In early summer 2008, Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London and I was taking my A-Levels. Through a caffeine-induced haze my young mind often confused the Conservative candidate with my revision on ex-PM Lord Palmerston. He is characterised for his light-hearted approach to governance He has been publicly criticised for racist views. He seems to exist outside the boundaries of political decorum. The two men certainly share a dependence on the public’s affection and attention-grabbing behaviour for success, with their policies fading into the background.
Boris’ success has heralded the return of personality politics, so popular in the era of Gladstone and Palmerston. Now, just as then, the cracks are most definitely starting to show. Good old Boris has always been seen as different from other politicians. Before he took office, his refreshingly honest take on a politician’s role was in stark contrast with the evasive and robotic style preferred by his colleagues. He was chaotic, fiendishly amusing and his presence in the media has been more frequent than any other modern politician – appearances on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, a column in the Daily Telegraph, editor of the Spectator and numerous books. Boris was everywhere and he invaded the nation’s consciousness as a character, not a politician. Significantly he is known better by his first name than his last. By not appearing to behave like a politician, we didn’t treat him like one and he became a sort of political celebrity, a dangerous animal not seen since Churchill.
Before his election as Mayor of London, I had a lot of affection for the bumbling mop-head. However, I never really entertained the thought that the party clown could electively be put in charge of running our capital city. Suddenly the clown was the ringmaster and no one really seems to know how he got there.
Boris’ carteblanche with the British public has remained even in this position of national importance. His time in office to date has been littered with blunders and embarrassments, but the media barely reports them and the public seems not to mind.
One of Johnson’s deputies, Ray Lewis, retired just two months after he came to office and this month the Mayor was banned from interviews for the head of the Arts Council London due to a lack of political impartiality. Having indirectly promised to do so in his campaigning, Johnson forced out Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair in 2008 and assumed the role himself before mysteriously stepping down in January of this year.
His hubris finally tripping him up, the role was apparently too big to handle alongside his day job. He has passed remarkably few discernable changes since taking office except banning alcohol on public transport and his much hated bendy buses are yet to be replaced. In his campaigning, Boris Johnson promised a sharp political mind behind his blundering façade, but he is yet to show it at work as mayor. Almost halfway through his term, the lack of media comment is unbelievable compared with the steady assault Red Ken received.
As well as being incompetent in policy, Boris continues to show contempt – or at best apathy – for political convention. This was forgivable when he was a harmless Shadow Minister but he is now the international spokesperson and representative for London. God help us.
The Olympic handover ceremony in Beijing proves a fitting example. Waving the Olympic flag precariously in one hand, the Mayor refused to button his jacket and stood with his hands in his pockets, despite requests from officials. Johnson was unapologetic, saying that he just “thought, sod it … there are times when you have to take a stand.” Taking a stand for sloppy dressing and ignoring deference for foreign cultures, however, caused the Chinese media to comment that “the British seem to like to laugh about their own stupidity.” It was also revealed during the MPs’ expenses scandal that Mayoral taxi fairs rose 540 percent during Johnson’s time in office, including leaving the meter running to bill a three-mile journey at £99.50 for the taxpayer.
Seeing that the Conservatives Party chose a similar style of campaign for David Cameron this year, I can only hope that the public’s weakness for a charming toff has been cautioned by Boris’ example. Personality over policy politics will have even more serious repercussions if successful this summer.