in which the medium is the message – and where politicians enjoy a reputation for duplicity and deception somewhere above second-hand car salesmen but beneath bankers – the capacity to incarnate the demotic and authentic is political gold dust.
Some say that he’s more suited to showbiz than politics. Well, a background in entertainment didn’t work too badly for Ronald Reagan, Václav Havel or Pope John Paul II. And some might argue that a few appearances on Have I Got News For You hones the popularity radar, permitting one to read an audience and engage at the level of feeling, temperament and personality. Like it or not, in this televisual media age, politics has ceased being concerned with macho things like policy and polarised political ideology, having become obsessed with more feminised notions of intuition and touchy-feely consensus.
Boris is popular among grassroots Tories in ways that David Cameron can only dream of, as he languishes 11 per cent behind Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. According to a recent YouGov poll, if Boris were installed as party leader, the Conservatives would soar up the approval ratings to 37 per cent while Labour would fall to 38 per cent: a tantalising single percentage point between them. The reason, principally, is that Boris is also popular among non-Tories, as demonstrated in this year’s mayoral elections. There we were, in the wake of a disastrous budget, with almost daily embarrassing U-turns, unemployment rising, EU ever-encroaching, in the grip of double-dip recession, Leveson droning on and on, with Abu Qatada still dwelling among us. And Boris was the only Tory whose star was in the ascendant.
The reality is that Boris has become a brand: it’s not just his trademark mop of blond hair; he is forever positive, optimistic, and a bundle of joy. He’s even got a fleet of bikes named after him. Remember him leading the people’s army of street-sweepers after last year’s riots? If George Osborne had attempted that, any grain of sincerity would have been obliterated by a mass outbreak of cynicism. But Boris makes politicking and electioneering seem refreshingly spontaneous. As far as product identity goes, he’s the market leader, constantly out-selling his leading competitors.
Boris has little time for Guardianistas, and yet they shout his name as he passes them by on his bike. He doesn’t fit in with David Cameron’s Notting Hill clique, yet they welcome him to their wine and canapé evenings. Boris spans ideological gulfs, builds bridges across sociological chasms, and is very comfortable exploring the unfamiliar wastelands long ago lost by the Conservative Party. His appeal transcends the old divisions.
Most importantly, he appeals to the traditional Conservative – those who stand on law and order; who favour national defence, patriotism and tax reduction over increasing immigration, binding EU regulation, expensive wind farms and expanding overseas development. And Boris insists ‘Parliament should be sovereign’ (his words): he is a signed-up member of ‘The People’s Pledge’ – a movement demanding a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. He also has a huge following among entrepreneurial ethnic minorities and blue-collar workers. How many Tories have ever triumphed in Dagenham? In the mayoral election, Boris did. And I read that he did so ‘with the largest personal mandate of any elected official in British history’. I haven’t checked the psephology: I want to believe the sentiment.
Like Cameron, Boris is well and truly Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon, but, unlike Cameron, he’s completely relaxed about his background. While the Prime Minister is Flashman – aloof, cold, bullying – Boris is somewhere between Billy Bunter and Bertie Wooster – the lord of misrule and a lovable rogue. He is unashamedly metropolitan and bourgeois, and revels in it.
Boris has his faults, we know. He has even more personal baggage: his philandering is preserved for posterity, sprawled all over the internet. But we can forgive him his indiscretions because he is one of us: an imperfect sinner who speaks an awful lot of blunt, common sense. And when he finds himself in a bit of scrape – as he did this week in Victoria Park on a zip-line – he is not politically weakened or nationally humiliated because he’s not remotely embarrassed. Boris alchemically turns mishaps into opportunities – darkness becomes day, mourning becomes dancing, bitterness is turned sweet: all things work together for good with those who love Boris.
And so, unsurprisingly in the coalition’s mid-term unpopularity, there are murmurs of a leadership bid. According to Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph, ‘David Cameron is on course to lose the next election, and his leadership, and he knows it’. If he were to lose the next election (not least because his foot-soldiers are deserting in droves over his stubborn commitment to same-sex marriage), a leadership challenge would swiftly follow. The Chairman of the National Convention Emma Pidding (the elected leader of the voluntary party) expressed her worries on BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “My concern is that we are potentially upsetting our members and activists when I have one goal, and that is to obtain a Conservative majority government in 2015,” she explained. “Anything which upsets any of my members, I don’t like to see that.”
Boris is more intuitive than Cameron. Moreover, he is considered to be ‘political Viagra’. For Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, he’s the ‘Heineken politician’, able to reach those places other politicians simply cannot reach. Guido Fawkes has said ‘Boris2020’ is his personal objective, though it’s rumoured that Rupert Murdoch wants Boris installed by 2014, to lead the party into the next general election.
The main problem – apart from there being no obvious Sir Anthony Meyer-like stalking horse to lead the charge to depose Cameron – is that Boris sacrificed the plum-safe Tory seat of Henley-on-Thames in order to become Mayor of London. Presently excluded from the House of Commons, it is not really possible to become party leader or prime minister. Being Mayor is by no means a bar to being an MP (except in the eyes of a hyper-critical media, which had no problem with Ken Livingstone being both, and was tolerant of Boris being both an MP and editor of The Spectator). But politics is about seeming, and Boris must be sensitive to the new thresholds of media tolerance.
A further hurdle is that Boris isn’t even on the List of Approved Candidates. Of course, CCHQ could swiftly put him through a round of absurd interviews to establish his commitment to equality and diversity, but this would make the Candidates’ Department complicit in a rather obvious plot. And then there’s the small matter of finding a local association prepared to install him as their candidate.
It has been suggested that Jo Johnson in Orpington might fall on his sword to make way for his older brother, but there’s no need. I’ve talked to senior people in three constituencies – the first of these might be termed a safe Tory seat; the second is a not-so-safe presently-Tory seat; and the third is a most interesting usually-safe Tory in a state of neutered limbo.
Conservative Party members in all three would certainly welcome Boris as their candidate: yes, the first two loathe their current MPs so much that they’d be prepared to oust them in order to create a vacancy and engineer a by-election to accommodate Boris. The problem, however, as I was reminded by one association chairman, is that CCHQ would intervene. Local associations are no longer autonomous or able to determine for themselves who may represent them at Westminster: CCHQ is omnipotent, and will swiftly stamp on any recalcitrant or rebellious volunteers, however senior or long-serving they may be. I know from experience that when a local Conservative association transgresses the mighty will of CCHQ, it is put into ‘support status’ (i.e., suspended) in order that the Centre can impose its will. They did it with Slough in 2005, where I was the approved candidate, and threatened Arundel & South Downs with the same treatment over the dismissal of Howard Flight. Boris is aware of these undemocratic constraints (he wrote about them at the time). It would be a brave local association indeed that moved to deselect a sitting MP in the face of such threats.
But Lord Tebbit rallied the potential radicals a year ago. In his Telegraph blog, he wrote: “Conservatives can take over Conservative Associations and simply decline to support Central Office clone dummies as Parliamentary candidates. It can be your party.” Such exhortations to entryism would have been unthinkable while he was Party Chairman. But he understands the grassroots frustration – not so much with coalition, but with incompetence, weakness and the sheer lack of Conservative vision.
While Boris is undoubtedly popular among the voluntary party, under the Constitution governing leadership elections, the Parliamentary Party must present the members with the two final names. If these were Boris and (say) George Osborne, it would be a Boris landslide. But there would be considerable pressure upon sitting MPs to deprive the membership of such a choice. The battle would be long, nasty and divisive, pitched between the bumbling eccentric and the experienced tactician. The stones themselves would cry out for Boris, but Tory MPs would most likely play it safe. Until, perhaps, it dawned upon them that any alternative would lose them their seats.
Boris is a strategist: he understands the political long game at a much higher intellectual level than many of his peers. His current short-back-and-sides constitutes an preliminary makeover, but he knows and understands well that this is the time for profound political wisdom and sound judgment. The party is rebellious within the House of Commons and factious without. It is looking to the future, and it does not want another centralising, patronising autocrat, but a devolving, authentic democrat. Boris is the people’s politician, and he knows it. His day will surely come.