Bojo has the mojo but does he have the chops?
AS the gaggle of screaming mostly teenage fans at New Street station in Birmingham reached a crescendo, a passer-by was well within her rights to ask the question. “Is there a rock star?” she queried in response to the Justin Beiber-esque mania that had gripped the always busy but seldom crazy train station.
Well he does has big floppy hair, loves a stage and his arrival always causes a stir but the unlikely reception was for Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson whose arrival in the northern Labour-city of Birmingham was this week likened to the famous platform arrival of Vladimir Lenin who stepped onto Finland Station in St Petersburg to begin the Russian Revolution.
And in many ways the arrival of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in Birmingham late last year (2012) is the start of what could be a great upheaval this year not just for the Tories but British politics in general which is as desperate for a hero as Canberra’s federal parliament is for respect, appreciation and talent.
Boris has never been far from the headlines for all the right and wrong reasons but since his profile during the 2012 London Olympics, he has become very much the man everyone in the UK is talking about.
He was always going to go to Birmingham to attend the Tory national conference in October but not even the party faithful could have imagined the reception he received.
It began at the station with hundreds of adoring chanting fans – including one adapted soccer serenade “I love you Borrrrr-is, and if it’s quite alright I need you Borrrr-is …” – before he was whisked away to the Hyatt Hotel where he was met with another throng of adulation.
But nothing compared with when he actually arrived at the conference centre – a full day before he was expected to play an official role - where the British press not known for being short of adjectives described his reception as simply going nuts.
By his own admission it was all very bad for his ego and stole the show somewhat from the lackluster Prime Minister David Cameron whose leadership of the party and country has been roundly criticized as weak, particularly in light of the worst double dip recession in a generation and an already unstable government coalition of convenience (and yes just like Canberra).
But then he protests too much and every time he praised his boss Cameron to some observers there was just a hint of cynicism inside his buffoonery and lively public address masking massive ambition.
By the time Boris, known affectionately among other names as BoJo, took to the stage the following day for his official address, his name was on its way from being whispered as a future prime minister to being openly spoken by many in the 1500 person hall and by some who held his name aloft in banners.
His popularity in Britain is as much out of desperation for a political saviour with a clear well understood attitude in unstable times as it is for genuine admiration for a man whose wit, unorthodox views and self deprecation is almost Australian in its delivery. Not to mention the Eton and then Oxford educated man is actually intelligent too.
“I think I deserve some sort of world record as the biggest harvester of undeserved credit during the Olympics,” he said in mocking modesty this week of his popularity that stemmed from his very animated support during the Games, including a ride on a flying fox which broke down midway and a raucous “bringing home the bacon” address for Team GB.
Johnson first came to public attention in 1999 as editor of the Spectator magazine, having previously worked for The Times (where he was reportedly sacked for falsifying a quote) and later the UK’s Daily Telegraph.
In 2003 he was vice chairman of the Conservative Party and a year later elevated to the Shadow front bench as Arts spokesman. But he was later sacked from these roles over claims he lied about a four-year extramarital affair – which reportedly included romps in the backs of taxis.
But friend David Cameron brought him back to the front bench when he was made leader and in 2008 Johnson was put up as the candidate for the plum role of mayor of London, which he this year was re-elected for a second term.
But it was the Olympics and his fantastic oratory that saw his public popularity in Britain soar with the 48-year-old New York born man able to capture the mood of the people even if it meant criticising his own party. He makes no apologies for the later and sees it as healthy democracy.
He would come out with the most ridiculous over the top phrases, now known as Borisisms, but also passionate nationalistic sentiments about the greatness of Great Britain. And all the while he never took himself too seriously as was evident by the flying fox stunt which jammed to leaving him dangling embarassingly above the ground in his suit, an incident which he would later regale.
It is a rare talent to be able to self deprecate while at the same time putting forward with statesman-like aplomb clear vision on public policy even on sensitive issues such as the economy, education and even the highly vexed London issue of a Heathrow Airport extension.
Think cross between Joh Bjelke-Petersen for the lines and charisma of Bob Hawke with a sprinkle of Bob Katter nuttiness and you’d close to the Johnson double helix DNA.
But not everybody is a fan.
Senior Tory Cabinet MP Kenneth Clarke nailed it for some, including those in the Cameron camp who believes he needs less ambitions for the top job and more concentration on his current mayoral role.
“He’s a great entertainer, he’s a great personality … he is actually a highly intelligence highly educated guy,” he said.
But he later added: “At the moment its terribly fashionable to see Boris as an aspirant prime minister to be. I’d have thought it disasterous for Boris unless he gets it under control, it isn’t going to go anywhere and by next year it will have gone out of fashion.”
High profile commentator and editor Max Hastings described his friend Johnson as an egomaniac, an “X Factor” showman bereft of judgement, loyalty and discretion who couldn’t control his libido let alone a country.
“He proved himself the perfect maître d’ for the London Olympics but few maître d’s are fit to cook the dinner … his chaotic public persona is not an act - he is indeed manically disorganized about everything except his own image management,” he wrote in his weekly Daily Mail column.
“He is also a far more ruthless and frankly nastier figure than the public appreciates.”
He closed out with threatening to leave Britain if Johnson made it to the top job and added: “Only in the star crazed frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high – and he is utterly unfit to go higher still”.
His poor judgement remark no doubt a reference to when in 2009 on being formally informed in advance of an arrest of an MP he told the Police Commission Paul Stephenson he did not regard the arrest as common sense and wanted “convincing evidence” it was warranted which prompted a formal inquiry into alleged political interference. Or perhaps inappropriate comments seen as racism for which he had to public apologise including the one about the cannibals in PNG and the Queen’s picanninis in her Commonwealth or his reference to his $390,000 extra salary as a columnist for a British newspaper, on top of his mayoral salary, which he described as “chicken feed” at the height of the recession in July 2009.
Johnson knows that while he has nurtured his figure of fun to get him the mass popularity, he will have to do a lot more to be seen as a serious contender for the high office. That transition began at Birmingham from the mayhem of his arrival to his formal speech which did include hilarity that drew raucous applause and laughter but was also interspersed with the serious including an outline of his achievements for the city of London and city plans for the future.
The general election is due in 2015 and Johnson is committed to the mayoral role till 2016 but anything could happen in the interim as the momentum continues. In Birmingham, Johnson he would not try to get elected to parliament before 2016, although he later joked – or not – he sometimes breaks his promises.
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