As a child, London Mayor Boris Johnson wanted to be “world king.” After an Olympic fortnight that had crowds chanting his name, Conservative lawmakers are floating the idea that he could yet be prime minister.
As the popularity of incumbent David Cameron falls amid a deepening recession, Johnson is increasingly being talked about as a possible successor. His supporters point to his re-election in May against an anti-Tory trend, the successful staging of the Olympics and his status as the most charismatic figure in British politics.
The fact that Johnson, 48, is being touted as a future leader of Europe’s third-largest economy shows how he has turned an unconventional political resume into an advantage. He doesn’t have a seat in Parliament; he was fired as a Conservative Party spokesman in 2004 for lying about an extramarital affair; and he defends banks such as Standard Chartered Plc at a time when scandal still tarnishes the industry’s image.
“That Tories have been fantasizing about him for a while now is a telling mark of their desperation,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University, said in an interview. “Some see their only hope as appealing to the country, not so much on policies as on personality.”
Asked whether he wanted to be the next prime minister, Johnson told ITV News yesterday: “David Cameron is doing a wonderful job in tough circumstances. In the immortal phrase of Michael Heseltine, ‘I cannot foresee the circumstances.’”
Heseltine, a former Cabinet minister, went on to challenge Margaret Thatcher for the Conservative leadership in 1990, helping to bring about her downfall. Earlier this week, Cameron was asked about Johnson’s leadership prospects, to which he replied by describing the mayor as one of a number of “titans” in his party.
Johnson has been invited to address a committee of rank-and-file Tories in the coming months on the lessons of his mayoral victory. It will be an opportunity to test levels of support once the euphoria over the Olympics has subsided.
New York-born Johnson is currently enjoying a bounce from the games, which ended on Aug. 12. Britain had its best medals haul for more than a century including 29 golds, putting the country in third place behind the U.S. and China. And the public-transport network ran smoothly, defying predictions of chaos as passenger numbers on the subway system surged by 30 percent.
At a central London concert on the eve of the games, Johnson addressed a crowd of tens of thousands, who chanted “Boris, Boris.” And he took a swipe at the U.S. Republican presidential candidate, who had suggested London was unprepared.
“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson roared. “He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
Twenty-four percent of 1,787 voters questioned by YouGov Plc Aug. 2-3 said Johnson should be the next Tory leader, putting him ahead of Foreign Secretary William Hague and well above Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who was the preferred candidate of just 3 percent.
A July 30 opinion poll for the ConservativeHome website showed almost a third of rank-and-file Tories wanted Johnson to take over as leader once Cameron steps aside. William Hill Plc shortened the odds on Johnson succeeding Cameron to 3/1 yesterday, meaning a successful one-pound bet would yield three pounds profit, from 4/1.
Speculation Johnson is testing his leadership chances comes as Cameron struggles to lift Britain out of recession and his government pushes through the deepest spending cuts in peacetime history. The economy shrank 0.7 percent in the second quarter and unemployment is close to rates last seen in 1996 at 8.1 percent.
The slump has taken its toll on the Conservatives, which came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats after inconclusive elections in May 2010. A YouGov poll ending Aug. 1 gave the Tories the support of 34 percent of voters, six percentage points behind the opposition Labour Party. Asking people how they’d vote were Johnson leader lifted the Conservative total to 37 percent, one point behind Labour.
Much of Johnson’s appeal is based on a reputation for being “unspun.” He joked about a publicity stunt to promote the Olympics on Aug. 1 where he got stuck half way down a zipwire, carrying two British flags. “How on earth can you elect that guy?” he asked.
As mayor, Johnson has regularly criticized government policies, arguing for an end to “banker-bashing” and defending immigration. He has attacked cuts to police numbers and said reducing social-housing subsidies would push poorer people out of central London and lead to “Kosovo-style social cleansing.”
On the economy, he urged the government to spur investment by cutting the top 50 percent income-tax rate, which it did in March. More recently, he has called for steps to encourage companies to hire workers and more spending on infrastructure.
Last week, he made an outspoken attack on U.S. regulators for threatening to strip Standard Chartered of its New York license for allegedly breaching sanctions, saying the action was “high-handed” and motivated by jealousy of London as a financial center.
Johnson is among the most instantly recognizable politicians in Britain. Known for his shock of blond hair and a fondness for reciting Latin -- he studied classics at Oxford University -- the bicycle-riding mayor is generally referred to just by his first name.
In May, he came from behind in opinion polls to see off another celebrity politician, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, and 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.
Johnson was a contemporary of Cameron at Eton College, the 32,000-pound ($50,000) a year boarding school near London that has educated 19 British prime ministers, and at university.
He 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.
‘Gaffes and Bluster’
While sex scandals aren’t necessarily fatal in British politics, Johnson’s reputation would make the transition to the highest level of politics difficult, according to Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in London.
“Whereas a mayor can get away with gaffes and bluster, a prime minister would find it rather different,” he said in an interview. “You need someone who can shake the hand of the U.S. president.”
Johnson faces other obstacles. British prime ministers have to have seats in the House of Commons and Johnson resigned his to run for London mayor. His mayoral term ends in 2016, a year after next general election. To run for Parliament, he’d have to find a vacant, winnable electoral district, and then deal with questions about trying to do two jobs at once.
There is also the lack of a vacancy for Conservative leader. If Cameron wins the 2015 election, he’s unlikely to quit or be replaced for years, meaning younger candidates may emerge. If he loses, he may quit much sooner, possibly before Johnson had got back into Parliament. Were he a candidate, Johnson would have to persuade Conservative lawmakers and then activists that he was the right man to lead the party for years of opposition.
Conservative leadership elections are hard to predict. The last three contested votes, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, were won by someone who started the race as an outsider. Whether that would help or hinder Johnson remains to be seen.
“Tories like him because he’s not David Cameron,” said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “He seems to be able to persuade people that he’s a traditional Tory and yet not a traditional Tory. It’s a trick you can pull off as long as you’re the guy on the sidelines. It’s much harder when you’re the guy in the hot seat.”