It was a classic Boris Johnson moment, something that perhaps serves as a metaphor for his entire career. During the Olympic celebrations last week, the London mayor was riding a zip line through a festival in East London when suddenly his momentum stopped. Stuck 15 feet above a crowd of schoolchildren, Johnson bounced up and down in a suit and crash helmet, waving two Union Jacks. The ordeal lasted just 10 minutes, but online wags quickly Photoshopped the picture of Boris on a wire, showing him as a puppet of Rupert Murdoch (one of his biggest supporters) or lowering himself into 10 Downing Street. None of this, however, will do Boris any harm. Even Prime Minister David Cameron, his most bitter rival, had to concede that only Johnson—the former Fleet Street veteran—could turn a gaffe into an “absolute triumph.”
Don’t let the buffoonery deceive you. Like his mop of blond hair, which he reportedly ruffles before public appearances, Johnson carefully crafts his carefree persona. Over the past four years, he has courted key financial backers in the city and supporters in the suburbs. Johnson is able to recite entire poems in ancient Greek by memory. And in a recent column in The Daily Telegraph, he celebrated female beach-volleyball players “glistening like wet otters.” In doing so, the mayor taps into a British tradition of absurdity and erudition: he’s taken the lessons of Monty Python and turned them into a formidable political brand. That brand is only getting bigger. Johnson is now in poll position to replace Cameron as the leader of the Conservative Party, especially since the previous favorite—Chancellor George Osborne—has become the face of the troubled British economy. The Olympic bounce, which was supposed to benefit the coalition government, has instead catapulted Johnson into greater prominence. At a concert in Hyde Park, he called out Mitt Romney for suggesting that London was ill prepared to host the games, and the crowd responded with a rousing chant of “Boris! Boris! Boris!” On the day after the opening ceremonies, Johnson was caught on camera telling the queen she was “brilliant” in her James Bond cameo. And last week I witnessed him welcoming British athletes to the Olympic Village with a populist touch that—despite his privileged Etonian background—easily won over the crowd.
Like Bill Clinton (with whom he allegedly shares a history of sexual indiscretions), Johnson seems to bounce back from every setback with additional force. But the comparison to Clinton also shows the mayor’s biggest limitations. Unlike the former president, who devised the politics of triangulation to recapture disaffected centrists, no one can really say what Johnson stands for. His iconic achievement in London—the cheap and ubiquitous “Boris Bikes”—was actually planned before he took office. And Johnson, like Cameron before him, is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. What distinctive policies he would pursue if he challenged the Tory leader for his post remain to be seen. If anything, many of his public stances—such as complaining about Cameron’s budget cuts to London’s police force after last year’s riots—seem more opportunistic than principled. On the other hand, this very flexibility also taps into a deep Tory tradition. Disraeli used verbal fireworks to conceal his political pragmatism; Churchill changed party allegiance in pursuit of his grand vision. If Boris can combine his high-profile antics with a distinct political agenda, he may wind up gathering the very momentum he lacked on the zip line.