London Mayor Boris Johnson urged a halt to speculation about his Tory party leadership ambitions as rivalry between him and Prime Minister David Cameron got personal, with the premier dubbing him a “rock star”.
“I would welcome the spotlight moving away from what I think is an increasingly tired, hackneyed, desiccated, super-masticated issue,” Johnson told the BBC’s “World at One” radio program in Birmingham, central England, today after addressing the Conservatives’ annual conference. He was referring to constant questioning about his ambitions.
Johnson and Cameron spent this morning making quips at each other’s expense, with the prime minister saying his position forced him to make unpopular decisions as Johnson, who’s been followed by crowds of activists at the Tory conference, basked in “rock star status.” The mayor has failed to damp suggestions he might challenge for the leadership if the premier fails to secure a Conservative majority in the next general election, due in 2015.
“It’s great we’ve got someone with rock star status in the party,” Cameron told ITV’s “Daybreak” program when questioned about the mayor’s popularity. Johnson’s speech to the conference today drew a standing ovation, as did his appearance at a rally last night. There were chants of “Boris” as the mayor arrived at Birmingham’s New Street station yesterday by train from London.
“There are lots of people that are more popular than me in this world, because I have to be the one who takes the difficult decisions on behalf of the country to recover us from the dreadful situation we have found ourselves in,” Cameron said this morning.
Johnson dined last night at an Italian restaurant in Birmingham. As he walked through the eatery, diners paused to stare at him and several later sought his autograph.
Midway through his meal, Johnson took the metal stand that had been holding a plate of antipasti and put it on his head and looked around the restaurant to see what reaction he was getting.
In his address to the conference today, Johnson made fun of Cameron, who was sitting in the audience. He recalled an interview the prime minister gave Oct. 7 in which he described Johnson as a “blond-haired mop” in a reference to his unruly hairstyle.
“Well, if I am a mop then you are a broom,” Johnson said. “A broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government and a fantastic job you are doing. I thank you and congratulate you and your colleagues,” including Chancellor of the Exchequer “George Osborne, the dustpan.”
Johnson, a classics scholar, also taunted Cameron about his appearance on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” in New York last month in which the prime minister failed to correctly translate Magna Carta (Great Charter), the name of the document that’s the foundation of British democracy, from the original Latin.
Buoyed by re-election in May and the success of the London Olympics in August, Johnson has increasingly been touted by Tory activists as a possible successor to Cameron, whose poll ratings have fallen.
The mayor has been critical of some Cameron policies in areas such as welfare. In a bid to quell doubts over his loyalty, Johnson paid tribute to the premier at last night’s rally.
“No one should have any cause to doubt my admiration for David Cameron,” Johnson said. “In tough circumstances, he and George Osborne and the rest of the government are doing exactly what’s needed for this country to clear up the mess that Labour left” when it was ousted from power in 2010, leaving a record budget deficit.
When asked on the BBC’s “Today” radio program whether Cameron could send Johnson abroad as some kind of ambassador for Britain once his term of mayor is over, Cameron replied “I’m not sure which country deserves him the most.”
In an LBC radio interview yesterday, Johnson compared talk of a leadership challenge to a storyline in the television costume drama “Downton Abbey,” saying that “in Tory party politics, there has always got to be some kind of plot.”
A survey of Tory members for the ConservativeHome website found that Johnson had a net satisfaction rating of plus 91, higher than any Cabinet minister. Cameron’s was at plus 1. The website questioned 1,872 people on Oct. 4 and 5.
The premier’s net approval rating in regular YouGov Plc polls has slumped to minus 24 in the most recent survey, carried out Oct. 4-5, from plus 36 after he took office in May 2010.
Johnson used his speech today to promote the British capital, citing products that are manufactured there, such as cake exported to Paris and mosquito repellent to Brazil.
“We have the right time zone, the right language and we have the right government in Westminster, and I will fight to keep it there,” Johnson said. Referring to his re-election in May, he said, “We fought to keep London from lurching back into the grip of a Marxist cabal of taxpayer-funded Chateauneuf du Pape-swilling tax-minimizers and bendy-bus fetishists.”
Johnson has eliminated the articulated buses introduced by his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone, on the grounds that they block traffic.
Johnson “is clearly trying to establish himself as the man the Tories have to turn to when the present leadership is seen to have failed,” his biographer, Andrew Gimson, said in a telephone interview.
Cameron hailed the Olympics, which Johnson helped to oversee, as the most successful in a century this morning. With the venues virtually sold out, there were no security lapses during the games and few disruptions to transport. British athletes outperformed official expectations, finishing third in the gold-medal table.
“We need to go forward now from the age of excess under Labour,” Johnson said. “Through the age of austerity to a new age of enterprise in which we do what we did in the Olympics and build a world-beating platform for Britain for British people and businesses to compete and win, and we need to do it now under the Conservatives, and we will and it begins here.”