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

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

Steve Richards
Monday 25 March 2013 19:33

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.

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