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Whatever else the Olympics may achieve, they will spread the fame of Boris Johnson. A few days ago the editor of a Swiss magazine rang and asked me to explain the “magic” of Mr Johnson. The editor had seen the mayor of London on YouTube, telling some schoolchildren where the Olympic rings come from.
Although Mr Johnson knows how to cast his spell on audiences, he is actually not so much a magician as a schoolmaster who can pull off the rewarding trick of being frivolous and serious at the same time. The mayor has not forgotten what it is like to be a pupil. He knows how grateful we feel if, instead of boring us to tears with a solemn lecture, full of appeals to our sense of responsibility, he tells us jokes and engages our sense of irresponsibility.
In his famous “wiff waff” speech at the end of the Beijing Olympics, the mayor managed both to suggest the essential ridiculousness of games such as ping pong and to boast that the British have invented or codified almost every international sport. “Other nations, the French, looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to have dinner, we looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to play wiff waff. That is why London is the sporting capital of the world.”
Even Gordon Brown could be seen laughing uproariously at this. Mr Johnson had been boastful, but no one minded because he had also been amusing and did not seem to take himself too seriously.
This week the mayor had to say a few words in praise of the Olympic village. It was not an exciting message – few mayoral messages are – but he flung himself with gusto into the task of creating some comic embroidery.
“It is considerably more luxurious than Center Parcs. It is swankier than the most swanky Marbella timeshare and I think it has a much rosier long-term economic future that a Marbella timeshare.”
Nick Clegg spoke next, and it was back to the coercive platitudes to which our leaders generally resort when they feel it is time for a bit of moral uplift. “The country will be with the athletes every single step of the way.” To which some of his listeners felt like responding: “I’m not so sure about that.”
Mr Johnson is the man with the rhetorical gifts to be optimistic about the Olympics, while also indicating to those of us of an anarchic or satirical temperament that he knows how we feel. People sometimes ask what the mayor has done for London and the answer is that, in part because he does not have very many powers, he has not done very much – unless thanks to him we end up with a decent new airport in the Thames estuary.
But it is only fair to add that Mr Johnson has fulfilled his ambassadorial function with a kind of genius. Whether he is standing up for bankers or for the Olympics, he disarms criticism by sounding funny.
Mr Johnson employs the same tone on the frequent occasions when he teases David Cameron and George Osborne. Without actually saying so, he manages to imply that he finds them and their policies ridiculous. If the mayor has a good Olympics, in which he addresses the entire world, Tory MPs are bound to wonder if he is the man they need in order to reach the wider British public that refused to vote for them at the last general election.
Gawky but honest
Am I alone in feeling a degree of sympathy for David Gauke, the tax minister? The poor man has been pilloried for saying it is “morally wrong” to get a discount from your plumber by paying him in cash, in order that he in turn can avoid paying tax.
Mr Gauke certainly showed a degree of naivety in saying this. Like many members of the government, he appears to have little idea of how other people live. I rang a shire Tory of unimpeachable integrity and she said: “I wouldn’t want people to do it on a large scale, but I’ve always paid all my cleaners in cash. I doubt very much whether they are swizzling the exchequer because I doubt whether they earn enough to be liable for tax.”
But although Mr Gauke sounded naive, he also sounded honest. Is there no place for honesty in politics? I have only had one long conversation with him, at a dinner held by the think-tank Politeia, but he struck me as a man of modest, old-fashioned integrity as well as expert knowledge. Don’t balk at Gauke.
The writer is the author of ‘Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson’