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Britain

London Mayor Boris Johnson given rock star welcome by Conservatives

Johnson's arrival at Conservative conference attracts media scrum and hero worship from members, but he asserts loyalty to David Cameron

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 4:04am

Britain's Conservative party gave maverick London Mayor Boris Johnson a rock star welcome at its annual conference. But while he left the prime minister, David Cameron, in the shade, it is still uncertain if he is a real threat.

Johnson, still riding high on the success of the London Olympics, was mobbed by supporters chanting "Boris! Boris" as he arrived by train on Monday in Birmingham, central England.

He later received two standing ovations at a fringe meeting.

And despite the mayor's claims that he is not interested in the premiership for now, it seemed more like a campaign rally for Cameron's job.

But while Cameron is struggling in the polls and the British economy is flatlining, activists and lawmakers still appear wary of believing the party's future really lies with the blond mop-topped Johnson.

"We came here to be entertained, as you are never sure what Boris is going to say," Conservative activist Sue Lissimore said as she joined a queue to see Johnson. "But I believe you need someone a little bit more sensible to be prime minister."

Beverly Davies, a Conservative local councillor, said she had come to see Johnson because she wanted him to sign a souvenir torch that she carried during the Olympics.

But when asked if she thought Johnson, who was re-elected as mayor in May, should be prime minister, she said: "We like him just as he is."

Activist Haden Jackson-Robbins agreed that Johnson was "definitely one to watch" among the centre-right Conservatives, who are in currently in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. "But if it was a choice between David Cameron and Boris I would stick with Cameron," he said.

The fringe meeting, hosted by a right-wing website and billed as "Boris 2012: Re-elected and Olympotastic" - started with a promotional film entitled "Mission Imborisible" featuring the mayor apparently doing stunts on a bike.

He then regaled the audience of around 1,500 people with stories like his meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and led the audience in question-and-answer session.

Johnson proclaimed his loyalty for Cameron, saying that he was one of the first people to back him during the 2005 Conservative leadership contest.

"It is sometimes inevitable that the mayor of a great city will find himself saying things that do seem at variance with national policies," Johnson said, citing his opposition to the expansion of London's Heathrow airport.

"No one, as a result, should have any cause to doubt my admiration for David Cameron."

The pair were contemporaries at Eton College and Oxford University, where they were members of the Bullingdon Club, an invitation-only dining society. But Johnson's fevered welcome underscored his star-power compared to Cameron, who is facing economic worries, Conservative divisions over Europe and pressure from right-wingers.

The dishevelled appearance and self-deprecating humour of Johnson have made him a cult figure within the party and outside too. A poll in The Observer newspaper gave him a net plus 30 rating, compared to minus 21 for Cameron.

But Johnson, who has not been a lawmaker since 2008, for the moment lacks the strong powerbase within parliament that he needs to mount a serious leadership challenge.

Cameron himself says he does not feel threatened. He said of Johnson at the weekend: "I think he has got a huge amount to offer, a huge amount to give and I encourage him to do that."

But veteran cabinet minister Ken Clarke played down any threat to Cameron.

"Boris has been created as a rival because he has had such favourable publicity over the summer. My advice to him is to calm down," he said on Monday.

"There isn't the remotest chance of the leadership becoming vacant."

 

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