Simon Kelner: PM should look to the BoJo effect – and take notes

Kelner's View
  • @Simon_Kelner

In between dancing to the Spice Girls and leaning over to tell Sam how much he really likes Muse, David Cameron will have been struck by two aspects of the Olympics closing ceremony.

First was the ovation given to Boris Johnson when he came on to hand the Olympic flag to his mayoral counterpart from Rio. It seems incredible that, even in these happy-clappy times when we get all misty-eyed about anything or anyone who represents Britain, that a politician could elicit a warm round of applause from an unaligned audience.

Yet here he was, a man who embodies a strain of Britishness a million miles from Farah or Ennis – a white old Etonian burnished with privilege – getting the sort of reception Mr Cameron can only expect on the final day of the Conservative Party conference. Whether they are right or wrong about this, people genuinely feel that Boris has changed their lives for the better and isn't this what politicians are supposed to do? Boris was born lucky and it is his great good fortune to have been in City Hall when the Olympics came to town. Nevertheless, he has worked tirelessly to ensure that he is symbiotically associated with the success of the Games and Mr Cameron will have seen Boris's popularity ratings rise with some regret – politics, like athletics, is a zero-sum game – and will have noted the need to use his elbows more in the future. The second aspect of closing night that will have struck a chord with the PM was the heroes' welcome given to representatives of the 70,000-strong volunteer force, or Gamesmakers, in the parlance, who were as much a recognisable feature of this Olympics as the Games Lanes or the velodrome.

The Big Society has been derided as a nebulous and half-baked concept, but here was its essence embodied by a sizeable army of public-spirited individuals who were willing to work selflessly, smile relentlessly and generally be helpful in support of the national cause. Mr Cameron must have mused – during Muse – about whether we are really seeing a shift towards voluntary public service and whether this movement can be harnessed to make sense of the Big Society. The difference here is that the helpers were part of a giant, exciting event and even if they just stood for two weeks telling people the way to Stratford tube station, they themselves felt as much part of the Olympics as Usain Bolt. It's a different matter when you're talking about care of the elderly or manning a citizen's advice bureau and you don't get a uniform so that people can immediately recognise what service you give to the state. Much voluntary work is tough and thankless, but the appreciation shown to the Games volunteers might yet give many of us a nudge towards public service. Mr Cameron will do well to catch this wave.