- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
July 13, 2012 8:31 pm
Boris Johnson bellowed at me as I was travelling to work on the Tube the other day. He did it again on the escalators as I left the station. It is even happening above ground; friends report Boris bellowing at bus stops, too. It turns out to be a new public service message to commuters about the Olympics. For the next few weeks there’ll be a Boris bulletin at all major stations. If we ever succumb to a dictatorship, this is how it will be: public information announcements by some Dear Leader telling us to stand clear of the doors, get a haircut, or be on our guard for White Russian subversives. As Orwell might have put it: It was a dull, wet morning in July and the clocks were just striking for a bonus.
The announcement itself was about a website to help commuters plan around the chaos of their journey during the Olympic weeks – although at first hurried listen he seemed to be saying, “Hi folks, this is the mayor. The Olympics are coming and they are going to be great, except for you. Whatever you do, stay off the trains.” The website, getaheadofthegames.com, is a decent idea, though hardly so astonishing as to require the bumptious tones of the London mayor at all public spaces. Transport for London may not be up to much, but station announcements it can do.
So why did we need the Dear Mayor’s dulcet tones? Three answers suggest themselves. The first is that, knowing Londoners will get miffed seeing him swanking along in priority lanes while they are spending hours in queues, he wants to be personally associated with anything they might consider designed to help them. The second is that his own voice might grab more attention. The third is that he is a towering egomaniac determined to develop a cult of personality that will one day sweep him into Downing Street. And the correct answer? All of the above.
One might imagine the Dear Mayor updating the announcements each day, after he’s scuttled back to his office from a tough afternoon watching the synchronised swimming semi-finals, to offer updates for the journey home. “This is the mayor. Stay away from London Bridge – it’s a shambles.” Except that at the point when things go wrong, the Dear Mayor will probably see the value in leaving the announcements to minions. Sic transit gloria Johnson.
Yet the curious thing about the personality cult the Beloved Mayor is building around himself is that it is not historically something that delivers the top prize to politicians. It’s fine when you are running for Mayor of London, when no one has the slightest idea what you do and which is widely seen as a comedy role for politicians. But when it comes to the premiership, people tend to be suspicious of those colourful types known universally by their first names. We may love them on Have I Got News for You, but that doesn’t mean we’re about to entrust them with the missile codes. When the show is Have I Got Nukes for You, we prefer someone who is less of a blast.
Some PMs can develop a cult following and even build an “ism” around their ideology. But it normally comes after they secure the job and, more often than not, these are leading indicators of a premiership about to go wrong. Mrs Thatcher won power as Mrs T; only later did she become “Maggie”, and it was all downhill from there.
Present the voters and – more notably – MPs with a messianically charismatic figure and the instinctive reaction is to opt instead for someone who mixes a good gin and tonic and is able to say “turned out nice again.” It’s Major over Heseltine; Douglas-Home over Hailsham; Duncan-Smith over Portillo; Healey over Benn. We just don’t care for these shouty bounders with a sense of their own destiny. It’s the same instinct that made Britons reject Mosley and his blackshirts. British understatement has its advantages after all.
Then again, if I’m wrong, we are all getting a taste of the future. We’ll have holographic avatars of Boris at every GP surgery. “Hi folks, this is your leader. Stay away from the NHS – it’s shockingly underfunded. Don’t get caught out. Visit our new website, getaheadofyourgallstones.com, and plan your operation abroad.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.