Idon’t have much in common with Guardian readers, but we probably reacted in much the same way when the idea of Boris Johnson running for mayor of London was mooted. Like most people, I assumed it was a joke. But the last laugh was clearly Boris’s. He has now won the largest personal mandate of any British politician, twice. And I was one of the millions who voted for him.
So although the latest bout of Boris-mania is easy to dismiss as this year’s silly season obsession, the idea of Boris as prime minister, which seems to have gripped the commentariat in recent days, is far from silly.
Boris has two outstanding qualities that make him a serious player. The first, a prerequisite, is that he wins elections. More, he engages with voters who are almost wholly uninterested in politics. Labour has only had one such leader since Harold Wilson – Tony Blair. And, as we discovered in May 2010, the Tories still haven’t found one since John Major. The fact that voters seem to like voting for Boris is pretty fundamental.
In 2008 I supported him solely to get rid of Ken Livingstone. But this time round I would have voted for Boris even if Labour hadn’t saddled itself with an unelectable candidate. Because – and this is where the left consistently gets him wrong – his record meant he deserved a second term. That record is his second great quality. Dismissing him as a cartoon character who adds to the gaiety of the nation but has little worthwhile to offer is an idiotic response to a political heavyweight with mass appeal. It is difficult to think of any more powerful combination.
Take his stewardship of London. Livingstone’s modus operandi was to pander to some groups and ignore others, setting communities in opposition to each other. Boris does the opposite. As a Conservative, identity politics are anathema to him and that is coupled with an instinctive ability to draw people together. In this context, the days after last year’s riots were instructive. The left attacked him for staying on holiday. But they’re the only ones who remember that. The rest of us remember him joining in with fellow Londoners of all stripes sweeping up the mess. And then we voted for him.
But the real issue isn’t even whether there is, in reality, any practical way in which he might end up as PM. It’s what he’d be like. We have some evidence of what to expect from a prominent pundit who turned to national office: Michael Gove. The political skills he has exhibited could not necessarily have been predicted from his columns. But his policies certainly could have been. So the lesson is to read what Boris has written. And given that, in addition to his four years in City Hall, it’s clear he indeed behaves as his columns would predict.
Extrapolating to national office, that indicates a strongly Eurosceptic, pro-business, anti-regulation individualist who will shaft any opponent standing in his way. (Just ask Jacqui Smith, who was treated as an irrelevance when Boris wanted shot of Ian Blair from the Metropolitan police.) He may be shambolic in many areas, but he’s certainly not lazy – as mayor he puts in the hours whether in his figurehead role or driving policy.
And he’s not afraid to take a stand. Banker-bashing is now a national pastime. But Boris has repeatedly gone out of his way to point out that we need a successful City. That’s a host of reasons why Tories disenchanted with David Cameron are now floating the idea of the prince over the water. They see in Boris the holy grail of Conservatism – a politician who wants to govern as a Tory and has the political skills to sell such a programme to the electorate.
For those who are growing ever more frustrated at the Lib Dem tail wagging the Conservative dog, and long for some red meat – such as radical tax restructuring, a referendum on EU membership and penal policy that is, well, penal – there is no more alluring figure than Boris.