Boris Johnson, international statesman? The Mayor of London takes a Far East tour

To become Prime Minister, the Mayor must convince people he can represent Britain abroad. Joseph Watts followed him to see how he measured up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The heroic staffer held up a jacket to curtain Boris Johnson off as he changed into his new shirt while sitting in his airplane seat.

“Bloody hell,” said someone nearby as the curtain fell. The Mayor’s new shirt was ripping. It was so horrendously loud, it could have been interfering with the aircraft’s navigation systems.

But shouting, waving, gesticulating and performing is what the Boris Johnson circus is all about. A show which turns heads wherever it goes. If it’s not what he’s wearing, it’s what he’s doing; riding a rickshaw, chasing a lizard, dissecting a cow.

When the heads turn the Mayor can show whatever he wants and for this trip, the briefing said it was British business. The firms riding Johnson’s coat tails to the Far East were impressed by access he gained them with at least two of them making deals during the week. One entrepreneur said he was granted a meeting with a CEO, but only after saying he was part of Johnson’s delegation.

From the other side, Malaysia’s money-men were as eager to lap up Johnson’s oratory as they were to hear his plans for spending their millions.

Boris-johnson2.jpg
Boris Johnson walks through the drizzling rain for a meeting with Jakarta's Governor, Basuki Tjahya (EPA/Bagus Indhahono)

Only once was the positive buzz surrounding the whole trip threatened, at an event celebrating the huge Battersea Power Station development.

In front of a hall of potential investors and dignitaries, I asked if he was working to make sure enough of the 3,500 homes went to ordinary Londoners. There were 600 affordable flats, he said bullishly, and the “gloomadon poppers” could “put that in their pipe and smoke it”. The business crowd cheered. In the Far East after all, brand Boris is unrestrained by UK politics and its policy issues. In Kuala Lumpur his face was plastered across electronic billboards for his arrival. In Jakarta he was introduced at one event as “His Excellency”.

Across the region brand Boris also reaches beyond the political and business heads, as it does in the UK. People enjoy the cartoon character; the blond mop and cheeky smile, the mumbling and eccentric intellect, the self-deprecating humour.

It was also in Jakarta that he squeezed into an overly tight “Britain is Great” T-shirt and rode a Brompton bike through town to meet the President on Car-Free Sunday.

On Central Avenue’s main roundabout Sunday walkers quickly formed into a selfie-hungry mob. When the much-loved President Joko Widodo arrived, it suddenly felt like a dangerously overcrowded boy-band concert.

Boris-johnson3.jpg
Boris Johnson stands outside the Petronas Towers, one of the tallest buildings in the world, in Kuala Lumpur (PA/Stefan Rousseau)

Boris hopes to emulate the president, a former governor of his country’s capital who went on to win a national election, by presenting himself as the charismatic outsider.

When the two eventually arrived at the Presidential Palace they held formal talks over breakfast. But while Mr Widodo sat grandly flanked by elephant tusks, Johnson remained in his T-shirt as they discussed how to build ties between their countries.

“I wish that happened to me,” he said to the President, referring to the adoration Indonesians had shown. “When I ride through London they shout ‘Tory Tosser’.”

The frenetic pace, thousands of miles travelled and endless events, all take their toll. After the hot bike ride, presidential talks, a run to the airport, changing clothes on the plane, business meetings and interviews on touch down, Johnson looked relieved to find himself in a quiet room.

The only people with him were his communications chief Will Walden, myself and one other journalist. He was waiting for the BBC to call. His new shirt was still going strong, but the man wearing it was tired. Rubbing hands over his face and hair, Johnson sighed: “What’s this going to be about then?”

The phone rang, he picked up and from nowhere the energy sprung forth from its apparently bottomless well.

If anything the trip highlighted that the mystery of Boris is not a gap between his public and private persona. In Singapore’s botanic gardens, for example, where he enjoyed running after a lizard for the photographers, I waited till he was away from the cameras to ask what he thought of the orchid they’d named after Margaret Thatcher. “It was small and inoffensive,” he said, unable to miss the chance for some irony even if only one or two people heard it. It did, however, have “spiralling horns”.

 

The joker people see hanging from a zip-wire on TV is not far from the man you get in the flesh. It’s why, unlike David Cameron, he is seen as having authenticity.

However, the Mayor has a particular talent for using metaphor to craft a political position, which is useful because it means he can avoid the pain of overtly stating it.

Take immigration. He would avoid being so crass as to deliver a speech on net figures. In the Far East he talked about rubber instead, lauding it as the product of a process stretching from Brazil to Malaysia, proving the superiority of a global outlook.

He would see it as tactless to define himself by talking technically about how immigrants should use the welfare system. In Asia he opted to speak on Athens and Sparta; how the former still thrives today because it embraced outsiders, while the latter is wiped from existence. Point out that his tone on immigration is therefore more positive than the Prime Minister’s and he is able to deny it, because he has only really spoken about rubber and classics.

Yet on the day David Cameron made tackling benefit tourism the foundation of his EU agenda, Johnson mentioned in passing in Singapore that benefit abuse only involved a “small number”.

He also chose that moment to casually complain of “xenophobia” in the UK’s debate.

Now is apparently not the right time politically for Johnson to draw clear dividing lines within his party. But when the moment comes he’ll be doing it on a canvas that was cut and prepared on trips like this one.

Comments