The Boris Conundrum

 Boris Johnson, future PM?

Boris Johnson, future PM?

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. 



The most marmite-like of British politicians; a character so divisive that one is likely to find more combs in the Johnson household than members of the public without a solid opinion on the man.

To the left, he is a caricature of everything that disgusts and enrages them about the Tories: plum-voiced, Eton-educated, and, on occasion, politically incorrect. In their eyes he is a Falstaffian oaf unfit for government, and they still find themselves in a state of confusion and dismay as to how he usurped their beloved ‘Red Ken’ from the London Mayoralty.

 The Zip Wire: Somehow a PR win for Boris.

The Zip Wire: Somehow a PR win for Boris.

To the Tories, however, he is an animal of a different ilk. Hidden away behind the blustering exuberance and jovial banter lies a shrewd political mind, razor sharp in its machinations, leading many to underestimate his capability in the political arena. They do so at their peril, as all those who wrote him off prior to the Mayoral election for being not serious enough discovered. Yet that perceived frivolity is at the crux of what makes Boris such a fascinating politician: in an era where the Commons is mostly populated by wan-faced automatons droning on in politicospeak, he is a breath of fresh air. As the public feel increasingly distanced from politicians and their drab personalities, Boris, with his ebullience, affable nature, and wry sense of humour, is a weapon the Conservatives should treasure. Yes, there will always be the occasional faux-pas - that comes with the Johnson territory - but, as proven time and time again over the years, Boris seems to always escape unscathed from these things. Only he could have swung a zip-line malfunction dangling over the Thames into positive PR, and although one shudders at the thought of how he must devour his morning bacon sarnie, you can be certain that the only potential effect of any photographic evidence would be a hike in brown sauce sales.

So as we gear up for next year’s mayoral election - currently shaping up to be the fiercest Goldsmith-Khan battle since Jemima accosted Imran for leaving the seat up - it’s time to wonder: what do the Tories do with Boris?

As Cameron dished out cabinet positions at the start of this government, he'd didn't face a particularly tough choice when it came to his former schoolmate and Bullingdon Club cohort: the time-consuming nature of his mayoral duties meant that Boris wouldn't be able to function in any senior role, so it was a presumably swift decision to invite him to attend cabinet meetings in order to keep him in the fold. However, once his successor to the mayoralty is duly appointed next year, one can presume that Boris will be chomping at the bit to get his hands on a position into which he can really sink his teeth.

The dilemma facing the Tories is a tough one. It comes down to whether those running the party believe that he is, in fact, a genuine future leader. If so, then things become simpler: give Boris a decent cabinet post where he can make a splash - Education, perhaps (one can hear the irate caterwauling of the NUT already) - use his considerable oratory talents in the verbal jousts of the Commons and at various Conservative events (fundraising, political soapboxing et al), and then line him up for a run at the leadership in the lead-in to the 2020 general election.

However, if at heart they don't see Boris as a party leader and possible PM, things could get tricky. If the Tories wish to ‘play it safe’ for 2020, running on an economical and business platform and elevating the likes of George Osborne or Sajid Javid into the ‘potential leader’ category, then they run the risk of their preferred candidates being overshadowed by the larger-than-life MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. If, at that stage, Boris has a key cabinet role, it may prove impossible to dismiss him from the leadership conversation, which means that those running the party, in conjunction with Cameron, will have to keep him in more junior roles for the next few years - a proposition that no one will relish, given his capability for pot-stirring and self-promotion. If the Conservatives choose to go down this route, they run the risk of exacerbating the fractures that are already evident within the party - emphasised by the recent Eurosceptic revolt - which, given the slim majority they hold in the Commons, would be a potential disaster.

Asides from the usual factors such as economy (if Osborne continues to do a good job then he will certainly be a favourite for the leadership) and world affairs (how we stand with the EU, and what occurs over the next couple of years in Russia and the Middle East), one can posit that the Conservative’s decision will be hugely influenced by whoever is at the helm of the opposition. With bookies up and down the country giving Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall the status of favourites (Burnham is marginally odds on, with Kendall an attractive 2/1 for those thinking of a flutter), there are two markedly different outcomes on the horizon. If Burnham wins, then it will be easier for the Tories to choose the safer option of Osborne or Javid, playing the same pro-business cards that dispatched the similarly left-wing Ed Miliband in the 2015 election. However, if Kendall is on the ballot in 2020, with her more centrist, pro-business policies, then the Tories may need to back someone with a little more oomph and, dare we say it, star power. Boris, who is pro-business and right wing enough to satisfy the majority of the party base, yet socially liberal, would have the right combination of policies to take down a pseudo-Blairite Labour platform, and it’s difficult to see campaign debates with the demure Kendall ending in anything but a triumphant Boris meandering his way home on his bicycle.

Many Tories already believe that Boris is the right man to lead the Conservatives, and indeed the country, into the next decade. There will, of course, be mutterings from those corners of the party with a less-than-rosy view of him, but let them bellyache away: as the man himself points out in his recent bestseller, Churchill had dubious support at best from his own party in 1940 - as the war cabinet mulled an offer to end the war from Hitler that would have laid waste to Europe - yet through his fierce, grandstanding rhetoric and political savvy he swiftly managed to get them to fall in line. Now, some will argue that Churchill was a wartime Prime Minister, and it is a different type of man (or woman) altogether that is required for peacetime leadership: well, with our relationship with Europe increasingly rocky, and the shadow of Putin’s Russia looming ominously in the East, perhaps a wartime Prime Minister is exactly what we need.