How irascible Boris Johnson became the hope of British Tories
When he was a student at the University of Oxford some 25 years ago, Boris Johnson, the flamboyant, shambling, newly elected mayor of London, belonged to the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive dining society whose members, even today, have a reputation for drinking obscene amounts of alcohol, breaking things, and then handing over large wads of cash to any injured parties to keep them quiet.
One night duringjohnson’s time at Oxford, their antics were a little too public not to be noticed. Following a drunken dinner, some members threw a potted plant through a restaurant window, causing chaos in the dining establishment and on the street outside. The police were called and several Bullingdon Club members were arrested. Johnson, however, made a run for it and was last seen that
night hightailing it over Oxford’s much-photographed Magdalen Bridge. A witness remarked that the slightly rotund and shaggy-haired Johnson moved quickly for a cruiserweight.
For many Britons who have come to know Johnson in the two decades since in his various incarnations as a newspaper columnist, magazine editor, and member of Parliament, this is an image that has scarcely needed to be updated. Dubbed “Boris the Menace” by satirists who detect similarities between Johnson and the comic strip character, Johnson is seen as roguish, slippery, and yet—to his many supporters at least—somehow still lovable. This is a man who once lowered his sizable shoulders to tackle, and hurt, a former German soccer star during a charity match (probably a shrewd political move in Britain, actually), admitted he tried to snort cocaine but failed when he sneezed, and claimed that voting for his Conservative Party would cause one’s wife to have bigger breasts and increase one’s chances of owning a BMW.
This spring, however, Johnson became
much more than a source of amusement when he defeated the incumbent mayor of London and Labour Party candidate, “Red” Ken Livingstone, who had been in office for eight years and had gradually worn out his welcome. Not only is Johnson now running one of the two or three most important cities in the world and the financial hub of Europe, he is arguably the most powerful Conservative politician in Britain. The prime minister, Gordon Brown, leads the Labour Party, but while Conservative Party Leader David Cameron might be crushing Brown in the opinion polls, he’s still just an MP, with an election unlikely to be held until 2010.
This means that Cameron, who belonged to the Bullingdon Club at the same time as Johnson, is watching his former Oxford classmate with hope and trepidation. “London is Cameron’s advance guard,” James Hanning, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday and the co-author of a recent biography on Cameron, told Maclean’s. “It is very important to Cameron that Boris won’t screw up, and there is every chance that Boris will screw up. I think Cameron is terrified of Boris exploding.”
Hanning describes Johnson, an early supporter of Cameron’s leadership bid, as Cameron’s ally rather than his friend. But whatever level of intimacy the two have, many Britons see Johnson as their chance to sample a Tory government without handing over the country to a party they booted out of office with evident relish more than 10 years ago. David Cameron has acknowledged as much. “All Conservative councils and mayors are part of what people should expect from the Conservative Party,” he said in an interview with the Spectator earlier this year, before leaving himself an escape hatch: “But Boris is his own man, he is his own mayor, and we are not going to agree on everything.”
Johnson’s first two months in office have been rocky. He ran a sober campaign that sought to highlight the kind of statesman he was supposedly becoming, focusing on safer streets and better public transport (and in the process boring and disappointing journalists assigned to cover the race). He then made a series of generally well-received announcements, including banning the consumption of alcohol on London’s subways and buses. But Johnson showed little grasp of the details his job entails, and in recent weeks he has been forced to accept the resignation of two senior aides, including a deputy mayor, Ray Lewis, who stepped down because of allegations of financial and sexual misconduct when he was a vicar.
‘AMERICANS ELECTED AN IDIOT, NOW WE’VE ELECTED AN IDIOT FOR MAYOR’
Labour Party activists, watching Johnson stumble, have been quick to describe his missteps as evidence of what would befall Britain should the Tories win the next national election. “I think it’s a dark warning,” Sarah Owen, a Labour Party member and former organizer, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “It shows what would come under a David Cameron government.”
On the streets and in the pubs of London, Johnson provokes a reaction everywhere. Peter Curnow-Ford, a director in a telecommunications company, told Maclean’s the mayor is doing a “wonderful” job. “He has a vision, and he has an ability to get on top of it.” Curnow-Ford acknowledges Johnson’s rambling persona, but says this is because he “has a brain that is working on some six things at the same time.”
Others are not so indulgent of the mayor’s obvious eccentricities. “He’s a f-kwit,” says Martyn Stead, a computer salesman enjoying a lunchtime pint in the Red Lion pub near Westminster. Stead pauses to put his drink down before elaborating. Johnson might be entertaining in a bizarre sort of way, he says,
but he’s not a serious civil servant and has no experience in city politics. “Londoners have lost the right to laugh at Americans. The Americans elected an idiot for president, and we’ve laughed at them for eight years. Now we’ve elected an idiot for mayor.”
It is in fact difficult to believe that Johnson is an idiot. Scatterbrained and easily distracted, maybe, but while the occasional dunce might squeak by as a politician, columnist, author, or editor, doing as well as Johnson has at all four endeavours surely requires considerable skill (he still writes a newspaper column). Charges that Johnson is posh and out-oftouch, however, do resonate. His past membership in Oxford’s Bullingdon Club doesn’t help. And before running for mayor, Johnson was MP for Henley-on-Thames, an Oxfordshire town famous for its rowing regatta. “Boris has been parachuted in,” says Jay Wheeler, a 32-year-old salesman. “He comes from a leafy, affluent background. How can he relate to black kids in [the London borough of] Lewisham who go to a crap school and come out with no qualifications and no options, maybe, except to join gangs?” According to Wheeler, London voters have lost perspective on what it takes to run their city. “It’s style over substance,” he says. “We’ve forgotten what it means to vote for the mayor of London. We vote for mayor like we vote for contestants on Big Brother [a trashy reality show]. Who’s affable? Who’s funny? Who’s entertaining?”
Boris Johnson is all of these things. He’s also ambitious, smart, and often underestimated. His style might be distracting, but it doesn’t mask a lack of substance. And if Johnson has his way, he won’t be judged on style for long. He appears committed to running the city rather than entertaining it, even if that means fewer laughs. “The red nose isn’t going back on,” he promised. There are those who will miss this side of Johnson, but if he governs well, probably not for long. M
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