Cameron's star player, London Mayor Boris Johnson, could be a liability

Bicycle-riding London mayor, considered a 'star player' by British prime minister, could also cause trouble for him and their fellow Conservatives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 6:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 6:44am

London Mayor Boris Johnson's decision to run in next year's general election presents UK Prime Minister David Cameron with a gift-wrapped electoral asset that could turn into a liability.

Johnson, a Conservative like Cameron, has demonstrated voter appeal by winning two terms as mayor in a city dominated by the opposition Labour Party. He also runs the risk of distracting from the Tory campaign as speculation mounts over his desire to succeed Cameron as party leader - and possibly as premier.

Cameron welcomed Johnson's decision, even though it is likely to reignite speculation about his future as leader.

"Great news that Boris plans to stand at next year's general election. I've always said I want my star players on the pitch," Cameron, who was holidaying in Portugal with his family, said on Twitter.

A YouGov poll in June showed that voters see Johnson as the person who would make the best leader if Cameron stepped down. Johnson had repeatedly shrugged off suggestions of loftier political ambitions, once declaring that he had about as much chance of becoming prime minister as being reincarnated as an olive. Asked in 2010 whether he could one day become the country's prime minister, Johnson said: "I'm more likely to be decapitated by a Frisbee or locked in a disused fridge."

The bicycle-riding mayor, who made his name as a journalist and television panel-show presenter, has an appeal that goes beyond traditional Conservative supporters. His instantly recognisable shock of blond hair, unpredictability and off-the-cuff comments have won him backers among a public alienated by traditional politicians.

"It could all go horribly wrong, and that's one of the reasons people are interested in Boris, because they feel there's the possibility of catastrophe, which makes it more interesting," Andrew Gimson, the author of Boris, a biography of the mayor, said. "Wherever he appears electioneering, it's much more likely a crowd of eager people will gather and want to see part of the Boris show."

Even as the prime minister praised Johnson's decision to run, bookmakers Ladbrokes and William Hill cut the odds on Johnson becoming the next Tory leader, installing him as favourite over Home Secretary Theresa May.

New York-born Johnson came from behind in the opinion polls in 2012 to win a second term as London mayor as the Tories lost seats to Labour in local elections across England and Wales. With 5.8 million voters, that gives him the largest personal constituency of any British politician. His profile was boosted by the success of the 2012 London Olympics. Cameron needs an electoral boost with nine months left until the election. Even though economic growth is on track to be the fastest among Group of Seven nations this year, wage growth continues to trail inflation. Immigration, another issue anti-EU UK Independence Party has highlighted, is near the top of voters' concerns, polls indicate.

Johnson used a speech in London last week to court Euro-sceptic Tories by raising the bar for Cameron's bid to reform the EU, suggesting the UK has nothing to fear from an exit. While aiding Johnson's leadership ambitions and helping win back defectors to the anti-EU UK Independence Party, the strategy may alienate some of the voters the Tories need to win over in swing districts. "I know Cameron said he wants star players in his team, but he'll be hoping he won't get any tackles from behind," Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, said.

"I suppose he thinks it's better to have Boris in the tent rather than outside the tent, but he can still cause trouble. He's going to cause a lot of difficulty for Cameron over the EU."

The Conservatives had 33 per cent support in the latest regular YouGov poll, compared with 38 per cent for Labour. The UK Independence Party, which has no seats in parliament, had 12 per cent support. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron's junior coalition partners, had 8 per cent.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, said Johnson's decision to stand shows that there's a calculating political mind beneath the devil-may-care public image. "The thing about Boris Johnson is, despite all the clumsiness and bumbliness, he's actually a really, really ambitious politician," Clegg said in his weekly phone-in show on LBC radio. "He treats his political ambition a bit like he treats his hair - he wants everyone to think that he doesn't really care, but he actually really does care, so he'll have to come clean a bit more about the fact that he's a much more conventional politician than he likes to appear."

Johnson, 50, was a contemporary of Cameron at Eton College, the boarding school near London that has educated 19 British prime ministers, and at Oxford University, where they were both members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, which has had a reputation for heavy drinking and smashing up restaurants.

Johnson began his career as a journalist at The Times newspaper, which fired him for falsifying quotes.

He later edited the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine and was forced to apologise to the city of Liverpool in 2004 for an editorial that accused its residents of wallowing in "victim status" over the murder of hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq.

Johnson soon hit more serious trouble when newspapers reported that he'd had a four-year affair, leading his mistress to have an abortion. He initially denied the story, and when it was confirmed, Conservative leader Michael Howard fired him as a government arts spokesman for having lied.

In a classic moment of British political life, Johnson stood on his front porch and assured reporters that he and his wife were working out their problems, then turned around to find that she had locked him out.

"There are no disasters - only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters," he was quoted as saying around that time.

His talent for turning pratfalls into triumphs comes close to genius. During the highly successful 2012 London Olympics, which were considered a major feather in his cap, Johnson managed to get stuck in midair on a zip line, his portly figure dangling for several minutes like a large, helpless baby. He kept waving the British flags in his hands and cracking jokes. The crowd loved it.

"He currently seems to get an amount of leeway with the British public that no other politician gets because he's likeable, popular and authentic," Anthony Wells, a pollster for YouGov.

"The question is whether people continue to like him enough to see past those faults that would be extremely damaging for another politician."

"The guy, he's a character, he's not quite like others," said Sam Boxall, an accountant, as he finished a lunchtime pint of lager. "He's not poker-faced. You can relate to him.'

Bloomberg, Reuters, McClatchy Tribune