Boris is leader-in-waiting. He’ll never be leader

Discontent with a current leader creates an irrational sense of hope in an alternative

Share

During my one-man show, Rock’n’Roll Politics, I reflect briefly on who is likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.

At one performance in December I offered to pay each member of the vast audience £10,000 if Boris Johnson were to succeed David Cameron.

I knew my money was safe, and after the frenzy of recent days I suspect I am no longer in a small minority. The BBC documentary on Boris last night, and the interview with Eddie Mair that preceded it, were two events that were almost bound to happen as part of Boris’s turbulent career. There will surely be other storms to come. For someone who wishes to be leader he has become too interesting, too early. The hysterical sense across the political spectrum that Boris could be the Conservatives’ saviour, is both deeply flattering to him and at the same time fatal to his chances.

 Where I am probably in a new minority, in what I suspect will be the very fickle world of Borismania, is in my sympathy for the aspiring leader in his current plight. One of the most striking parts of the interview with Mair on Sunday was Boris’s explanation as to why he took part in last night’s documentary.

On the surface, the screening of the film looks like an egotistical step on his path to seizing the crown.  But no such documentary has been made of other serving politicians with their future ahead of them. Michael Cockerell’s wonderful films usually take as their subjects retired political titans. These figures reflect on their careers. In a stupid move the BBC has recently started to show these programmes on BBC4 rather than the more watched BBC 2. But the moment Cockerell proposed making one about Boris, he got the best slot on BBC 2.

None of this had anything to do directly with Boris. As he explained to Mair, the BBC told him the film was being made with or without his co-operation. He decided to give an interview in order to have some control over what appeared. He did not instigate the project and faced a dilemma –  to be in it and look vain and transparently ambitious, or to not appear and give the space to his critics to comment on his apparent defensiveness. Either way the film, although in some ways highly flattering, was going to cause him trouble, conveying a monstrous sense of ambition, even though it was not his idea. Boris was trapped.

This is what happens to most leaders-in-waiting and is part of the explanation as to why they do not become leaders. Boris is part of a familiar tradition. Discontent with a current leader creates an irrational sense of hope in an alternative. Any such figure is not burdened by the task of running the economy, or of uniting a restive party, or of providing public services that are of a high standard and affordable.

That hope can lead – initially – to a generous response within both the media and the wider electorate. Very little scrutiny goes on. Instead there is a celebration of fresh, authentic charisma in a grey world. Recent leaders-in-waiting who have had something of this experience include Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo and David Miliband, although all four had acquired more political weight than Boris when they made their doomed moves to become leader. A counter to the adulation then comes in the form of intense examination, at which point the leader-in-waiting becomes suddenly vulnerable. There is nothing he or she can do about it. They have become too captivating for their own good.

In the case of Boris, his route to uncritical adulation has been a relatively easy one. His London mayoral triumph was secured over the tired, more scrutinised Ken Livingstone. Boris was the hero of the Olympics. He is safely distant from the Coalition and in particular its economic policies. Part of the trap he is in is that after last night’s film, any further moves towards the leadership will now look much more self-serving, even though the film was not his idea.

The precise allegations that both the Cockerell film and the Mair interview raised, although old, are deeply troublesome for a candidate in a national leadership contest – in particular the lying about an affair to his then leader, Michael Howard. Such matters do not matter much in a London mayoral contest with some very sympathetic newspapers who aren’t  probing deeply. They would matter when it came to Tory MPs and members deciding who they want to lead them.

But that is not the reason why Boris will not succeed. He will not succeed because he is the leader-in-waiting. Most actual leaders never found themselves in such a fatal position. Few spoke of Ed Miliband and David Cameron as leaders in waiting. Tony Blair acquired the crown suddenly, with the death of John Smith. Gordon Brown is the only leader-in-waiting in modern times who became a leader, one of several successes in Brown’s career that history will recognise.

As Cameron’s clunky, shallow speech on immigration showed yesterday, the Conservatives are in desperate need of leadership that has depth. Boris’s first experience of facing challenging scrutiny shows why, fairly or not, he will not be the answer. As usual a leader-in-waiting will be kept waiting.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michelle Mone attends the annual Serpentine Gallery summer party at The Serpentine Gallery on June 26, 2013 in London, England.  

Michelle Mone made millions selling bras and now dares to enter the House of Lords - what would Lord Sewel and Alan Sugar say?

Kate Maltby
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall (AFP/Getty)  

Win or lose, Corbyn will set the agenda unless Labour speaks up

Isabel Hardman
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen