In 2008, when Ken Livingstone was asked to give an estimation of his blonde, floppy-haired rival for the Mayoral candidacy, he said simply – ‘Boris is a joke’. The campaign leaflets produced by Labour at the time echoed the sentiment. But, four years on, we realise the joke was on Ken – twice over in fact. Livingstone’s curt dismissal now rings pre-emptive and hollow especially given the two cheeky defeats Boris has inflicted on him in the interim.
Nevertheless Livingstone’s words are telling; for they provide us with a clue as to the secret of Johnson’s success. It is the very fact that his opponents tend to dismiss him as ‘frivolous’, ‘not serious’ or ‘a joke’- the very ability to be taken lightly – is what has allowed the current London Mayor to achieve several spectacular political upsets.
Some of us are aware that, behind the floppy and clownish demeanour, the almost Woodhousean façade of bumbling Englishness, there lies something far more purposeful and possibly even ruthless. Since Johnson has drawn the media spot light a number of biographies have emerged chronicling his rise, and showing how, from the outset, his political destiny was shaped in the highest echelons of power.
For like many members of the current cabinet, Johnson is an ‘old Etonian’; a bi-product of the antediluvian public school system which allows the English upper classes of the future to form the contacts and connections they will avail themselves of at a later date – in pursuit of their political or commercial careers. A fact which is transparently true in the case of Johnson who – though he studied classics at Oxford – on leaving university was at once offered a lucrative position as a management consultant at L.E.K Consulting.
Nothing remarkable in any of this, you might think, but it bears remembering, especially as one of the ideological bulwarks of Johnson’s brand of conservatism comes in the form of an earnest pledge to support those who struggle to gain’ reward’ through good honest ‘effort’. Boris perenniallypurports to attack a ‘culture of easy gratification and entitlement’ – presuming, of course, we are talking about rioters and low income benefit cheats as opposed to bankers and the old boy’s network.
Having said this, Johnson’s allegiance to those of his own social strata is far from absolute. One of his more pronounced qualities is the ruthless ability to malign or sacrifice the very contacts who have supported him – if and when it proves conducive to his own career trajectory. Having lasted as a management consultant for just a week, Johnson was then given a position at the Times Newspaper as a junior reporter. A desire for quick acclaim led him to manufacture a quotation from his Godfather Colin Lucas – who was, as a result, exposed to professional ridicule.
In the event, the somewhat cynical and careerist manoeuvre on the part of the young Boris Johnson backfired, leading to an unceremonious dismissal, but in the years subsequent this keen sense of ruthless ambition seems to have been meticulously refined to a steely, glinting point. Sonia Purnell, one of his more critical biographers, notes how Boris is not above sliding a carefully aimed dagger into the back of one of his former patrons – in the case of his former editor Conrad Black, for instance, Johnson ran an attack on his ‘murky business origins’ precisely at a time when his mentor was under fire in the US. Perhaps this is why there is an element of cordiality, dare I say wariness, which has crept into our current PM’s voice as of late, whenever the topic of his flamboyant London mayor is broached.
In light of all this, some commentators are inclined to see Boris’ stuttering, gaff prone persona as a carefully contrived deception; a charming, antiquated bemusement which belies and obscures the often reactionary political initiatives London’s Mayor affects. Boris slashes funds to rape crisis centres but hey – who remembers that when Boris has just stumbled comically and fallen into a river. Boris pulls the plug on the anti-racism festival – ‘Rise’ but this is blurred by the headlines and the indulgent, amused “tutting” which his latest politically-incorrect gaffe has provoked. Transportation costs have spiked in London but again this is softened by the rather quaint image of our bumbling mayor attempting a return to tradition by bringing the good old fashioned route-master bus to our streets once more.
It’s not difficult to imagine why people might believe Boris’ political persona is nothing more than a useful pantomime. In her biography, Purnell cites an occasion where two separate journalists making independent phone calls were given the same meandering spiel almost word for word. And yet, this type of analysis seems almost a little too easy somehow.
Another one of Boris’ biographers – Andrew Gibson – suggests that Boris’ idiosyncratic version of upper-class Englishness, which at times verges on parody, was cultivated in order to conceal the ‘non-Englishness’ of his roots on his father’s side (Johnson’s paternal Grandfather was Turkish and was later recognised as a British subject). Gibson’s theory has a ring of plausibility to it especially when set against the background of Oxford university at the time; a place where Boris was part of a coterie of a rich select; a glittering elite where the whiff of any difference in background could negatively affect social standing. To affirm a true blue brand of Englishness in such a context might indeed have been a question of survival.
But despite all this there is something genuine about Boris’ unworldly patrician charm. In a time of sleek besuited politicians whose every speech has been manufactured by a well-oiled PR machine, Boris’ addled utterances seem to carry an authenticity appropriate to a bygone age. Indeed his manner and tone brings to mind a character in a Graham Greene novel; a cheerful but out touch brigadier who has been stationed in some exotic colonial outpost in Africa or India, and remains mildly baffled by the ‘strangeness’ of the native population he has been sent to rule. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Boris so easily slips into the lingua franca of yesteryears imperialism as when he describes black people as ‘pickanninies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.
Some people have excitedly speculated on the possibility of Johnson becoming PM one day. If he ever makes it to the highest office in the land, I suspect his old world charm will be rapidly evaporated by his instinctive and ruthless elitism. But by then, of course, it will be too late.
Tony McKenna can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.