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 200.

    As a die-hard Labour supporter I think he's great.
    He seems to portray a buffoon-style image, but appears to be in touch.
    I suppose part of what I like is that irreverence, especially towards the Tory party.I don't think he needs them really.
    Prime Minister? Probably requires a tad more gravitas than Boris can muster, though a lot would rightly be swayed by his ability to engage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Boris appears "nice" because that's his job.

    The public will vote for him because we are idiots, we really are.

    Just listen to him.

    He's evasive and you can see the wheels turning as he responds to any uncomfortable question.

    Maybe he's cleverer than Dave or George but it's the same mindset.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    57 who says

    Boris is fine for mayor but mayor and prime-minister are not the same job. One is politics the other is show-biz. Very different.

    Yes, but which is which? The mayor, whoever s/he is, contributes more to the well-being of London than does the PM, whoever s/he is, to the well-being of Britain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I note the "buffoon's" choice of guests includes Murdoch...what a surprise.

    Can't believe so many people are taken in by Farage's populist drivel.I'm not pretending the EU is fab by any means but look a little closer at UKIP's sponsors and you'll get more of a feel for what they really stand for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    people say johnson is a breath of fresh air...but hes not...hes the same old tired boring weak plastic polititian.....remember that time when he complained about liverpool the city. within 1/2 hour hes grovelling back with an apology because the media and the do gooders didnt like it.stand up like a man and say it how it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    "Boris Johnson has yet to reveal his true colours.

    People used to like Tony."

    People liked Tony because he told them what they wanted to hear, same as Cameron. Boris often says things people strongly disagrees with, and he remains popular because there's no pretense. Poor comparison.

  • 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 192.

    If Boris can rid us of this shower we have in government now he can have my vote and that of all my friends. Cameron, Clegg, Osbourne you are finished. The only uncertainty is how long it will take to get rid of you. You are simple a bunch of u-turning wet lettuces. No Back-bone or integrity whatsoever. Boris has the same charisma and honesty as Maggie Thatcher. Neither suffer(ed) fools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    That's just it: Boris is not afraid to laugh at himself, try new things, & show that he is just one of us common folk who happens to have a very public job.
    We are tired of polished, sophisticated politicians that seem to have learned one thing extraordinarily well: doublespeak, both sides of mouth.
    Boris skipped this lesson to our delight!

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    The British are famous for their sense of humour - we did, after all, elect a man with a comedy voice as Prime Minister. This is just taking it a step further. As always Boris is just the front man. The real power lies with the faceless bureaucrats he supposedly controls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Boris Johnson has yet to reveal his true colours.

    People used to like Tony.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Until we move towards a technocracy and actually get people who understand the implications of what they're doing into government, it's little more than a popularity contest anyway.

    Why not elect someone who at least when you see them on television you actually listen instead of trying to fish out the lies before they're told.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    But with the exception of Nigel Farage of UKIP, Boris is the best thing to have happened in British politics for years.
    Farage has garnered a reputation as a 'straight' talker - he's not. He reminds me of the traincrash that is Romney.Loud mouth lobby fodder masquerading as someone with a backbone.
    Bozza's pulling the wool - nowhere near as genial as the public mask suggests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    @180 I think you'll find that most of the country dislike bankers. Perhaps you should get out more :-)

    I haven't heard a word of criticism against bankers from Boris.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    I dunno....I rather like Boris. A politician who can jovially back Jeremy Paxman into a corner on newsnight, gets my vote!

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Boris retains a lot of his popularity because he is backed by the Russian owned London Evening Standard (who his wife works for) and is cosying up to Murdoch. Mind you, I don't know why he's bothering, even Digger knows the games up as regards to print media.

  • 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 181.

    As always, you get the leaders you deserve. After making Ken Livingstone a figure of fun for so long, how could you not expect to get a politician who embraces being a figure of fun and acts accordingly? Britain's media and politicians have systematically destroyed the gravitas of leadership, in the name of "closeness to the people". Now they are reaping the benefits.


Page 2 of 11


More Politics stories



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.