Boris needs to make a new offer to fire up his re-election chances
"I thought...sort of...eeerrrhhhmmm."
"What about him?"
"Hague...I mean, Hague!...er...sort of..."
"So I'm to tell the Editor that you're writing about sort of Blair, Europe, and Hague, sort of."
And seven hours or so later, an immaculately composed and piratically arresting essay would appear, written in the idiosyncratic style known to every reader of this site. If Boris Johnson's literary manner had been a horse, it would have been out of P.G.Wodehouse and descended from Ataturk on his sire's side, with crosses in its pedigree to Homer, Winston Churchill, and Marilyn Monroe - "another egomaniac blonde" - as one of his Editors put it. (I hope I've got this horsebreeding thingie right, as our hero himself might say.)
This is the Boris Johnson that I knew and - from time to time - loved during my years in the mid to late 1990s as Comment Editor of the Daily Telegraph. The Boris stories are legion. There was the leader conference when he asked who Bill Clinton was. (He was President of the United States at the time.) There was the occasion when, in a gesture of revolt against "the Daily Mail Women" who he claimed were running the paper, he proudly tacked a Pirelli calendar above his desk. There was the morning during which he turned up to the office not wearing odd socks.
Boris - as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is universally known - is now more than halfway through his term as London Mayor. In less than two years, if he runs again, he'll face re-election. Last time round, Ken Livingstone was only 100,000 or so votes short of Boris, at a time when his Party was stunningly unpopular. The former may be Labour's candidate next time. Even if he isn't, the poll will be mid-term, and it's reasonable to expect Boris's Party to be no more flavour of the year than Livingstone's was in 2008 - probably less.
Furthermore, as Alex Crowley pointed out - noting Labour's impressive London election results in May - "Ever since 1992, London has, broadly, voted Labour." Boris has chalked up many Houdini-like feats in his time. During his early Telegraph days, there was the Darius Guppy incident, in which he seemingly went along with the planned beating-up of a News of the World journalist. There was the Michael Howard-ordered tour of apology to Liverpool, after the Spectator, then under his Editorship, described its inhabitants as wallowing in "vicarious victimhood". There was the Damian Green imbroglio, with all its should-or-shouldn't-Boris-as-Mayor-have-phoned-Damian controversy.
Despite all this, and much, very much more - or perhaps, in Boris' case, because of it - he's flourished like the green bay tree. But how is our hero going to get out of this one? And if we're to be a bit less indulgent: does he deserve to? What's he achieved for London? In particular, what's he done that's Conservative - and what's his longer-term future?
During the past few weeks, I've tried to find answers. Let me work my way through them as best I can.
- Many people don't understand the Mayor's responsibilities. Let's start by recognising that very few could tell you where his responsibilities begin and end. He can set out plans for transport, cutting crime, housing, planning, and so on - but is reliant, variously, on the Government, the Greater London Authority, local councils and other bodies to deliver them. He sets budgets for the Met, Transport for London, the London Development Agency - but doesn't control all the money. The Mayoralty is wreathed in a miasma of fuzz.
- This raises the political stakes for Boris. It's hard even for so dazzling a communicator to persuade voters that he's got a record of solid achievement. If you talk to "Boris's people" (as I have a bit), they can present you with lengthy lists - lists that stretch like the unwinding loo paper in that Andrex puppy advert - that detail what their man's done for the City. For example, they point out that youth violence is down by over 10 per cent since Boris' election - and that 9381 knives have been seized in an operation called Blunt Two. But how's all this to cut-through to voters? And persuade them?
- B Boris's plan is to stress his independence. He knows the problems as well as anyone else, if not better. His plan (and, yes, he has one) is sensible enough. He's governing as a Conservative - but an independent one. He's looked after his base: freezing the Mayor's contribution to Council Tax, halting the extension of the congestion charge, defending the City from banker-bashing, opposing the 50p rate, putting up a picture of the Queen in City Hall. At the same time, he's sought to reassure those who didn't vote for him - keeping the Freedom Pass, for example, or plugging away at delivering 50,000 affordable homes. Above all, he's sought to beat the drum for London, using his eternal Telegraph column to plug the case for Crossrail and the Tube - to the degree that, were I a northern reader, I'd be asking for my money back.
- But is it isn't clear that his plan's got a sharp enough cutting edge. Boris won because the suburbs turned out for him. They probably wouldn't have done so if Lynton Crosby hadn't been running his campaign with his trademark focus. And Crosby wouldn't have been running it had he'd not effectively been imposed on the campaign - which had previously drifted - by Cameron Towers. Next time, Boris must either turn the suburbs out again, or gain a bigger share of transfers, or win over Labour voters who plumped for Livingstone, or all three. Livingstone would certainly help frighten the voters out in Barnet or Bromley, but he may not be Labour's candidate. The transfers may not come. And there's no evidence of a targeted, sophisticated attempt to peel off Labour's voters. For example, Boris isn't going to gain the support of the East London Mosque Labour-leaning establishment. So why did he choose it as the venue to deliver last year's Ramadan message? Why didn't he go to Brick Lane Mosque instead, and energetically woo London's mainstream Muslim majority?
- Boris needs to make a new offer to fire up his re-election chances. He has his Conservative critics - for example, Stephan Shakespeare and Mira Bar Hillel. Shakespeare, though calling Boris "a jolly decent Mayor", complained that "real problems are not solved - in fact, there's not even a discernable attempt to solve them". Bar-Hillel, though conceding that Boris is "hard not to like", labelled him "too weak, too lazy and too ill-advised" to implement his policies. Simon Milton, Boris's Deputy, hit back at Shakespeare pointing out that Boris had frozen Council Tax for the first time in the GLA's history. Our own Harry Phibbs said that Bar Hillel's attack was unfair - wrong on the LDA (which Boris had already acted on) and on planning detail. Boris needs a big, clear, simple offer to cut through these controversies - perhaps, as Harry's already suggested, a big cut in the Council Tax precept.
Boris is a brilliant man pretending to be a bumbler - not a bumbler pretending to be a brilliant man pretending to be a bumbler. But just as actors sometimes morph into the parts they play, Boris can sometimes morph...well, into bumbling. He can be vague. He's sometimes unfocused. He is - how shall we put it? - untainted by ideological fixity. (Those who see him as the Saviour of the Right, riding to rescue a Party held hostage by the Cameroons, would be swiftly disappointed were this ever to happen.) He relies on a tried and trusted team - Simon Milton, Anthony Browne, Kit Malthouse, Guto Harri - to provide him with the solid support he needs. Since his election, he's lost Ray Lewis. Ian Clement, Tim Parker, David Ross and James McGrath: a series of departures that would have left other men dead in the water.
- He's ambitious - and never underestimate it. Further to his credit side, Boris hates nastiness. (When I worked for him, he was unhappy about the Telegraph's line on Northern Ireland, which he though was glorifying in conflict.) Further to the debit side, he's selfish. This is perhaps not quite the right word: selfishness implies malice, of which, in my experience, Boris is completely free. But he won't think twice about shoving someone out of the way to get what he wants, in the same way that a small boy might shove another out of the way in a school playground to get at the ice cream. And he's usually trying to get at something. Such as, we read, into Number 10.
A lot's been penned about the claimed rivalry between Boris and David Cameron. But the two men are yoked together by mutual self-interest: the Prime Minister needs the Mayor to win to raise his own re-election chances. Expect the former to give the latter more money and perhaps more powers. But Boris certainly has a way of popping out of the woodwork when things get tricky for the leadership. The Spring Conference takes place, and...pop! There's Boris bashing the 50p rate. Party Conference happens, and...pop! There's Boris going where the Prime Minister fears to tread. On election night as the Party failed to break through, his sister tweeted, with genial Johnsonian brutality: "It's all gone tits up. Call for Boris!" I think we can assume that the thought's crossed his mind.
- He's also a genius - and to complain about him is to miss the point. To borrow from Shakespeare (as he might) most of us are lesser men who walk under his huge legs and peep about, to find ourselves dishonourable graves. He's a force of nature. He's a one-man TV reality show. He is his own invention: part Ulysses, part angel, part warthog. In an age of Big Brother politics, he's discovered the philosopher's stone: to do the opposite of every other politician, and make people laugh first at him, then with him. After which they tend to vote for him in large numbers. (Although there's also a constituency which doesn't rate him as a serious player. See here.)
To know that Boris hates nastiness is important. And to grasp that he's selfish is, I'm afraid, essential. But the key to his character is surely that he's an artist (at Telegraph editorial conferences, he would doodle tiny, beautifully observed caricatures) with, I suspect, a depressive streak. Certainly, he reacts instinctively and adversely to gloom and doom. Read him on David Willetts "The Pinch", or on health and safety, or on the reaction to Iceland's volcano, or on the broken society - "piffle!"
Tim sees Boris as having a "captivating belief in human progress". I think that this is emotionally rather than intellectually driven, an aspect of his disposition and art. As Jonathan indicated yesterday, Boris will surely run again for the London Mayoralty since, with David Cameron in Downing Street, his options are for the moment limited. Whether he wins or loses, he'll surely return to the Commons sooner or later. It's easy to imagine him shoving Sir Bufton Tufton out of his seat in Chuffnell Poges, and being triumphantly by-elected amidst an orgy of self-celebration. But it's rather harder to see those cold, calculating Conservative MPs ever electing him as their leader. Boris and the Tory Parliamentary Party has always been a bit of a case of the irresistible force and the immovable object.