Blond ambition

London mayor Boris Johnson has big plans, and that worries Conservative leaders, says Greg Williams


Five minutes after the scheduled start of mayor’s question time — a quasi-monthly opportunity for members of the London Assembly to demand a public accounting from the city’s top elected official — he arrives at last, wearing a backpack over his raincoat and carrying a large takeout coffee, his schoolboy thatch of platinum-blond hair even more dishevelled than usual.

He stuffs the backpack beneath his desk, casually tosses down a crumpled copy of the agenda, and removes his coat to reveal the traditional garb of the British ruling class: a navy-blue suit. “We’ll take item two while the mayor composes himself,” chairwoman Jennette Arnold says dryly.

The assembly members are seated in a horseshoe with Johnson at the open end, a lone figure in an expanse of purple carpet, his back to a big window overlooking the gray expanse of the Thames. As the Conservative mayor begins delivering his report, Labour members of the assembly try to shout him down, and the session soon degenerates. Arnold bangs her gavel. “I will not have this question time turned into a campaign,” she chides.

Like it or not, however, that’s exactly what the tumultuous meeting is — and it’s only a warm-up. Today, Johnson is facing off in a rematch against one of Labour’s wiliest campaigners and most ruthless operators. The victor will run Europe’s largest and most diverse city for the next four years. In their last contest, four years ago, Johnson defeated the then two-term mayor, Ken Livingstone.

No politician in the city is more entrenched in London politics or more skilful at street-fighting than Livingstone, a man who earned the nickname Red Ken in his titanic struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, when she was prime minister and he led the now defunct Greater London Council. During the 2008 race, Livingstone called Johnson “the most formidable opponent I will face in my political career”. In the run-up to today’s vote, opinion polls seesawed, but Johnson seemed to be pulling ahead in the home stretch.

Win or lose, Johnson cannot hide his biggest dream: to succeed Conservative Party leader David Cameron as prime minister after the next general election, in 2015.

“I think if you did a chronology of Boris Johnson’s interventions to the right on issues that he has no responsibility for over the last four years, it is absolutely clear that Boris is intent on replacing Cameron,” says David Lammy, Labour’s member of parliament for Tottenham. “Clearly he needs to win this next election in order to achieve that ambition... And I think that is very worrying, because his eye would not be on London if he were to win.”

Still, most observers seem to agree Johnson is close to getting his wish. “He has the advantage that when he took office there were relatively limited expectations of him,” says Tony Travers from the School of Government at the London School of Economics. “Even, I suspect, his own.”

Johnson’s mayoralty has been a most unlikely success story. An unabashed member of the privileged classes, he has somehow managed to win the affection of a Labour-leaning city as it endures the harshest cuts in public expenditure since World War II, under the Conservative-led government’s austerity prescriptions.

His alleged marital infidelities have been lavishly documented in the tabloids under headlines such as “Bonking Boris Made Me Pregnant” and “Boris Sacked for Lying Over Affair”. He has been married to the mother of his four children for 19 years. His weekly column in The Daily Telegraph reportedly brings him a second income of £250,000 (€308,000) a year — a sum he has described as “chicken feed”, even though it is more than 10 times the average income in Britain. During his term as a member of parliament, he was fired from the cabinet. His guest spots on popular comedy shows are better known than any of his policy positions.

And yet Londoners seem to like having him around — not only Tories but even longtime Labour voters who have been branded “Boris Reds”.

He is that rare thing: a politician who has risen above events to take on a form of celebrity. As Johnson walks up the street, bystanders recognise him instantly, and a smile usually creeps onto their faces as he approaches.

“I spoke to people who canvassed for Ken last time,” says journalist Andrew Gimson, author of the 2006 biography Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson. “They said that they went around trying to stir up dislike of Boris, and they couldn’t manage it.”

Most Londoners have never met anyone quite like the 47-year-old Johnson. He’s practically a PG Wodehouse character, a bumbling, disorderly member of the upper class, except Johnson is genuinely erudite and fiercely ambitious — and he rides the streets of London on a bicycle.

“He has the ability to strike up a rapport with people who haven’t really got anything,” says Gimson. “It’s quite a complicated thing because he is, by temperament, an elitist. And he is, of course, immensely competitive and wants to get to the top.”

Johnson was born in New York. His father, Stanley, was on a fellowship, studying in the US. His mother, Charlotte, was an undergraduate, on leave from her senior year at Oxford. The couple lived in a loft on West 23rd Street, opposite the Chelsea Hotel. They gave their firstborn a grand name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. The name Boris came from a family friend in Mexico, a White Russian named Boris Litwin. Although the boy’s schoolmates seized upon his quirky middle name, his closest relatives continue to call him Al.

He won a scholarship to Eton, the alma mater of David Cameron, as well as numerous members of Britain’s royalty, before going on to study classics at Oxford.

“Even at Oxford he struck people as a slightly old-fashioned toff from another era,” says writer Toby Young, who knew both Johnson and Cameron during their years at the university.

Before entering politics, Johnson made a name for himself as a swashbuckling and prolific journalist. Critics charge that he lacks the temperament for the grind of government and that he is too much of an outlier from his party’s mainstream to unify others behind him.

He can often appear blustering and shambolic. He obfuscates, cajoles, and flatters. When he doesn’t like the way a conversation is going, he changes the subject wildly, feigning hurt and outrage. Those performances have come to define him. “He was not seen as a stellar act as a higher-education shadow minister,” says Lammy. “He didn’t quite work in parliament.I think the mayoralty, in that sense, suited him better.”

Nevertheless, Lammy has his doubts about Johnson’s handling of last summer’s London riots. “Boris’s response was to vacillate about returning [from holiday in Canada],” the parliamentarian says.

“Boris’s response was to turn up in Clapham, to hold a broom for 10 minutes, to leave after 10 minutes, and not to return to the subject again.”

Fundamentally, though, this week’s Groundhog Day of an election is not about policy. Whichever candidate wins, London can be expected to keep on as always. There is no doubt that Tory leaders want Johnson to win this week’s election — but he worries them. “They basically regard him as disreputable and untrustworthy,” says Gimson.

“Cameron is a pure establishment man, who will always do what the establishment thinks is prudent. Boris is a loner. He can’t see an apple cart without feeling inclined to overturn it.” As charming as Johnson can be, it’s hard to blame his fellow Conservatives for feeling a bit nervous.

* Greg Williams is a writer based in London.

(c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC. All rights reserved.


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