“We need someone widely seen as a prime minister in waiting. Oh boy, have
you kept me waiting.” Ken Clarke used this line to appeal – in vain – to the
Conservative conference in 2005 as he ran for the leadership. But, oh boy,
has another possible prime minister in waiting kept the Tories hanging
about. Boris Johnson yesterday finally declared that he probably would stand
as an MP in 2015. He’s been stringing the Tory party along for years by
ruffling his hair and avoiding all questions about his next step.
His announcement was, as I understand, both long-planned and off-the-cuff.
Boris knew that he was going to have to say something in time for conference
season – but far enough ahead of the Scottish independence referendum to
avoid looking more interested in his own career than the future of the
Union. During an interview earlier this week for LBC he’d had to wriggle and
ruffle his hair and obfuscate a little more. Then, yesterday, he was giving
a speech on Europe. Journalists were there. He knew there wasn’t much time
left. When someone asked whether he’d stand, Boris, like a climber making a
judgment about which rock to reach for next while clinging to the cliff
face, decided then and there to say something.
The timing wasn’t bad, really, right after a speech on Europe: the Tories,
after all, are only going to grow more obsessed with the EU and big beasts
such as Liam Fox have already been positioning themselves as potential
leaders of the Out campaign in the 2017 referendum. Boris needs to get a
piece of that action. And the announcement will have pleased many in
Westminster. MPs and Tory members have been clamouring for Boris’s return to
Parliament because he does something that so few modern politicians can do.
As one of his agents in Parliament says: “The others offer a never-ending
episode of EastEnders in which Ed Miliband exploits people’s misery, and
David Cameron says we can’t afford anything.” Boris makes voters feel good
about backing the Conservatives.
The Mayor has also told supporters that he thinks he can do for Britain what
he has done for London: he can turn it into an exciting global brand that is
competitive and attractive. Indeed, the proof is there for all to see in his
administration’s record and his poll ratings. The Boris effect, the one that
makes people want to vote Conservative, is carefully crafted through
newspaper columns, radio shows and wide-ranging speeches that give voters a
glimpse of what drives him.
But there are others who might feel more conflicted about the return of the
blond bombshell to the Parliamentary front-line. Nigel Farage, for one,
won’t be best pleased. The Mayor has busily spent the past few weeks
shooting Ukip’s fox with speeches on Europe and immigration that set out his
views quite clearly, even if they don’t quite match David Cameron’s stance.
And what about George Osborne, who is also building up support for a future
leadership bid? There’s no doubt that Boris’s eye is on the big prize – and
on a scrap with the Chancellor. And while Boris’s supporters are ready for
the fight, already spying on Mr Osborne’s long-term tactics, they are also
adamant that they are only concerned with a “post-Dave” leadership bid and
that Boris will remain completely loyal to the Prime Minister until he goes.
It will certainly be great sport watching Boris trying to keep any
leadership ambitions under his hat until that time.
And when Boris does finally make his move, as he surely will, there are MPs
who will oppose him. Some just don’t trust him. They plan to appeal to their
colleagues’ moral sensibilities when Boris shows his hand, and they will use
what he did this week as evidence.
For this week, Boris broke his pledge that he wouldn’t combine being mayor
with any other political capacity. His promise was: “I made a solemn vow to
Londoners to lead them out of recession, bring down crime and deliver the
growth, investment and jobs that this city so desperately needs. Keeping
that promise cannot be combined with any other political capacity.”
Naturally, he was reminded of this, and naturally he had an excuse: since he
said all of the above, the economy has started to grow. If Boris does not
want to squander what trust he does hold among the Tories and if he wants
members to wait for him a little longer, he cannot afford many more broken
promises or scrapes.
You can just hear his opponents now, muttering about the trustworthiness of a
man who can conjure get-out clauses like white rabbits from a hat. But they
misunderstand what Boris does. He doesn’t just produce excuses – his magic
show also involves him escaping from seemingly impossible situations without
so much as a graze on his appeal. And herein lies the secret of his success.
The near universality, almost apolitical nature of his appeal.
Yes, Boris is liked by those who are passionate and ambitious about their
party’s future. And he knows how to put on a show: it’s not just a spell on
a zip wire in 2012, but the Olympic rally in Hyde Park, which culminated in
a huge crowd chanting his name in delight. But he also knows what excites
people who aren’t excited by politics. Mr Cameron now has a
charismatic campaign sidekick who stands out among a political generation
who all look eerily the same.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of ‘The Spectator’
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