John Rentoul: Dave fights old wars, but Boris looks in tune with the future

The London Mayor's record in office is thin, but his appeal is undoubted and he wants Cameron's job. Will his party be able to resist?


This column may have given the impression in the past that Boris Johnson was an unserious politician who was most unlikely to become prime minister. However, it has been drawn to our attention that seriousness, consistency and a record of delivery may be less important than previously thought. I am not saying that I was wrong, as such, but I ought to record that something has happened.

One sign of this was the opinion poll published this month by Michael Ashcroft, the Tory peer. The survey was carried out in May and found that, of 10 politicians, only two recorded a positive net rating with voters: Boris Johnson and William Hague. Boris, at +23, was well ahead of Hague on +7. All the others were negative, ranging from David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both on -2, to George Osborne on -16 and Theresa May on -17. Hague's persistent popularity is an enduring mystery. One can only assume that it is a combination of the British love of a loser and of the deadpan delivery of jokes. But Boris has broken through into a different category.

He seems to be rated on a different scale from normal politicians – compared by the voters to Stephen Fry, Usain Bolt and JLS. Which means that his appeal has the kind of demographic reach of which normal politicians can only dream. Lord Ashcroft's research found that he was particularly popular with voters who were "considering" voting Tory or who voted Tory last time but were now intending to vote for another party.

That Boris is outside the norm should have been obvious when he was re-elected as London Mayor in May, just before Lord Ashcroft's poll was carried out. He defied a trend against the Conservatives nationally. And the poll's findings were confirmed by the Mayor's two-minute speech in Hyde Park last week, which was interrupted by chants of "Boris, Boris" from a crowd who had come to see the last leg of the torch relay. Suddenly, the assumption that the Olympics would give Cameron a lift seemed in doubt. What if it were Boris who captured the excitement of the Games, leaving the Prime Minister looking like a wet blanket from Whitehall? The contrast was striking between Boris, with his £29.50 haircut on a rock-star stage in Hyde Park, belting out one-liners about "more gold, silver and bronze medals than we need to bail out Greece and Spain together", and Cameron, at the Olympic Park that still looked like a building site, his more expensive hair blowing in the wind, talking about "bad people wanting to do bad things" and thanking the police and intelligence services for being "fully joined up and working together".

There are many reasons why Boris should not be prime minister. His record as Mayor has been thin. He got rid of bendy buses, a small if significant achievement. Beyond that, he has taken the credit for the work of others. The Boris bikes were Ken Livingstone's idea (and are sponsored by Barclays, who must be just as miffed). As for the Olympics, it is worth remembering that, if it had not been for Tony Blair, we would have been watching the opening ceremony in Paris. Although Boris laid claim to London's Games with his "whiff whaff" speech in Beijing four years ago, he and Cameron are both trying to seize a baton that is nearly over the finishing line.

Their rivalry is hard to assess, because the British system is not used to politicians making their way to the top outside the House of Commons, via the London mayoralty and television celebrity. In their biography of the Prime Minister, James Hanning and Francis Elliott write that what the two have in common, apart from Eton and ambition, is "the well concealed surprise aroused in both men by the other's success".

Cameron must be especially surprised and alarmed by Boris's popularity this weekend. It makes the Prime Minister, the younger man, look old-fashioned. It makes Boris look like someone in tune with the future, while Cameron looks like a Major-Blair-Brown era politician still fighting past wars.

So Boris Johnson has potential. It is still hard to see a path to No 10 for him. His second term as Mayor of London runs until 2016, when the general election is supposed to be the year before. If Cameron wins re-election, that settles it for another five years. If not, would Boris be any use as Leader of the Opposition? Would he even be back in the Commons? There are hints in the wind. Rafael Behr, the new political editor of the New Statesman, reported last week that Johnson had told aides that he intends to perform his mayoral duties on "an unofficial part-time basis after the Olympics", and there is nothing in law to stop the mayor being an MP (indeed, Ken Livingstone was both in 2000-01).

Boris has the beginnings of a Churchillian stature about him. He now has the size of personality that is waiting for a crisis that will summon him to greatness. It could be the collapse of the eurozone, on which he has positioned himself just to the Eurosceptic side of Cameron, Osborne and Hague. If the polls should tell the Tories that he, and he alone, can save the party, the party may find a way.;

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Day In a Page

Read Next
IDF soldiers and vehicles in an image provided by campaign group Breaking the Silence  

'Any person you see – shoot to kill': The IDF doctrine which causes the death of innocent Palestinians

Ron Zaidel

If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong

Frankie Boyle
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before