All eyes on Boris as he calculates his future

Boris Johnson has made enough waves as the Mayor of London to be considered as an heir to David Cameron – but will he make the jump? Interview by Andy McSmith

Boris Johnson is being watched, and it makes him uncomfortable. This is not because the most exuberant showman in contemporary British politics has turned shy suddenly. He does not mind people who recognise him in the street. It is not human eyes that bother him, but the electronic ones.

"When I step out of my front door and I run up Holloway Road, as I do virtually every day, very slowly, I run past more CCTV cameras than along any other stretch of road of comparable length in Europe. My run is photographed in glorious technicolour by, I think, 33 cameras over a very, very short distance. We are the most surveiled society in the world."

This puts the Mayor of London in a dilemma. The libertarian in him would rip down those surveillance cameras but the politician warns him to take care.

We were talking at Cheltenham Racecourse, where the Conservatives held their spring conference yesterday. Johnson had just wowed a fringe meeting with a witty speech and was due to give another at a private dinner for the party faithful. He had not prepared his second speech, yet you just know that he will have wowed them all over again.

His election to the mayoralty a year ago, almost to the day, gave the Conservatives their biggest success at the polls since 1992. One of his proudest boasts from his year in office is that he reduced hooliganism on public transport by imposing a ban on alcohol. But how do you enforce such a ban, and generally make sure passengers behave? One deterrent is a CCTV camera.

Johnson has also agonised over Skype, which allows people to make telephone calls through the internet. The police have the power to demand access to mobile telephone records – too much access, some think – and want the same power to trace Skype calls. As the chairman of the Metropolitan Police authority, Johnson has come down reluctantly on their side.

"People like me who are basically libertarians have such problems with this," he confessed. "In a great many prosecutions the use of mobile phone data has been absolutely indispensable. It has been used to pinpoint murderers. Skype is less easy to track, unless you have a vast data bank. Do we give the police the vast data bank or not? If we don't, murderers will walk free and crimes will not be solved. After hearing all the arguments, I think I am now in favour of giving them access."

As to those cameras, the Johnson solution is fine in principle, but short on details about how it might be put into effect. He explained: "We won't sort this out until we give people back the confidence to reclaim public space. We are endlessly deferring to machines the duty of making sure that our public space is safe, because people feel too nervous to do anything, and because citizens feel disempowered. My instinct is always to put responsibility into the hands of people and not substitute machines."

Mayor Johnson is on a roll. A little over a year ago, it was an open question whether he was to be taken seriously. He was articulate, well known, and very funny on Have I Got News for You, but his political career seemed to be up a blind alley. David Cameron thought him too erratic to hold a seat in the Shadow Cabinet and he was far from being Cameron's first choice of candidate in the London election.

Now, after a year as the most powerful Conservative politician in the land, the tousled-haired one has shown that he can run a big political machine effectively, and a much bigger one than Cameron or any other shadow minister apart from William Hague and Kenneth Clarke has run.

It no longer matters whether his old chum from Eton College and Oxford University thinks he is cabinet material, because he has his own power base from which he fires the occasional broadside across the ship that Cameron and the shadow Chancellor George Osborne run, and there is nothing they can do to silence him.

The 50p tax rate that Alistair Darling is to impose on people earning more than £150,000 is one source of contention. Johnson thinks the Tories should scrap it once in power. Cameron and Osborne are wary of being seen to do favours for the rich.

"I completely understand what George's position is and David Cameron has spoken a lot of sense about this," Johnson said. "I just feel that as Mayor of London, I have to point out that London is full of fantastically creative businesses that need to attract the best talent from around the world. If you tell them you are going to take considerably more of their money away than they could expect in the competitor capitals, that's a poke in the eye for London." Then there was the manner in which Johnson sacked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Ian Blair, without forewarning Cameron. One theory is that it was done on the spur of the moment because a conversation with Blair went so badly that the Mayor decided that they simply could not work together. "That supposition is not correct," he said, with unusual brevity. If so, why did he not forewarn Cameron? "I don't want to go back into the details of all that."

Johnson has used his pulpit to call for more grammar schools, which is not Conservative party policy. When challenged, he says he does not want to return to the pre-1970s set up, with the majority consigned to "secondary modern" sink schools. Instead, he dresses an idea much loved by the Tory right in the language of the left, no doubt to make it palatable to Independent readers.

"As a society we need to recognise that our ruling class is engaged in a massive act of hypocrisy. They either use their economic power to buy housing near the best schools, or they use their economic power to buy tuition for their kids out of hours, or they use their economic power to buy fee-paying education for their kids. What we have is plenty of ways that money can buy you educational advantages, but not enough ways in which brain can get you one," he said.

Even when they are expressed in the language of a radical, each of these displays of independence are precisely calculated to appeal to a large constituency in the Tory party who think Cameron is being too cautious, straining too hard to hold the middle ground, but who will go along with his strategy as long as it offers them the prospect of power. But more Tories are seeing Johnson as the default successor to Cameron if things go wrong.

To be in position to be a contender, Johnson would have to be back in Parliament. This means that before he comes up for re-election as Mayor in 2013, Johnson, who is 44, will have to calculate where his long-term future lies. So, unlike Ken Livingstone, who wanted to go on and on being Mayor, Johnson is studiously vague about whether he even wants a second term. "If I think I'm doing the blindest bit of good, then of course I'm going to think about running again," he said.

Questions about whether he sees himself as Prime Minister produce a more obscure answer featuring a Roman ruler called Cincinnatus who returned from retirement by popular demand. All ambitious politicians have to find a way of evading the question of whether they want to be Prime Minister, but no one should be fooled by Johnson's tendency to joke or that air of absent-minded fogeyness he cultivates. There is no ceiling to the Mayor's ambition.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin