Boris: just the man to be future leader of the opposition?
London mayor Boris Johnson's triumphant summer has been miraculous by recent Conservative standards
BY ANY standards, Boris Johnson has had a triumphant and extraordinary summer. By recent Conservative standards, it must count as near miraculous.
Not only was he re-elected as Mayor of London, despite the dramatic slump in Tory support following George Osborne's botched budget just six weeks earlier. He also managed to establish himself as the undisputed political winner of the Olympics, even before the games had begun.
As his party prepares for what promises to be a difficult annual conference, it is little wonder many of them are wondering whether he would not be a better bet as leader than David Cameron. But even to his admirers, he remains, as Churchill once famously said of Russia, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". On the right, he is increasingly seen as the standard bearer of true Conservative values. Yet Boris has never been much of an ideologue.
Years ago when he had just returned from Brussels, where he had made his name (and some highly-placed enemies) exposing the shortcomings of the European Union, he and I became colleagues on The Daily Telegraph. Arriving early one day, I found him alone in the office and said how much we were all looking forward to the new political column he was going to write.
Yes, he replied jokingly, but he was worried that he would not have enough opinions to sustain a weekly piece. He was against Europe and against hanging. I reassured him that should be enough to get started, but what struck me, even then, was that Boris would never fit naturally into any political pigeon hole.
The tension between him and David Cameron goes back a long way, but it has always had much more to do with rivalry than policy. Ironically, he would probably never have run for Mayor had Cameron not passed him over for promotion to the shadow cabinet when the Tories were in opposition.
Driving ambition plus his seemingly sunny personality have been the keys to Boris's success, as Ken Livingstone ruefully acknowledged during the mayoral campaign. By fusing politics with celebrity and a large dollop of humour, he has managed to achieve almost iconic status. At a time when the political class is held in general contempt, it is a feat none of his rivals, in any of the parties, can match. But how would the jolly joker image, which has served him so well up to now, play if he were PM?
Even before the Olympics, criticism that he lacked administrative experience was wide of the mark. He has always run a tight ship at City Hall, freezing his share of the council tax, introducing his Boris bikes and the new routemaster bus, and shrinking the bloated bureaucracy he inherited, all without mishap.
Nevertheless there are some awkward points that still need addressing – perhaps even airbrushing. Like Cameron, Boris is an Old Etonian and former member of the Bullingdon Club. Unlike Cameron, his private life has hit the headlines, but it is the risk of being tagged as yet another "posh boy" that might prove hardest to surmount.
A more immediate obstacle is that he is not in Parliament, and has pledged not to seek a seat until his current term as mayor ends in 2016. That would be after the next election, but who knows? He certainly found the chance to be MP for Henley irresistible, despite promising Conrad Black that he would be a full time editor of the Spectator. There is a widespread expectation that he will return to the Commons at the election, if not earlier, and that when Cameron goes he will throw his hat into the ring to be the next Tory leader.
Whether, by then, Conservative MPs and the diminishing band of party faithful will still be as enamoured of his easy charm is far too early to tell. Two things, though, one can be sure of: it never pays to underestimate Boris, and, if he does end up running for the Tory leadership, the contest will certainly be a lot more fun than usual.
It is also, of course, only likely to happen if the Tories lose the election, in which case the position up for grabs will not be prime minister but leader of the opposition. Having watched him in action this summer, wowing the Olympic crowds and never missing an opportunity to outshine his old nemesis, Cameron, that is a job Boris could surely handle.