Does Boris Johnson want to be prime minister?
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Boris Johnson has a squirrel problem. “One of the singers in One Direction was attacked by a squirrel in Battersea Park and was actually disabled,” the mayor of London laments. He would much rather the capital was inhabited by peace-loving native red squirrels than the pop-star-bothering grey.
“One of the few mad ideas that I’ve not been able to put into practice was to reintroduce the red squirrel,” he says. “I got absolutely obsessed with it for a while but they told me it would basically involve creating a huge aviary patrolled by G4S security people to shoot all the grey squirrels that tried to get in.”
Johnson sighs and leans back in his chair in his City Hall office. Over his shoulder is Tower Bridge and the evolving skyline of the Square Mile, in front of him a vast map of the capital: the canvas upon which Britain’s most idiosyncratic politician currently operates.
As he settles into his second term as Tory mayor, the man once dismissed as “Buffoon Boris” has now clocked more than five years as head of Europe’s financial capital, during which time he has won re-election, presided over the hosting of the London Olympics, and seen the capital strengthen its hold on the UK economy.
But for the first time, Johnson makes a startling admission. He is starting to have the first pangs of regret that he is not able to take part in the biggest debates shaping the future of Britain and its role in the world: matters of war and peace and not just policy on public transport, crime, housing and squirrels.
“During the whole Syria thing, for the first time in years I wished I was in parliament,” he says. “I have to admit that I watched that and I thought … I wished. I wished.” Two miles down the river at Westminster his words will be seen as a clear signal: Boris is eyeing a return to national politics and a shot at the job he has always coveted – prime minister.
The 49-year-old London mayor shifts uneasily when talk turns to his ambition. “My ambitions are glutted, my ambitions are … ” he says amid a tussling of hair. “Anyway, go on.”
Let’s start with his current job. Johnson reluctantly rules out the idea of a third mayoral term after 2016, although colleagues recall that he initially ruled out a second term. “I’ve said never,” he says. “I think you have to be realistic about your political lifespan.”
But Johnson is referring to his political lifespan in London politics. Few seriously think that when Cameron finally quits – or is forced out as Tory leader – Johnson will not be in the fray to take over his party.
Will he confirm he still wants to be prime minister? “Who said I ever did?” Johnson exclaims, before reminding himself a second later that his sister Rachel let the cat out of the bag in a recent television profile. To deflect attention from this awkwardly persistent question, the mayor chooses to update his preferred rugby metaphor that “if the ball came loose in the scrum” he might try to grab it.
“Let me tell you about the ball and the scrum,” he says. “I want to tell you exactly where the ball is: the ball is currently at the feet of the scrum. I am bound into the pack and we are surging towards the line for a pushover try. And I genuinely think that. Labour had a one-point lead the other day and it’s not going to be enough. So that’s my role: bound in, driving for the line.”
Friends insist that Johnson means what he says: he expects and wants Cameron to win the next election. At this year’s Tory conference – his usual 24-hour whirlwind of rally speeches, boosterism for London and mischievous jokes about “Dave” – he promises to put in a good performance for the team.
He is even scrupulously loyal when asked whether Cameron has delivered on Johnson’s assertion – made before the 2005 election – that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”. According to Johnson, Cameron’s administration has more than met the challenge: “I am sure it is a medically attested fact that the population of this country continues to expand in every direction and that is – in some ways – a good thing and in some ways less good.”
But he knows that even if Cameron wins the 2015 general election, the prime minister will not go on for ever. And although the mayor insists he is “tragically devoid of ambition”, colleagues say the prospect of becoming Tory leader and prime minister still burns within him.
“About three years ago he wouldn’t talk about the leadership but now he’s much more open about the leadership of the Conservative party,” says an intimate of the mayor. “He will discuss it as a possibility – before he would just not discuss it at all.”
Johnson’s record, style and demeanour as mayor of Britain’s multicultural, money-fuelled world city gives perhaps the best guide as to what he might offer the Conservative party and the country should he ever take on the top job.
He has made the mayoralty more powerful, bolting extra responsibilities in housing on to his transport and crime briefs, and concentrating power in a small group around him. Johnson has become chair of the Olympic Legacy corporation and the city’s local enterprise partnership, as well as bringing his deputy mayors into key positions in London government bodies.
Ben Rogers, director of the Centre for London think-tank, says: “He’s pretty centralist. If Ken Livingstone [Johnson’s Labour predecessor as mayor] had done it there would have been an outcry about control-freakery.”
He is by turns praised and denigrated for his leadership style, which is that of the hands-off executive chairman, in contrast to the technocratic Livingstone. Kit Malthouse, Johnson’s deputy mayor for business and enterprise, says: “He’s a good delegator. He’s not all over you all the time trying to micromanage. He picks people and has confidence in them to do the job.”
Johnson himself is happy to confirm the characterisation with another sporting metaphor: “My general approach to life is the half-time rugby pep talk – ‘We can do it’ and all that sort of stuff … Sometimes you do have to be frank with people and be hard but I really do try to restrict that.”
It was an ethos that did him no favours at the outset of his first term, when he lost a succession of advisers to scandal and power struggles. Subsequent appointments have turned out to be less combustible, with safe hands such as Sir Edward Lister, a veteran of London borough politics, and Gerard Lyons, a respected City economist.
His recruitment of competent lieutenants has not meant a slackening of his own pace. Johnson says he rises at 5.25 every morning and has never worked harder in his life – apart from a year of intensive study when he was 16. The effort meant he was “ever after” able to rely on what he had learnt for academic purposes: “I took on more intellectual weight and that was all I needed. I coasted through university.”
Johnson is said to have an almost photographic memory and devours books. His office resembles a chaotic library, with piles of hardback books stacked up on his desk. He is currently reading Joseph Stiglitz on inequality, a reminder of Johnson’s paternalistic Tory side which appeals to voters in an unequal society such as London. “Stiglitz makes a very bold assertion that inequality is economically inefficient and that it’s bad for society,” Johnson says. He is unconvinced by the economic argument but says: “I think the Conservatives need to talk about inequality of opportunity – they need to talk about increasing people’s life chances and they need to talk about outcomes.”
Aspects of his early life might suggest an archetypal Tory: an old Etonian who went to Oxford university, becoming president of the Oxford Union, the university’s famous debating society, as well as a member of its riotous upper-class dining society, the Bullingdon Club.
But the social liberalism that is part of his appeal in London – he attends Gay Pride events, is pro-immigration and has attacked the government’s welfare cap, claiming it could lead to “Kosovo-style” cleansing of poor people from the capital – make him a somewhat curious hero for the Conservative right.
While Johnson’s libertarianism does chime with some on the right, it is perhaps his outspoken views on Europe – and the alleged imperial pretensions of the EU elite – which draw most admiration. But is the mayor really as eurosceptic as he sounds?
Johnson spent time in Brussels as a child in the 1970s, when his father worked for the Commission, and was a Daily Telegraph EU correspondent in the 1990s. He is scathing about eurocrats, and tells the FT the social chapter is “complete bollocks”, the Common Agricultural Policy “monstrous” and the euro “terrible”. Yet his journalism in Brussels also showed a warm and subtle understanding of Europe’s cultural differences and what made the place tick.
He says that he would be prepared to vote for Britain to leave in a proposed 2017 referendum if the EU did not reform itself but his reservations are obvious: leaving the EU could be bad for London and Britain.
Would he vote to leave if there was a referendum tomorrow? “The real problem is the political signal that it sends, particularly the signal that it sends to foreign investors,” he says. “That’s why I hesitate.”
Johnson lists investment in the capital’s once-creaking infrastructure as one of his biggest achievements as mayor but projects such as the Emirates Air Line, a cable car spanning the Thames, and the Barclays cycle hire scheme have drawn flak for their unexpected costs to the taxpayer, as well as their limited impact on the capital’s large-scale transport needs.
To some, though, Johnson’s success at maintaining levels of transport investment is achievement enough at a time of big cuts in public spending. Tony Travers, an academic at the London School of Economics, says: “Ken Livingstone had huge increases in funding for transport and other services … For pretty much the whole of the Johnson period in office it’s been constrained.”
Part of Johnson’s answer to questions about his personal legacy came this summer with the publication of his “2020 Vision”, a long-term strategic plan for London given the grandiose subtitle “The Greatest City on Earth: Ambitions for London by Boris Johnson”.
It is a clarion call for greater investment in the country’s most powerful economic region. But its appearance a year into his self-declared final term as mayor leaves him with little time to put its recommendations into action. Asked if he regrets not tackling these fundamental issues in his first term, he says:
“We were all focused on one thing and that was London 2012 … We had to get that right. That brought together all the infrastructure questions, all the boroughs, and you couldn’t conceivably have asked people to focus on something else.”
London’s position as a global financial centre has not come under threat, as many thought it would, following the banking crisis. Does he spy longer-term dangers to its global status?
He notes the strength of New York, Dubai and rising Asian centres such as Mumbai, Shanghai and Singapore. He has also warned of the effect of misguided Brussels legislation on the City. But he questions the spectre of an exodus by disgruntled financiers. “When people come to you and say, ‘Unless something happens on X, Y or Z my lads are off to Singapore’, you respectfully hear them out and very often they have a very good point.
“But it’s quite telling how reluctant, when push comes to shove, Mr X – and particularly Mrs X – are to go.” One reason for their inertia, he says, is London’s comparatively low crime rates. It is a city “where the police are so vigilant that they arrest the progeny of the monarch while lurking in the shrubbery at the Palace,” a reference to overzealous officers nabbing the Duke of York in the Buckingham Palace gardens earlier this month. “That is a safe city. It is not corrupt and that sends very powerful signals around the world.”
Johnson’s political skills and temperament are tested once a month in a three-hour grilling from the London Assembly – the body set up to scrutinise the mayor’s policies. Much of the discussion is focused on the minutiae of London local government, from crime figures to the location of pedestrian crossings: it is not exactly the bearpit of prime minister’s weekly questions in the House of Commons.
But its proceedings were propelled into the headlines this month after a visibly irritated Johnson told a Labour member to “get stuffed” while firemen protesting over cuts cried “lies” from the public gallery. Johnson has sometimes appeared impatient and dismissive of questions in the chamber: he claims the session is “the Paris-Dakar of question times” and “three hours of medieval torture”.
If Johnson is to use his spell as mayor as a political springboard, his dilemma is how exactly to get from City Hall to Downing Street. If Cameron suddenly looked like he was certain to lose the 2015 election, then Johnson would come under pressure to run for parliament at that election, ready to pick up the pieces for the Tories after Cameron’s inevitable resignation.
But the view of Johnson’s closest allies is that Cameron will win in 2015 but may step down as prime minister at some point before the 2020 election – possibly after the proposed European referendum in 2017, possibly a year or so before polling day.
Under that scenario Johnson could serve out his term in City Hall, spend a year or so filling his boots in City boardrooms, writing books or making television documentaries, before a return to parliament in time to give his party an adrenalin shot as it approached the 2020 election.
“I want to do this job to the best of my ability for the next two-and-a-half years and then heaven knows what will happen,” Johnson says. “Maybe I have a future in romantic fiction or whatever.”
Johnson’s friends say that he genuinely has no plan. But they insist that when a vacancy arises, the party would instinctively turn to a politician who has a track record as a winner and “the electoral magic” to win over voters from other parties, as he has in London – since the late 1990s a Labour city.
Some argue that Johnson will never seize the Conservative crown because he was a flop the last time he was an MP at Westminster – from 2001-08 while the Conservatives were in opposition – and because he has no political base or embryonic campaign team there.
Johnson, who represented Henley-on-Thames, says it is “deeply unfair, a complete nonsense” to say that he failed as an MP, recalling his success in winning justice for farmers who wanted to feed swill to pigs and his defence of the right for cyclists to use mobile phones. But despite the defensive joking, one can tell the criticism hurts.
Fellow Tories have described him as something of a loner during his time at Westminster, where his declamatory speaking style bombed in the chamber and his big-name reputation counted for nothing.
His attempt to juggle his job as an MP and editor of The Spectator magazine ended in the bizarre theatre of “Operation Scouse Grovel” (his words), when he was dispatched to Liverpool by the then Tory leader Michael Howard to apologise for an offensive editorial about the city.
Even his admirers at Westminster confirm he has few close friends among Tory MPs nor a band of “Borisites” ready to mobilise on his behalf. However Adam Afriyie, the little-known but ambitious MP for Windsor and an admirer of Johnson, has assembled a leadership campaign organisation which could be quickly retooled to support a Boris leadership bid if the London mayor returns to parliament.
Johnson jokes that he has cut himself off from Westminster. “I’m so isolated, I’m like Colonel Kurtz. I’ve gone upriver,” he says before adding that is the limit of comparisons with the deranged and murderous figure in Apocalypse Now. He insists he has “lots of friends at Westminster” but colleagues say that it is hardly the focal point of his social life.
“If he has time to hang out, it’s not with politicians but with his family: with his wife, his kids, his dad,” says one friend. “If you see him with his kids it’s fantastic. They adore him and he’s very tactile with them.”
Johnson has four children with his wife Marina Wheeler, a barrister and childhood friend whom he met again when they worked in Brussels.
Life in the Johnson household – he has two properties, one in Islington and one in Thame, in his old constituency – is described by one friend as “happily chaotic”. Another says: “He drives an old SUV … it must be at least 15 years old with yoghurt and peanuts squashed into the seats. He’s never changed it.”
His Teflon qualities have been demonstrated through a series of extramarital affairs that would have killed off the careers of most politicians. Might these skeletons pose a problem for a future role? A close colleague says: “The argument has already been tested in two elections and found wanting. The public seems more interested in his policies than his private life.”
Lord Marland, Cameron’s trade envoy and an early Boris supporter, says: “He has confidence in his own place in the world. He doesn’t need a coterie of people around him.”
Apart from his family, those closest to the mayor often include former journalists such as Andrew Gilligan, now the mayor’s “cycling tsar”, Guto Harri, his former press chief, Anthony Browne, his former economic adviser, and Michael Gove, education secretary.
Some Conservative MPs say that neither Johnson’s lacklustre time as an opposition MP nor his lack of a signed-up campaign team will matter a bit when it comes to choosing a successor to Cameron.
“It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have a leadership structure and his record as an MP will be ancient history by the time he stands for leader,” says another admiring Tory MP. “It’s a damaging question but it’s irrelevant. Frankly most MPs don’t care.”
His City Hall experience may also count in his favour. Travers says: “Whatever you think about his style, the truth is he has been mayor of one of the biggest city governments in the world. He has the enormous advantage – unlike Ed Miliband, Tony Blair and David Cameron – that if he were running for the highest office in the land nobody could say he hadn’t ever run anything.”
The relationship with Cameron today is said by friends of the mayor to be in “really good” shape in spite of the public sniping and clear rivalry between the two. Johnson, three years senior to Cameron, still harks back to their days at Eton when he was elected to Pop, the school prefects, whose members are elected by incumbent prefects in the year above, and Cameron was not. At a recent Pop reunion, Johnson entered the room with his hand on brow as if searching for the prime minister and calling: “Where’s Dave?”
“They are rivals but they also socialise together – they have dinner together with their wives,” says a friend of Johnson’s. “They have known each other for almost 40 years. It’s definitely not Blair and Brown. Boris can’t mount a challenge to Dave while he’s prime minister, nor would he want to.”
Polls regularly show Johnson to be the UK’s most popular politician. But voters make a distinction between his likeability and his fitness to occupy Number 10. In a survey in June by Lord Ashcroft’s polling organisation, more thought Cameron or Ed Miliband would make a good prime minister than would Johnson.
Speculation over Johnson’s leadership credentials reached its zenith at last year’s party conference when the mayor, with his profile turbocharged by a successful Olympics, was mobbed by crowds at Birmingham New Street station.
This year the reception is likely to be less frenzied. When he meets the FT, Johnson is planning a conference speech that will tackle England’s lack of devolved powers compared to Scotland and Wales. Not a subject to set Tory pulses racing but an intriguing choice for a politician who has periodically fanned the flames of speculation over his national intentions.
Travers, who chaired a Johnson-appointed commission that came up with the idea of radical tax devolution, says: “There is a big prize for a potential Tory leader in rekindling a loving relationship with the urban north. Would Johnson have a better chance of doing that than most Conservatives? Probably. But it would require a sustained effort to extend his role from the London starting point.”
Johnson displays a willingness to please the public that goes beyond any other senior British politician, a flair for getting himself into trouble that would send shudders through his media handlers or security detail were he ever to reach Number 10.
This tolerance for risk has regularly landed him in trouble, whether referring to the cannibalistic eating habits of Papua New Guineans or dangling from a zipwire. But he also has a knack for surviving “scrapes”.
In 2009 the cameras recorded Johnson comically falling into Deptford Creek while promoting a local voluntary scheme. “At the time, this was seen as evidence of his authenticity and being ‘a good chap,’” says Travers. “Had Gordon Brown fallen into Deptford Creek at the same time, it would have been a metaphor for all his failures.”
Nonetheless, his indiscretions can cause him enormous discomfort. Earlier this year Eddie Mair, a BBC journalist, revived accusations from a series of scandals early in Johnson’s career, including his sacking from The Times for making up a quote, lying to the then Conservative leader Michael Howard over an affair and apparently offering to aid a friend who wanted to beat up a troublesome journalist. Mair pointedly asked a wrongfooted Johnson whether he wasn’t “a nasty piece of work”.
While Johnson was gracious in public about the savaging, arguing that Mair was “perfectly within his rights”, his father Stanley gave an interview denouncing the episode as “disgusting”. Sonia Purnell, author of the biography Just Boris, says it was “a nice cop, nasty cop routine which undermined the interview a bit, so it didn’t really stick to him”.
“Boris doesn’t really like criticism,” says one long-time colleague. “His first reaction if someone has a go at him is to swear a bit and then go and give the person a hug, try to get them back on side.”
Purnell says a combination of “charm and bullying” has had an insidious effect on the way the media scrutinises him. “He has escaped almost any of the scrutiny that you would normally expect for such an ambitious and senior politician.”
Johnson has been unbowed by criticism of his multiple writing commitments while running what he habitually calls “the greatest city in the world”. Now planning a work on Churchill to follow his histories of London and Rome, he is reading widely on the subject. One colleague remarks: “He always says he’s short of money.”
As a good classical scholar, it seems appropriate to ask London’s chief politician with which Roman emperor he most closely associates himself.
The subsequent 30-second pause is the longest in the interview. Eventually, he lights on the grandfather of the lot – Augustus. “I know it’s ridiculous but he was the first. He was programmatic of our civilisation and there would be no attempt to build a single currency in Europe if it wasn’t for the memory of that system he established that kept the continent united for 500 years.”
He was also a builder of empires, master propagandist and a ruthless political operator. We should expect to hear more from Boris Johnson.
James Pickford is the FT’s London and Southeast correspondent. George Parker is the FT’s political editor.
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