London Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to run in next year’s general election presents U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron with a gift-wrapped electoral asset that might just as easily turn into a liability.
Johnson, a Conservative like Cameron, has demonstrated his voter appeal by winning two terms as mayor in a city dominated by the opposition Labour Party. He also runs the risk of distracting from the Tory campaign as speculation mounts over his desire to succeed Cameron as party leader -- and possibly as premier.
“I know Cameron said he wants star players in his team, but he’ll be hoping he won’t get any tackles from behind,” Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, said in an interview. “I suppose he thinks it’s better to have Boris in the tent rather than outside the tent, but he can still cause trouble.”
Johnson used a speech at Bloomberg LP’s European headquarters in London yesterday to court euro-skeptic Tories by raising the bar for Cameron’s bid to reform the EU, suggesting the U.K. has nothing to fear from an exit. While aiding Johnson’s leadership ambitions and helping win back defectors to the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, the strategy may alienate some of the voters the Tories need to win over in swing districts.
“He’s going to cause a lot of difficulty for Cameron over the EU,” Grant said.
The bicycle-riding mayor, who made his name as a journalist and television panel-show presenter, has an appeal that goes beyond traditional Conservative supporters. His instantly recognizable shock of blond hair, unpredictability and off-the-cuff comments have won him backers among a public alienated by traditional politicians.
“It could all go horribly wrong, and that’s one of the reasons people are interested in Boris, because they feel there’s the possibility of catastrophe, which makes it more interesting,” Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris,” a biography of the mayor, said in a phone interview. “Wherever he appears electioneering, it’s much more likely a crowd of eager people will gather and want to see part of the Boris show.”
Even as the prime minister praised Johnson’s decision to run yesterday, bookmakers Ladbrokes Plc and William Hill Plc cut the odds on Johnson becoming the next Tory leader, installing him as favorite over Home Secretary Theresa May.
New York-born Johnson came from behind in the opinion polls in 2012 to win a second term as London mayor as the Tories lost seats to Labour in local elections across England and Wales. With 5.8 million voters, that gives him the largest personal constituency of any British politician. His profile was boosted by the success of the 2012 London Olympics, which saw him involved in one stunt where he got stuck half way down a zipwire, carrying two British flags.
Cameron needs an electoral boost with nine months left until the election. Even though economic growth is on track to be the fastest among Group of Seven nations this year, wage growth continues to trail inflation. Immigration, another issue UKIP has highlighted, is near the top of voters’ concerns, polls indicate. Johnson said yesterday current immigration policy was “absurd.”
The Conservatives had 33 percent support in the latest regular YouGov Plc poll, compared with 38 percent for Labour. UKIP, which has no seats in Parliament, had 12 percent support. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s junior coalition partners, had 8 percent. YouGov questioned 1,977 respondents Aug. 4 and 5. It didn’t specify a margin of error.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, said Johnson’s decision to stand shows that there’s a calculating political mind beneath the devil-may-care public image.
“The thing about Boris Johnson is, despite all the clumsiness and bumbliness, he’s actually a really, really ambitious politician,” Clegg said in his weekly phone-in show on LBC radio today. “He treats his political ambition a bit like he treats his hair –- he wants everyone to think that he doesn’t really care, but he actually really does care, so he’ll have to come clean a bit more about the fact that he’s a much more conventional politician than he likes to appear.”
Johnson, 50, was a contemporary of Cameron at Eton College, the boarding school near London that has educated 19 British prime ministers, and at Oxford University, where they were both members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, which has had a reputation for heavy drinking and smashing up restaurants. His director of communications stepped in yesterday to stop a Channel 4 TV interviewer asking about Johnson’s privileged background.
Johnson began his career as a journalist at the Times newspaper, which fired him for falsifying quotes. He later edited the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine and was forced to apologize to the city of Liverpool in 2004 for an editorial that accused its residents of wallowing in “victim status” over the murder of hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq.
Johnson soon hit more serious trouble when newspapers reported that he’d had a four-year affair, leading his mistress to have an abortion. He initially denied the story, and when it was confirmed, Conservative leader Michael Howard fired him as a government arts spokesman for having lied.
“He currently seems to get an amount of leeway with the British public that no other politician gets because he’s likable, popular and authentic,” Anthony Wells, a pollster for YouGov, said in a telephone interview. “The question is whether people continue to like him enough to see past those faults that would be extremely damaging for another politician. When would people start to divorce Boris the figure of fun and Boris the person they trust or not to run the country?”
Johnson’s intervention on Europe may make it more difficult for Cameron to keep his Conservative Party united as the election approaches. His office published a report yesterday that suggested that London’s economic growth would be higher in a free-trading Britain outside the EU than if it remained in an unreformed bloc.
That will raise the pressure on Cameron, who’s pledged a referendum by the end of 2017 and says he would prefer Britain to stay in the bloc, to offer a tougher stance on Europe to head off UKIP. Polls suggest UKIP may eat into Tory support next year even if it fails to win any House of Commons seats.
“Clearly there are aspects of the decision that are going to be destabilizing for the Tory party,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, said of Johnson’s move. “This could be seen as a vote of no confidence in their ability to win the next election.”
At Uxbridge Conservative Club, in the west London district that’s favorite with bookmakers to select Johnson as a candidate, the idea the mayor might run there was well received by local party supporters yesterday.
“The guy, he’s a character, he’s not quite like others,” said Sam Boxall, an accountant, as he finished a lunchtime pint of lager. “He’s not poker-faced, you can relate to him.’
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