Bumbling Boris dispenses masterclass on how to be popular
Published 11/08/2014 | 00:00
It is an acknowledged fact in the canon of British politics that the most popular and electable politician in the realm is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Boris, Mayor of London, is especially liked by younger voters.
And so, when he announced last Thursday that he intended to seek a safe Tory seat to re-enter the House of Commons, it was rightly taken to be a signal that he is pitching to become the next chief resident of Number 10, Downing Street.
Some analysts are puzzled by Boris’s popularity.
He has made terrible gaffes over the course of his career.
As editor of the The Spectator magazine, he presided over insults to the people of Liverpool in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy, for which he had to apologise profusely.
He has offended the Irish constituency in Britain by calling St Patrick’s Day events – which were promoted by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, a stalwart friend to Sinn Fein – “lefty crap”.
As a journalist, Boris has been reprimanded for inventing a quote: as Mayor, there have been questions over his expenses for taxis.
As for the women!
He’s been a notoriously naughty boy.
More publicly, the journalist Petronella Wyatt, after a passionate, four-year affair with Boris, chose to have an abortion since he refused to leave his wife, Marina.
Petronella subsequently wrote a sad article saying she regretted that decision. Boris was expelled from the Tory opposition front bench at the time – not for the affair, but for fibbing about it.
When at the centre of a storm about his private life, and descended upon by a battery of paparazzi, Boris simply removed his bicycle clips (he’s an ardent cyclist) and answered gnomically: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
He’s been described as a “clown” and “a mere entertainer” – someone who “treats politics as a bit of a lark”.
And it has been suggested that his appeal to voters and, particularly, to the young, is because he seems to treat politics as “a bit of a lark”.
I’ve known Boris since the 1980s, and he indeed has a mirthful, easy-going manner.
But beneath all that larking around, he is purposeful.
He is a historian, a novelist and a Classical scholar – one of his passions is promoting the revival of Latin.
In a democratic era, in which equality is so admired, you might think that BoJo would be regarded by the voters as an archaic swell. He was a member of the elitist Bullingdon group at Oxford, along with David Cameron, George Osborne and the current Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
They were deplored as being like something out an Evelyn Waugh novel of the 1920s – knocking back champagne and thrashing restaurants.
And yet, Boris gets away with it, and is seen affectionately as the bumbling, untidy-haired ordinary bloke who rides a bicycle everywhere.
He is far from ordinary.
Through his veins run Turkish, Russian and German blood – his mother was a descendent of Prince Paul of Wurttemberg.
So he is related to the Hanoverian dynasty: his great-grandfather was a distinguished liberal Turkish politician.
And yet, maybe the most formative aspect of Boris’s character is his childhood.
The oldest of four children, his parents practised what his sister Rachel calls “benign neglect”. Although Boris was diagnosed as deaf as a child, the Johnsons allowed their children to go anywhere unaccompanied from quite an early age.
Rachel says they were never told to “be careful”, or given instructions about safety. Robust riskiness was the attitude.
Boris’s politics could have some serious implications for Ireland. He has always been critical of the European Union, despite – or perhaps because of – his “melting-pot” background and a spell reporting from Brussels during the 1980s.
In a speech last week he outlined how Britain could leave the EU and prosper.
But there is one reason why I feel especially grateful to BoJo: his dedication to efficiency of the London bus system.
The buses in London are, under Boris’s stewardship, wonderful. He has restored the classic Routemaster and introduced updated buses, too. In London, I seldom await a bus for more than three minutes: in Dublin, I frequently stand at bus stops for 20 minutes.
He rides a bike: he attends to public transport: there’s a formula, I’d say, for great popular appeal.