Tomorrow at 10am, if we're lucky, Boris Johnson will finally tell the world whether he wants to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. According to his blog a couple of days ago, it was a definite yes – for about 10 minutes. The article suddenly disappeared from the front page, although it stayed in the archive until this morning. Perhaps he panicked and backed out; perhaps he wanted to tease us, to whet our appetites before the big announcement. Either way, we’ll know tomorrow.
He’s right to think it over carefully – and the armies of Boris fans egging him on would do well to reconsider, too. More so than any other Tory, a bid for Mayor gives Boris a serious dilemma, and could very well ruin his career.
Until now, Boris’s buffoonish streak has been a help. The scatty dress-sense, the souffléed hair, the faintly loopy writing style: it’s given him a cult popularity. It’s also helped him to survive in a harsh political world, and one which hasn’t been desperately friendly to Tories for the past decade. There are parts of Britain where people would rather stick pins in their eyes than vote Conservative – but Boris is a household name across the country, and even if people don’t agree with him, they find him amusing and likeable.
All of that would have to go if Boris ran for Mayor of London. It’s one thing having a loveable nutter livening up our TV screens, but do Londoners want a nutter to get his hands on real power? Boris knows that if he wants to be a credible challenger to Ken, he needs to emerge from the buffoon cocoon, transformed into a serious and professional politician.
There’s no doubt that he could manage it. Under the mass of unkempt blondness, there’s a top-quality brain. But right now, Boris must be asking himself whether or not it’s worth the risk. Because once the disorganised, schoolboy charm is stripped away, what you’re left with is an articulate, principled libertarian Tory. And while I mean that as a sincere compliment to Mr Johnson, I don’t think his politically-diverse fan base would warm to the new image. Libertarian Tories are a welcome part of our political landscape, but they don’t play well on the sofas of the nation on a Friday evening. Boris would very quickly fade, and turn into just another politician.
If he became Mayor of London, of course, it wouldn’t matter. He might have jacked in a popular and carefully-crafted media persona, but in return, he’d hold a position of responsibility and power. That’s a no-brainer for any ambitious MP.
The danger, though, is what would happen if he lost – and that is by far the most likely outcome. In 2000, Ken Livingstone’s personal popularity took him to a decisive victory, despite being an independent. In 2004, as the official Labour candidate, he won hands-down, although Labour had slipped in the polls with the Iraq war fresh in people’s memories. In 2008, Labour will have a clean slate and a clear lead – Ken will take an awful lot of beating, however good the Conservative or Lib Dem candidates are.
So where does that leave Boris in May 2008? A failed candidate for mayor; he’s ditched his irreverent charm, and become just another politician. He’s been condemned as a lightweight by his opponents, had all his gaffes (Liverpool, Papua New Guinea) reprinted in large type, and this time, as a contender for major office, we didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s sacrificed an awful lot, and gained nothing. It’s a hell of a gamble!
If Boris is serious about frontline politics, his best bet is to work his way quietly up the ranks of the Conservative parliamentary party. He can gradually blend in the hard-headedness that a frontbencher needs, without needing to perform an abrupt, public about-turn. If it still doesn’t work out, then at least he has a long and happy career in media and broadcasting to look forward to. By contrast, running for Mayor of London is madness.
Boris fans should leave the Facebook groups, and take their name off the petitions. “Boris for Mayor” might appeal to you now, but in a year’s time, it’ll have gone sour.