As another politician recently remarked, quelle surprise. It was always expected, even by the more naïve observers of the political scene, that it was only a matter of time before Boris Johnson announced his re-entry into national politics. Few, however, would have expected him to be quite so choice in his timing.
Coming as it does immediately after the resignation of Baroness Warsi, and while David Cameron is abroad on holiday, it has something of the political thriller about it, like a storyline from a Michael Dobbs novel. Either that, or the touch of a world in which dictators are occasionally toppled while away at some international junket or other.
Moving away, for just a moment, from the cynical manoeuvrings of a politician on the make, it is an insult to Londoners that their Mayor should be trying to combine a vital – full-time – job with his race to the Commons, and thence, he may hope, to No 10. Boris, as he must love being known, clearly thinks he can look after this great world city in his spare time, but he is wrong, and his many apparent protestations that he would not attempt to combine both careers is a poor reward for Londoners who placed their faith in him. More widely, it will have done his reputation no good, nor the Tories’ chances of hanging on to the mayoralty next time around.
But what is his reputation? Borisologists are divided about what makes this man tick. They say he is authentic, but is he? Is he, as many say, a clever man playing the buffoon? Or is he in fact a buffoon pretending to be a clever man playing a buffoon, even if he can quote Latin at will? He is not, it is fair to say, the latest attempt by the Conservative Party to ape Tony Blair and create a cloned copy of a leader in his somewhat tarnished image. To that extent, yes, Boris is authentic, original, almost refreshing – and this goes some way to explaining his electoral triumph in London, not usually promising territory for a Tory.
Boris must worry, too, about the fickle affections of the press. The papers he would love to attract applaud his more sceptical lines on Europe and his ability to poke fun effortlessly at the Prime Minister’s silly initiatives (“Hug a hoodie”, huskies, the Big Society). They, like the rest of the nation, will have enjoyed his ridiculing of the Coalition as being like a Conservative bulldog mating with a Liberal Democrat chihuahua. They do not appreciate his liberal line on immigration, however, and the more censorious (i.e., all of them) are prudish about his private life. All of us worry about Boris’s urge to display his jocularity at every occasion, no matter how sombre. Mr Cameron finds it much easier to be, or at least to appear, sincere and “prime ministerial”.
Mr Cameron may well not be the competition, however. On the Michael Heseltine principle that the assassin never succeeds in inheriting the crown, Mr Johnson will have to wait for a vacancy to arise (which does not preclude him from trying to create one). If Mr Cameron wins big at the general election, then Boris will have a long wait. If he loses, then Boris could be ensconced in the leadership by around this time next year.
In a hung parliament, No 10 might still be within reach. Boris would still have to see off some formidable opponents, even if they lacked his flair for publicity or the clever turn of phrase – George Osborne, Theresa May, perhaps someone we have not yet really thought of. Boris may eventually meet his match.