Borismania: A small suggestion
- 7 October 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Before a tide of Boris mania sweeps through Birmingham, can I commit a small blasphemy?
Can I proffer a modest counter-thesis to check the adoration of the mayor, a pause before we lay down palms as the anointed one enters the conference city?
My heresy is simple. Is it just possible, to paraphrase Monty Python, that Boris Johnson is not a blond messiah; he is just a very naughty boy?
I know, I know, I have my tin hat on as I write, but I think the question is worth asking.
I know that august commentators with greater brains than mine have argued that David Cameron should ditch the amused appeasement recognise Boris as a real threat and develop a proper strategy to deal with him.
I know others have pointed out that unlike Mr Cameron, Boris is a winner, he excites his party and wins votes from people who do not normally back the Conservatives. They say his jokes make the Cabinet look dull, and his gravitas makes him look like prime-ministerial. He cheers people up, they cheer him, and he appears authentic, the real deal in an era of insincerity and pre-cooked sound bites.
And yet let us consider a few contrary thoughts and questions:
1. I have yet to speak to a Conservative who thinks David Cameron will stand down or be ousted as leader before the election in 2015. In other words, whatever leadership ambitions Boris may or may not have, they would be for a pretty distant and pretty uncertain future. As one Cabinet minister told me: "Everyone needs to take a chill pill and relax. The party is not going to get rid of Cameron, it is not even in the foothills of even thinking about it."
2. Even if Boris were to break his promise and get back into the Commons through a by-election before his mayoral term is up, he does not have a meaningful powerbase in parliament. There are undoubtedly some London MPs who have held onto his coat-tails but there is no great organisation or fan club ready to grind into action.
3. Many voters may like Boris - the humour, the personality, the character - but do they see him as prime ministerial material? Many Londoners may love him but does his popularity stretch far outside the M25? What do voters in the north think about him? How much would Conservative members across the country still love him when they realise that he shares many, if not more, of Mr Cameron's modernising instincts such as support for gay marriage? A cheerleader for the capital with few powers is not the same as a national leader with unpopular decisions to make.
4. Do the media give Boris more welly than he perhaps is worth? Sure, he is always good copy and he is good telly. But it has always been part of the narrative of political journalism that there has to be a great white hope just over the horizon. In more recent years for the Conservatives, it was Michael Portillo and Michael Heseltine. Further back, it was the likes of Rab Butler. Just as with drama, journalism thrives on conflict and competition. In other words, if Boris did not exist, we would invent another like him.
5. How much is the Boris phenomenon fanned by the somewhat nervous response by Mr Cameron and his Downing Street machine? The PM often seems to lose his stride in interviews when he is asked about Boris. He summons the mayor to Chequers and Downing Street to encourage harmony before the conference. His staff ring up City Hall to find out what Boris will be saying in his speech. I am told there was a lot of effort made by Number Ten to make sure that Boris did not give any interviews on Sunday morning when Mr Cameron was due on the Andrew Marr show. In the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Cameron said: "I am relatively, as you can see, relaxed about having the blond-haired mop sounding off from time to time." Oh how telling is that crucial word "relatively"! One minister told me it was purely an ego thing. "It is like you are the boss, but this other guy comes into the room and everyone wants to go and talk to him, and hey, you don't like it."
6. The crucial point is that while Boris Johnson may wilfully tweak David Cameron's tail, and while this may wind Mr Cameron up, the prime minister has actually far more important things to think and worry about. The future of the economy and the state of the government's public sector reforms would justifiably keep him up at night, not another ambitious old Etonian. In other words, Boris may steal the show. But he's not likely to steal the job.
PS - Despite all the above I will be spending much of tomorrow merrily following Boris and the inevitable media scrum all around Birmingham in the hope of illuminating insights or catchy soundbites. With luck you'll be able to see the results on the 10 o'clock news.