Why Boris Johnson Worries Conservative High Command

This is the Newsweek cover story for the edition dated May 7th.

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson poses for a pho...

Boris Johnson is late. Five minutes after the scheduled start of Mayor’s question time—a quasi-monthly opportunity for members of the London Assembly to demand a public accounting from the city’s top elected official—he arrives at last, wearing a backpack over his raincoat and carrying a large takeout coffee, his schoolboy thatch of platinum-blond hair even more disheveled than usual. He stuffs the backpack beneath his desk, casually tosses down a crumpled copy of the agenda, and removes his coat to reveal the traditional garb of the British ruling class: a navy-blue suit. “We’ll take item two while the mayor composes himself,” the chairperson, Jennette Arnold, says dryly.

The assembly members are seated in a horseshoe with Johnson at the open end, a lone figure in an expanse of purple carpet, his back to a big window overlooking the gray expanse of the Thames. As the Conservative mayor begins delivering his report, Labour members of the assembly try to shout him down, and the session soon degenerates. Arnold bangs her gavel. “I will not have this question time turned into a campaign,” she chides.

Like it or not, however, that’s exactly what the tumultuous meeting is—and it’s only a warmup. On May 3, Johnson is facing off in a rematch against one of Labour’s wiliest campaigners and most ruthless operators. The victor will run Europe’s largest and most diverse city for the next four years. In their last contest, four years ago, Johnson defeated the then-two-term mayor, Ken Livingstone. No politician in the city is more entrenched in London politics or more skillful at street fighting than Livingstone, a man who earned the nickname “Red Ken” in his titanic struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s, when she was prime minister and he led the now defunct Greater London Council. During the 2008 race, Livingstone called Johnson “the most formidable opponent I will face in my political career.” In the run-up to this week’s vote, opinion polls seesawed, but Johnson seemed to be pulling ahead in the home stretch.

Win or lose, Johnson can’t hide his biggest dream: to succeed Conservative Party leader David Cameron as prime minister after the next general election, in 2015. “I think if you did a chronology of Boris Johnson’s interventions to the right on issues that he has no responsibility for over the last four years, it is absolutely clear that Boris is intent on replacing Cameron,” says David Lammy, Labour’s member of Parliament for Tottenham. (The shooting of a young man by police made the neighborhood ground zero for last summer’s riots.) “Clearly he needs to win this next election in order to achieve that ambition,” Lammy continues. “And I think that is very worrying, because his eye would not be on London if he were to win.” Still, most observers seem to agree that Johnson is well on his way to getting his wish. “He has the advantage that when he took office there were relatively limited expectations of him,” says Tony Travers from the School of Government at the London School of Economics. “Even, I suspect, his own.”

Johnson’s mayoralty has been a most unlikely success story. An unabashed member of the privileged classes, he has somehow managed to win the affection of a Labour-leaning city as it endures the harshest cuts in public expenditure since World War II, under the Conservative-led government’s austerity prescriptions. His alleged marital infidelities that have been lavishly documented in the tabloids under headlines like “Bonking Boris Made Me Pregnant” and “Boris Sacked for Lying Over Affair.” (He has been married to the mother of their four children for 19 years.) His weekly column in The Daily Telegraph reportedly brings him a second income of £250,000 a year—a sum he has described as “chicken feed,” even though it’s more than 10 times the average income in Britain. During his term as a member of Parliament, he was fired from the cabinet. His guest spots on popular comedy shows are better known than any of his policy positions.

And yet the city’s people seem to like having him around—not only Conservatives but even longtime Labour voters who have been branded “Boris Reds.” He is that rare thing: a politician who has risen above events to take on a form of celebrity. As Johnson walks up the street, bystanders recognize him instantly, and in most cases a smile creeps onto their faces as he approaches. “I spoke to people who canvassed for Ken last time,” says journalist Andrew Gimson, author of the 2006 biography Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson. “They said that they went around trying to stir up dislike of Boris, and they couldn’t manage it.” Most Londoners have never met anyone quite like the 47-year-old Johnson. He’s practically a P.G. Wodehouse character, a bumbling, disorderly member of the upper class, except Johnson is genuinely erudite and fiercely ambitious—and he rides the streets of London on a bicycle. “He has the ability to strike up a rapport with people who haven’t really got anything,” says Gimson. “It’s quite a complicated thing because he is, by temperament, an elitist. And he is, of course, immensely competitive and wants to get to the top.”

Johnson was born in New York City. His father, Stanley, was on a fellowship, studying in the United States. His mother, Charlotte, was an undergraduate, on leave from her senior year at Oxford. The couple lived in a loft on West 23rd Street, opposite the Chelsea Hotel. They gave their firstborn a grand name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. The name Boris came from a family friend in Mexico, a White Russian named Boris Litwin. Although the boy’s schoolmates seized upon his quirky middle name, his closest relatives continue to call him Al. He won a scholarship to Eton, the alma mater of David Cameron as well as numerous members of Britain’s royalty, before going on to study classics at Oxford. “Even at Oxford he struck people as a slightly old-fashioned toff from another era,” says writer Toby Young, who knew both Johnson and Cameron during their years at the university. “People credit Boris with being true to himself, and they like the fact that he’s such an authentic-seeming character. The truth is he has essentially created an identity for himself, and he’s certainly skillful in never letting the mask slip. But I wouldn’t use the word ‘authentic’ to describe him. It’s a sort of brilliant music-hall turn.”

Maybe so, but somehow it seems to work. “Boris is a Chaucerian figure,” Gimson says. “Cameron is very keen on marriage—you would never catch Boris preaching about that. If Cameron was caught in bed with some bird, that would probably be the end of him, whereas Boris is so often pretty much caught in bed with some bird—but, you know, people rather expect that.” Despite his affectations, Londoners find something winningly unpretentious about him. When the mayor accompanied police on an early-morning drug raid last June, the awakening suspect greeted Johnson with rough familiarity: “What the f–k are you doing here, Boris?”

In the political universe, caution and prudence aren’t always virtues. “Boris’s strategy for detoxifying his privileged upbringing is more effective than Cameron’s,” says Young. “It seems much more relaxed, less defensive. Cameron hasn’t made the mistake of turning it down too far—he’s just turned it down a little bit. Whereas Boris has turned it up to 11.”

Before entering politics, Johnson made a name for himself as a swashbuckling and prolific journalist. Critics charge that he lacks the temperament for the grind of government and that he’s too much of an outlier from his party’s mainstream to unify others behind him. He can often appear blustering and shambolic. He obfuscates, cajoles, and flatters. When he doesn’t like the way a conversation is going, he changes the subject wildly, feigning hurt and outrage. Those performances have come to define him. “He was not seen as a stellar act as a higher-education shadow minister,” says Lammy. “He didn’t quite work in Parliament. I think the mayoralty in that sense suited him better.”

Nevertheless, Lammy has his doubts about Johnson’s handling of last summer’s riots. “Boris’s response was to vacillate about returning [from vacation in Canada],” the parliamentarian says. “Boris’s response was to turn up in Clapham, to hold a broom for 10 minutes, to leave after 10 minutes, and not to return to the subject again.” But in those few minutes, Johnson got an earful from locals who were furious at the feeble police response to the violence. According to Gimson, Johnson had dinner with Cameron at Downing Street that night. “The next morning he went on the Today program [the BBC’s agenda-setting radio show] and repudiated three years of Tory policy about cuts in police spending,” says Gimson. “Boris basically got out of a very tight spot by betraying the party line on spending on the police, which caused enormous rage and dismay at Downing Street.”

Johnson sounds like anything but an old-line Tory now, when speaking of the conditions that spawned the riots. “Nobody can deny that there is a major problem with young people in this city who don’t have the skills or the hope that they need,” the mayor says. ”We haven’t invested enough in young people who need better education, who need more care, who need love.” So how would Johnson define his type of conservatism? “Dynamic, aggressive, forward-looking,” the mayor says. “I’m a one-nation Conservative, since I believe in reducing the gap between rich and poor. But I’m pro-business. I don’t believe that London can compete by having an 80 percent tax rate, which is what my rival offers.”

Johnson recalls a campaigning tip he got from the mayor of New York. “Mike Bloomberg advised me to ride the subway to have more demotic … um … “ The Oxford classicist gropes for words to complete the idea of popular appeal. “I think we have a very different system here in London,” Johnson says. “We have a system that’s much more, I’d say, down-to-earth.” Of course Johnson takes the tube to get around town—and so does Livingstone. “I talk to people on public transport all the time,” the mayor says. “I meet people from all over London, and I have a sort of rolling focus group on my bike. I don’t think people give a monkey’s … about that stuff.” (He refrains from saying the word.) “I was thinking about it the other day. I remember going to Mike’s house, and he has [police] outside the front door, and when he drives down the street, he has a motorcade,” he says. “Actually I remember being with these guys and literally they decided to drive against the traffic. It’s unbelievable—I love him, by the way.”

Fundamentally, though, this week’s Groundhog Day of an election is not about policy. Whichever candidate wins, London can be expected to keep on as always. There’s no doubt that Tory leaders want Johnson to win this week’s election—but he worries them. “They basically regard him as disreputable and untrustworthy,” says Gimson. “Cameron is a pure establishment man, who will always do what the establishment thinks is prudent. Boris is a loner. He can’t see an apple cart without feeling inclined to overturn it.” As charming as Johnson can be, it’s hard to blame his fellow Conservatives for feeling a bit nervous.

For the version on the Newsweek/Daily Beast site, please click here.

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