As the British Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to galvanize his unpopular Conservative Party at its annual conference in Birmingham this week, the key rival who will be costing him the most sleep is not the opposition leader Ed Miliband, a nerdish figure who unexpectedly beat his own more experienced brother to the Labor party leadership two years ago. Even though Labor is about 10 percent ahead of the Conservatives in recent polls, Cameron enjoys greater personal popularity than the awkward Labor chief and doubtless believes he could prevail over Miliband when the next elections roll around in 2015.
And it certainly won’t be his deputy and coalition partner, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal-Democrats. Clegg was once seen as a charismatic, ultra-sincere rising star, but is now regarded as indecisive and inconsistent, and is much tainted by the abandonment of flagship Lib-Dem policies as his party’s price for the partnership in government.
No, the political figure most threatening to Cameron comes from within his own Conservative party ranks, went to the same posh Eton school as he did and on to Oxford University just like him, but isn’t even a member of parliament. He is, rather, the mayor of London, his name is Boris Johnson, and he has come to constitute what political analyst Andrew Rawnsley nailed in The Guardian at the weekend as “a walking, wisecracking reminder” to Conservatives of what Cameron “has lost since he moved into Number 10.”
Cameron was supposed to be the fresh face of the Conservative party, who would surely sweep aside Labor’s immensely lackluster prime minister Gordon Brown in the 2010 elections. But Cameron failed to win those elections outright — hence the humiliating partnership with Clegg’s irritating Lib-Dems — and now Labor under Miliband is thriving in the polls. Maybe things would be better, many Conservatives may be musing, with Boris in charge.
Plainly the challenge is getting under Cameron’s skin. The prime minister told the Telegraph on Sunday, three days after Johnson had warned him that his failure to expand Britain’s aviation capacity risked causing “economic catastrophe,” that “I am, relatively, as you can see, relaxed about having the blond-haired mop sounding off from time to time. Every premiership has its backdrop, and I suspect this is just going to be one of mine.” Blond-haired mop sounding off? Hardly the terminology of the indifferent.
Johnson hit back, in a radio interview Sunday reported on Sky News, by saying backhandedly that Cameron was “the right man in 2005.” And in an interview that led the pro-Conservative Telegraph’s Monday front page, he undercut Cameron again by positioning himself as the champion of what he called the “ignored” middle class. Still, at a rally on Monday in his honor at the conference, entitled “Boris Johnson 2012: Re-elected and Olympotastic,” he stressed that “no one should have cause to doubt my admiration for David Cameron”. He said the prime minister was doing a good job “in tough circumstances… to clear up the mess Labour left.”
Among the admirable factors cited by Rawnsley were the relentlessly upbeat, disarmingly bumbling Johnson’s capacity to excite his party, to cheer people up, and to project authenticity. And underpinning those attributes, in turn, is Johnson’s uncanny ability to come across to the public, somehow, as an ordinary, semi-normal person rather than a scheming, careerist politician. This is remarkable, first, because he most emphatically is a clear-headed career politician, who gave up his seat in Parliament after seven years to run successfully for mayor in 2008, and who shows every intention of seeking to return to the House of Commons, ideally as prime minister. And, second, because Johnson is anything but ordinary.
A 48-year-old who cultivates a permanent air of comic-book chaos — underlined by unkempt hair, apparently thrown-together attire and unpredictable oratory — Johnson is the New York-born, well-connected son of a former Conservative politician, who is armed with the best British education money can buy, and whose ancestry includes Christian, Muslim and Jewish roots and a link to German royalty. He also happens to be a distant cousin of Cameron’s.
Johnson speaks like the most elevated of toffs, which normally would have alienated wide swathes of the British electorate. He also has had much-publicized extra-marital flings, infuriated entire cities by making disparaging remarks about them, and escaped various brushes with the authorities for a variety of scrapes — most resonantly including the alleged misappropriation of a cigar case belonging to Saddam Hussein apologist Tariq Aziz.
But the escapades are plainly part of his appeal. Johnson exudes an endearing, Bertie Wooster-ish readiness — he actually uses words like “Gosh” and “Cripes” — to own up to his wrongdoings and missteps, and to charm his way out of trouble. He may, indeed, be the perfect politician for the Facebook age (217K likes), with no daylight or distance left between his private and public lives; everything exposed, and forgiven, by a smitten public. A survey for the Observer newspaper on Sunday found Johnson’s popularity among likely British voters at an impressive 51%; Cameron scored 29%.
The electorate may feel it knows Boris warts and all, which is comforting when choosing a politician. Brits have seen him riding around London on his bike. They’ve seen him stuck in mid-air on a zip wire during a publicity caper gone awry at this summer’s London Olympics. (After this episode, he cannily dismissed talk of becoming prime minister, asking: “How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?”) They’ve seen him travel to Liverpool to apologize for publishing, in a magazine he edited, criticism of that city’s residents for wallowing in “vicarious victimhood.” They’ve seen him self-deprecatingly subject himself to piercing assault from one of Britain’s most acute political analysts (Private Eye editor Ian Hislop) and one if its most reliably cynical satirists (comedian Paul Merton) when appearing on the BBC TV news quiz “Have I Got News For You”… and emerge with his “good bloke” reputation somehow enhanced.
Still, claim his critics — including several Cameron loyalists speaking anonymously in the last few weeks — Johnson has never held serious national political office, a London mayor’s powers are fairly limited, and he was the figurehead rather than the driving force of the Olympics. Johnson would probably not dispute any of that. Which would only add to his appeal, for some.
His Jewish connection is faint, but one he’s said he’s proud of. His great-great-grandfather was a Moscow clothing trader, and he told the Jewish Chronicle five years ago that “I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack, that’s when it sort of comes out… When I suddenly get a whiff of antisemitism, it’s then that you feel angry and protective.”
For many of the Jews of London his first mayoral success in 2008, and his narrow reelection this May over the bitterly anti-Israel Ken Livingstone, would have come as a profound relief.
He is also evidently a supporter of Israel. In that same 2007 Jewish Chronicle interview, he said, of the previous year’s Lebanon War, “I felt during that business that sometimes people were writing and discussing Israel without really recognizing that Israel was coming under attack.”
Encountered by this writer when visiting Israel in 2004 with a group of MPs, Johnson was an engaging, interested figure, curious to learn as much as he could on the trip. He added additional forays of his own to the group’s already heavy itinerary, returning a little disheveled at one point to inform colleagues that he had spent the previous few hours “learning everything I could have ever wished to know about ancient wells and sewers” in Jerusalem.
A year later, soon after London’s public transport system was blown up by four British-raised Muslims, and more than 50 people killed, Johnson sallied out, with his typical forthrightness, to write that “To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture – to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques – it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers…”
“We look in vain for the enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process of reform,” he added. “What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s mediaeval ass?”
Older, mayoral and more circumspect three years later, Johnson sounded rather different in a conversation with the Guardian, now urging Britons “to find out more about Islam, increase your understanding and learning, even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbor and break your [Ramadan] fast at the local mosque. I would be very surprised if you didn’t find that you share more in common than you thought.”
That drastic shift in tone underlines the political ambition. But Johnson remains far from neutered.
Never mind that the US and UK are supposed to be the closest of allies, partners in a “special relationship,” and that Mitt Romney is one of approximately two men who might be running America for the next few years. Johnson was utterly derisive of Romney just before the London Olympics in late July, after the Republican nominee foolishly said he’d spotted some “disconcerting” signs in Britain’s preparations for the Games. “I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson scoffed mercilessly. “Are we ready?” the mayor asked 60,000 Brits in London’s Hyde Park, to be answered with screams of “yes.”
At the festive conclusion to the spectacularly successful Olympics, the prime minister delivered an understated address to the celebratory masses who had gathered outside Buckingham Palace in central London. But the mayor, whose first name was chanted by the crowds, seized the euphoric moment to hail Team GB’s medal-winning athletes from the heart, or somewhere lower: “Speaking as a spectator, you produced such a paroxysm of tears and joy on the sofas of Britain, you probably not only inspired a generation, you probably helped to create one as well.” There was a slight pause, while the risqué, er, thrust of what the mayor had said sank in. And then there was delirious applause.
It is this instinctive flair for tapping into the public mood that, whatever his privileged origins, has made Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson a man of the British people. It contrasts so sharply with the burdened Cameron’s increasingly leaden manner. It will doubtless feature in his main speech to the Conservative Party in Birmingham on Tuesday. And it will likely leave the prime minister smiling through clenched teeth amid the cheering party faithful.