Back at the beginning of last year I saw him give an after dinner speech. At one point he was stood within two metres of me, but I didn’t manage to touch the hem of his cloak. He was speaking to an audience that wasn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, his natural constituency. Yet not long after he’d got going pretty much everyone in the room seemed to be on his side.
He clearly has buckets of charisma. He started off with a topical joke at the Liberal Democrats’ expense – “As Chris Huhne said to his wife over the breakfast table this morning, there are just three points I’d like to get over to you today …”. He then went on to make a speech that was rather incongruous in its interventionist tone – it advocated a more active policy stance on the topic than anything the Labour party has proposed in years. That particular audience loved it.
All this seems both characteristic and symptomatic.
Boris is a good showman. We know this. He’s smarter than he looks. He knows how to press an audience’s buttons. Likely as not he’ll say what needs to be said to ingratiate himself to them.
And now we will no doubt be hearing plenty more from him, and about him, over the next nine months. He only made his big announcement a couple of days ago and already Borismania seems to have broken out in sections of the commentariat.
Boris was doing his thing again in this week’s big speech on Europe. He used the example of EU rules on road haulage to illustrate the increasingly unreasonable impositions from Eurocrats. Good knockabout stuff. No doubt it played well with those of UKIPish inclination – those the Conservative party needs to tempt back into the fold. But, as Simon Nixon pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, much of what Boris said didn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
When someone has repeatedly denied flat out that they are going to do something (for example, stand for Parliament in 2015) and then turns around and says they are going to do precisely the thing they stated categorically that they weren’t going to do, what are we to think? There are two possibilities. There might have been a very recent, dramatic change of heart. Or the denials might have been worthless in the first place. Which seems more likely here?
Nobody takes any of Boris’s evasions or denials of leadership aspirations seriously. It is pretty much common knowledge that he wants to be leader. His cheerleaders make no secret of it and welcome the prospect.
I am not naïve. We know hypocrisy is a necessary component of the political skillset. As the famous quote goes: “sincerity – if you can fake that you’ve got it made”. But someone whose career would appear to be built largely upon expediency is surely going to perpetually struggle for credibility at home and in the international arena.
And this is all before we consider Boris’s political accomplishments, such as they are. His previous tenure as an MP was relatively undistinguished. His tenure as Mayor of London has been equally low key. For sure he is a personality and has a profile. But if one were asked to come up with a list of his notable achievements as Mayor then, after discounting those initiatives he inherited from his predecessor (Boris Bikes, Crossrail), you could be left scratching your head a bit.
The only thing I could say for certain is that he has been an unwavering champion of the interests of London and of the City of London in particular, willing to argue strongly against greater regulation aimed at preventing financial abuse and reducing the risks of another global financial crisis. Championing London is clearly part of the job description. But the advocacy on behalf of the City doesn’t suggest someone inclined to look beyond sectional interests to promote the greater good. It does suggest that the Johnson economic and political agenda sits well to the right of the early Cameron agenda, and possibly even to right of the current more Thatcher-on-steroids Cameron agenda. Certainly that is what some of his supporters are hoping for and expecting. More right wing populism is going to be needed to neutralise the threat from UKIP.
Even some of his supporters seem to consider that a strong argument for Boris as leader is simply that it would make politics more interesting. It would surely be good if more people engaged with politics, but the idea that we should therefore recruit a showman to entertain us seems like a leap of illogic too far. It’s not as if leaders require any substance to back up the media-friendly persona. You might as well put CoCo the clown in charge.
This all reminds me a bit of the episode of Radio 4’s The Unbelievable Truth in which Boris was the subject of one of the lectures. John Finnemore finished his lecture with an appeal that seems to me to be entirely apt (his lecture is in Series 10, episode 3, and starts at 1m22s).
Image: The CBI via flickr under Creative Commons.