Highwire act Boris Johnson defies political gravity


Boris Johnson shouted "gold medal" while dangling on a zip wire for several minutes. Video: Laura Mullane

Related Stories

"Clearly the judges are likely to have marked the Mayor down for artistic impression!"

In a sentence from his spokesman, an insight into how the political rulebook does not seem to apply to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

If politicians are seen by many as somewhat vanilla, Boris Johnson is a jumbo knickerbocker glory.

For the Mayor of London, getting stuck on a zipwire is just the latest addition to what we should call the "Boris files" - the drawer in the filing cabinet marked "incidents that can finish a politician".

Yet many claim he is becoming more popular.

Can you imagine the Labour leader Ed Miliband or the Chancellor George Osborne, or any other senior politician in the UK, doing this and their reputation being, arguably, enhanced?

Just hours before Mr Johnson was strapped in, put on a blue helmet and commandeered a couple of Union flags for the maiden flight on the wire in London's Victoria Park, this is how he was being talked up in the Daily Telegraph.

Tory wet

"As donors stampede to back Boris, the PM can only watch," read the headline to Benedict Brogan's column. Describing those within the Conservative Party who would like to see Mr Johnson in Downing Street one day, Mr Brogan wrote: "it is Boris Johnson who has snatched the spotlight away from the prime minister and used the Games as a launchpad for his leadership ambitions."

So how has he not just survived, but made a virtue out of moments that would leave most politicians hastily looking for another career?

Firstly, let's indulge ourselves by taking a peek in the Boris files. He is, after all, one of the very, very few politicians known almost universally by his first name.

Boris Johnson playing football in 2006 The future London Mayor showed unorthodox technique during a 2006 football match

If you thought this airborne embarrassment was quite something, there has been a bit of the underwater variety too. In 2009, he fell into a river, with the cameras capturing the moment. In keeping with his consistent brand of eccentricity, many said it added to his profile and his reputation. Compare that with the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock falling into the sea in Brighton in 1983.

Before Mr Johnson's airborne and sub aqua escapades, events in late 2004 would themselves have been enough to sink many a politician.

First, in October of that year, he was ordered to visit Liverpool to apologise in person for a magazine article that criticised the city's response to the murder of Ken Bigley, who was killed in Iraq.

The then MP was also editor of The Spectator when it carried an opinion piece saying the city was wallowing in "disproportionate" grief for Mr Bigley, adding it was part of the "deeply unattractive psyche" of many on Merseyside.

A month later, he was sacked as a shadow minister and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party after tabloid allegations about his private life and what he had, or had not, told his then boss, Michael Howard.

He had dismissed the allegations, incidentally, as "an inverted pyramid of piffle".

This remark brings us onto another section of the Boris files worth a look.

He has an extraordinary talent for the memorable phrase. A lucrative talent, for him, too, as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

Take the arrival of the Olympic flame at the Tower of London just before the Olympics. The flame was the star. Or was it?

"As Henry VIII discovered, with at least two of his wives, this is the perfect place to bring an old flame," Mr Johnson said.

In 22 words, he had stolen the show.

As enthusiasm grew for the Olympics in the days before the opening ceremony, he said: "The Geiger Counter of Olympomania is going to go zoink."


And how did he describe the beach volleyball? The players were "glistening like wet otters." Again, ask yourself the question: can you imagine another politician ever saying that?

And can you imagine any other politician having his or her first name chanted, in appreciation, in front of a crowd of 60,000 people? It happened to Boris Johnson in Hyde Park in central London the night before the Olympics began.

So what is the official response from Downing Street to Boris Johnson's most recent incident?

"If any other politician got stuck on a zipwire it would be disastrous. With Boris it's a triumph. London is lucky to have him."

The subtext is pretty striking. "London is lucky to have him" will be translated by some to "and that is where he should stay."

With vast quantities of chutzpah and an embarrassment threshold much higher than that zipwire, Boris Johnson can command the Olympic stage.

His critics point out, as Mayor of London, it is a stage with little responsibility. A stage more tolerant of his quirks and fun.

Boris Johnson for Prime Minister, they say, is ludicrous. A joke in itself.

Yet no one disputes he can connect with people who might be otherwise indifferent to politics. And for all his capers and apparent catastrophes, few dispute he is seriously ambitious.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Boris is a charismatic extrovert with a fearsome intellect and a schoolboy sense of humour. He says what he thinks and doesn't mind a joke at his own expense. Whatever one's politics he is a difficult man to hate and seems able to get away with things which would finish other politicans. Few these days are as entertaining. Whether that makes him Prime Minister material only time will tell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    In an age of depressingly grey and manufactured politicians with nothing but hot air and idiots swirling round them Boris is a breath of fresh air. He's unafraid to express an opinion, he's unafraid to take chances. I expect the whinging uptight pc left will be wailing a lament about Britain not being taken seriously, well its all hogwash. People love a character and Boris is certainly that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Simple. He understands people. He knows that the British love an eccentric, value a self-deprecating sense of humour, and can't bear people taking themselves too seriously. He has the archetypal British wit, and he doesn't parade his intelligence.

    Anyone who thinks that Boris the buffoon really IS a buffoon is a far greater fool than he is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    I think Boris is fab, how many other politicians get involved with cleaning g rivers and he was there cleaning up after the riots, nobody else was! It doesn't matter if he has an accident every now and again it just shows he's human. Unlike other politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I think the appeal of Boris - like Ken Livingstone, Ken Clarke, Tony Benn, and a handful of others - is that he says what he believes without worrying about how it will go down in middle England.

    In an era when political expression is hedged about by swarms of minders and spin doctors ensuring that every word spoken is "on message", that's a rare thing.


Comments 5 of 12


More Politics stories



  • Firth of Forth bridgeWhat came Firth?

    How the Forth was crossed before the famous bridge

  • Petrol pumpPumping up

    Why are petrol prices rising again?

  • Image of George from Tube CrushTube crush

    How London's male commuters set Chinese hearts racing

  • Elderly manSuicide decline

    The number of old people killing themselves has fallen. Why?

  • TricycleTreasure trove

    The lost property shop stuffed with diamonds, bikes... and a leg

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.