Boris Johnson: Introducing Britain's Next Conservative Prime Minister
It's been another embarrassing couple of weeks for Mayor of London Boris Johnson. First he attracted the ire of feminists by telling the Malaysian prime minister that women go to University to find husbands, then it was revealed that the contract for a loss-making cable car project he championed may gag London officials from criticising the United Arab Emirates' rather medieval monarchy. You think the man's political career must be floundering? Perhaps a quick introduction is in order.
Take the wit of Winston Churchill after one whiskey too many, add a frighteningly sharp intellect, mix in the born-to-rule swagger of the notorious Bullingdon Club aristocratic drinking society, get Dennis the Menace from the Beano to give the man a makeover, and inject a thick pint of driving political ambition: ladies and gentleman, allow me to present to you Boris "The Teflon Toff" Johnson, Britain's next Conservative Prime Minister.
Johnson's career has been colourful from the start. Educated at Eton, and a classics scholar at Oxford University, Johnson abandoned a career in management consultancy after just a few weeks claiming that the graphs sent him to sleep, and was then sacked from his first job in journalism at the Times for fabricating a quote.
However, he bounced back. Over the next two decades, Johnson became one of the most powerful figures in the British media. He was elected as a Conservative member of Parliament in 2001, but continued to serve as editor of the influential Spectator Magazine and built himself a huge public profile with his buffoon humour on TV shows such as comedy staple Have I Got News For You.
Johnson's refusal to toe the Conservative Party-line and made him a walking nightmare for the party's leadership. At times he seemed intent on alienating everyone he could, famously answering a question on the murder of engineer Ken Bigley in Iraq by accusing his home city of Liverpool of "wallowing" in victimhood since the Hillsborough football disaster of the 1990s, and describing the city of Portsmouth as "too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs."
Despite mistakes that would have sent lesser men to their political graves — like arguing that Africa would benefit from a return to British colonialism, lying about cheating on his wife, and admitting that he supported future Prime Minister David Cameron's 2005 leadership campaign out of "cynical self-interest" (and these are just the tip of the iceberg) — somehow his popularity continued to rise.
In 2008 he ran for mayor in traditionally Labour-dominated London and beat two-term incumbent Ken Livingstone. His populist policies and unconventional application of conservative principles — "In 1904, 20% of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can't turn the clock back to 1904, what's the point of being a Conservative?" — struck a chord with Londoners, and in 2012 he beat Livingstone again to win a second term.
The success of the 2012 London Olympic Games has further lifted his public profile, and his stewardship of Britain's only metropolis has allowed him to prove that he has executive competence. Tories frustrated by what they perceive as PM Cameron's timid style of government increasingly are increasingly awed by Johnson's ability to stay popular while advancing his own brand of strident metropolitan conservatism. While Cameron's position is secure for the time being, if the Conservatives fail to win a majority at the next election, whispers about Johnson's leadership potential are likely to move from excited whispers to loud clamour.
The revelation that the Emirates Air Line cable-car contract might restrict mayoral criticism of the UAE will barely break Johnson's stride. The story has little emotional resonance with the British electorate, and the UAE's archaic monarchy is generally seen as a better option than likely alternatives. The element of the story that would be most poisonous for an American politician — that it might be a breach of contract to involve an Israeli company in the project — would elicit little more than a shrug off most British voters, who are often critical of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.
Boris Johnson once described trying to make former Prime Minister Tony Blair's failings stick to him as being "like trying to pin jelly to a wall." In reality, Johnson is an elusive target for his opponents, demonstrating election-winning popularity despite embarrassments, and skillfully using his bumbling persona to set himself apart from other politicians in the eyes of a public sick of political spin. He is "a wise guy playing the fool to win." In the years to come the "Boris" brand will go global. A word of advice: take that scruffy school boy demeanour with a pinch of salt, or prepare to be unprepared.