This contest goes far beyond personalities: It is a struggle for the very soul of conservatism, with London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, striving to show that it can be a joyful, optimistic and life-enhancing creed—and not just the least bad form of economic management.
The prime minister feels threatened by Johnson because, unlike him, he knows how to make an emotional link with the British people. During the London Olympics, his showmanship captured a worldwide audience and secured him a walk-on part in the American election campaign when he rebuked Mitt Romney for doubting whether London was ready to hold the games.
As the champion of Merry England conservatism, Johnson, 49, has shown in two successive mayoral elections his ability to win votes from the opposition Labour Party.
David Cameron, the prime minister and Conservative Party leader, has never managed to do that. Cameron has many gifts, but making ordinary people feel he is on their side is not one of them.
If Cameron fails to win the general election set for May 2015, the cry will go up to replace him with someone who can reach the wider public, namely the larger-than-life Johnson. Cameron has already failed once, in May 2010, to win an overall majority and is likely to lead the Conservatives to a heavy defeat in this May’s European elections.
So in Westminster an operation is under way to nobble Johnson and to ensure that he will be unable to take over when Cameron falters. This operation is led by George Osborne, Cameron’s right-hand man, who is determined that when a vacancy occurs at the top, it will not be filled by the mayor of London.
Osborne harbors hopes of becoming prime minister himself. As chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, he takes credit for Britain’s recent economic revival and has an iron grip on the Conservative Party machine.
What Osborne lacks, even more than Cameron, is the ability to win over at least some of the large number of voters who believe the Conservatives care only about the rich. A Conservative MP assured me that Osborne’s chances of becoming the party’s next leader are therefore zero.
But that is not how Osborne sees it, and he has launched a plan to neutralize Johnson by letting it be known through The Times that he and Cameron are keen to see the mayor come back into Parliament in the general election in May 2015, and to play a full part in the campaign.
Johnson dismissed this offer as “b******t” and accused his opponents of “trying to tie me in.” One of Johnson’s supporters said a “dirty tricks plot” had been hatched to make the mayor share the blame for a Conservative defeat in 2015 and thus become unable to present himself as the change the party needs.
Osborne had attempted to turn Johnson into a cog in the party machine, and Johnson could not bear this. For part of the essence of Merry England conservatism is that instead of trying to control people’s every move, it trusts them to react spontaneously to events.
It is a politics for free men and women, who, instead of becoming enslaved to some dreary, politically correct orthodoxy that ignores the vagaries of human nature, will laugh it to scorn. Johnson devotees believe freedom should not be pursued because it will make us richer (though the chances are that it will) but because it is more enjoyable and more grown-up.
“Prigs and control freaks cannot bear this kind of politics,” says a Johnson admirer. “But prigs and control freaks have helped to dissuade millions of ordinary people from even bothering to vote.”
Johnson himself cannot bear to be imprisoned by fixed political positions. He hates the idea of erecting massive fortifications that may turn out, like the Maginot Line, to be worse than useless, because the enemy outflanks them.
The Merry England style of politics is not a nostalgic hankering for an ideal past but a subversive and disrespectful reaction to the pieties of the present day. That is what makes Johnson so entirely different from Cameron.
Commentators sometimes imagine that because both men went to Eton College, the school attended by 19 of Britain’s prime ministers, they must be the same kind of Conservative. This is a mistake. For although, like many Etonians, both men are highly competitive and expect to end up running the show, they are in most respects polar opposites.
Cameron is by upbringing and temperament an insider. His instinct is to make the best of the framework of rules he has inherited. He is a Christian whose Anglican faith leads him to support marriage. In the end, he will always do what the Establishment thinks is prudent.
After failing to gain an outright victory in 2010, Cameron formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, because at a time of economic crisis this seemed the safest thing to do. He ruled out the riskier option of leading a minority government and calling a second general election in a few months’ time.
Johnson is by upbringing and temperament an outsider. He delights in defying conventional wisdom and made his reputation as a journalist in Brussels by mocking the European Union, at a time when most correspondents still felt they should respect it. His instinct is to ignore any rules that do not suit him.
He is a pagan who loves the ancient world of Greece and Rome, before the onset of Christian guilt, and has described fornication as “the supreme recreation of a civilized society.” During the Monica Lewinsky affair, he defended Bill Clinton, arguing in The Daily Telegraph that politicians were justified in lying about sex. And in his book Johnson’s Life of London, he admires Winston Churchill’s “volcanic appetite for risk-taking and self-promotion.”
Unlike most Old Etonians, Johnson is prepared to risk making a fool of himself and has often done so. It’s easy to imagine him joining in with morris dancing, whereas Cameron would be too worried about people finding it absurd and would make a polite excuse not to do it.
Which is one reason why the public feels a much closer bond with Johnson than with Cameron. The mayor’s vulnerability, his willingness to shock, allows people to feel closer to him. The prime minister has excellent manners (though he is prone to losing his temper), but these in the end cut him off from people: He is self-sufficient to the point of impermeability.
The British press is obsessed by the question of when Johnson will come back to Parliament and as a result become eligible to run for the leadership.
He left the House of Commons in 2008, just after being elected to City Hall, but would probably feel free to seek a return before 2016, when his second mayoral terms ends, and for a year or so to be both mayor and an MP.
But this apparently crucial question of timing is no more than a technicality. For as friends of Johnson point out, any Conservative leadership election that excluded him as one of the candidates would be seen as illegitimate. He will have to be on the ballot paper or the whole thing will look like a fix.
As one senior Conservative MP told Newsweek, “Any attempt to stop Boris standing will be completely futile. Even if we manage to hang on in 2015, we are going to need new thinking and some electoral magic if we are to have any chance of winning again in 2020.”
Many Conservatives are furious that the “Boris issue” has become so consuming. One Cabinet minister has called on Osborne and Johnson to “get back in their box” and stop being so “silly and unhelpful.”
Certainly, when Johnson needs to return to Parliament to run for the leadership, it will not be hard to find a Conservative MP who is prepared to make way for him, in a seat with a Conservative association that would be delighted to select him as its by-election candidate.
A vote of confidence in Cameron’s leadership has to be held when 15 percent of his MPs write letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee—which represents all Conservative MPs—demanding one.
Cameron is already deeply unpopular with many of his own MPs, who hate being in a coalition. They complain that he and Osborne ignore what they have to say and are in many cases resentful about being overlooked for ministerial posts. So if the Conservatives do badly in 2015, Cameron will most likely recognize that he has to go, and if he doesn’t, he will probably be pushed out.
Any attempt to hold a snap leadership election, in order to exclude Johnson, would again be seen as illegitimate. In 2005, the party was allowed many months to decide whether to go for Cameron or one of the other contenders. Something similar will have to be done next time.
So some of Johnson’s supporters argue that it would make good sense for him not to come back to the Commons in the general election in 2015. Merry England needs a champion who is not implicated in the present government’s highly professional but also distinctly un-merry politics.
Johnson’s quite different form of conservatism will get its chance only if and when Cameron’s has failed.