Tuesday, 14 August 2012

London 2012: "Brand Boris" marches on

As Britain returns to normality after two and a bit weeks of the best escapism one could wish for, one man must be purring with delight at how well things have gone. Not just for ‘Team GB,’ or London 2012 as a whole, but for his own brand. London Mayor Boris Johnson will surely be reflecting on a “rather jolly good fortnight”, as he’d probably put it. It’s quite good being me at the moment, he’d no doubt mutter.

And who can blame him. His stock has risen further. The world came, they loved what they saw, and Boris even managed to pull out a few party tricks to keep us all entertained. What struck me at the sight of one of the most powerful men in Europe dangling from a zip wire, legs flapping in mid air, twirling mini Union Flags, was not actually the episode itself. It was the fact that only a politician as high-profile as Boris Johnson would even dare attempt such a stunt. He did, he got stuck, he got laughed at, he came away with it smelling of roses. His team of advisers have now probably realised that trying to rein him in is pointless. Boris being Boris is a vote winner, a crowd pleaser, let him get on with it.
Us seasoned political anoraks know the dishevelled wild hair, ruffled just before he appears on camera, the bumbling fool act, is all part of a carefully crafted persona. And on Sunday, caught bopping away to the Spice Girls at the Olympics closing ceremony, like the proverbial embarrassing uncle at a wedding.

The clamour by the Tory grassroots for him to succeed David Cameron grows louder by the opinion poll. The PM is still way ahead of Boris as the preferred choice to lead the Tories into the next general election: 49% versus 18%. When he departs, only William Hague, who constantly reminds us of his desire not to take his old job back, stands in his way of the Tory leadership, if the party faithful have their way.
He’s still very much part of the anti-politics mood in vogue right now, is Boris. He’s the exception that proves the rule as far as the perennial politician bashers are concerned. The engaging, watchable, effervescent, Mayor. Jonathan Freedland humorously sums up the power of his brand as:

“The one person in British politics who passes both the Madonna test – no surname necessary – and The Simpsons test, a character recognisable by his silhouette alone.”
Say the name Boris to the most apathetic voter and more often than not he/she will know you’re talking about the Mayor of London. Say David, Ed, or Nick to the same person and they’ll think you’re talking about one of their mates.

In some respects, a Boris takeover at the top of the Tory Party before 2015 would be Ed Miliband’s worst nightmare. How to take on someone like him would be a real challenge. The leadership debates would certainly make compulsive viewing. Boris isn’t easy to pin down, as Labour found out to its cost in May. Trying to make the London Mayoral election about policies and Ken Livingstone’s record failed. London became all about the Ken v Boris soap opera, more dominated by their contrasting personalities, than policies. It would be easy to say Ken never had a chance, but a 3 point win for Boris suggests that his popularity only carries him so far.
The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist believes he seems:

“Too chaotic to be at the centre of power. The people who want to have their pictures taken with him may not want him in charge of the NHS.”
The ‘Boris Bounce’ currently only gives the Tories a modest poll boost. Not yet a ‘game-changer,’ but something for us to chew on for a while, or until Cameron’s ratings nudge upwards again. If by the end of the year the PM is unable to get himself out of this rut, the speculation will grow and grow.

Some pundits claim that Boris’s appeal doesn’t stretch beyond London and the Home Counties, but a Sun/YouGov poll found:
“One in ten Labour voters admits they would be more likely to back the Tories if [Boris] was at the helm. This compares with just one in 100 who think David Cameron could persuade them to switch.”  

Admittedly, these are still small numbers, but could make all the difference in an election that produces another hung parliament. Irrespective of several months of good polling news for Labour, the party needs to scrap for every vote it can get. It can’t afford to have even a handful of potential voters turning blue and falling for Boris’s charm.
The always worth reading Tim Montgomerie, sums up his popularity:

“He is a Eurosceptic who doesn’t just love his country but loves its people too, whatever their politics, colour, religion or sexuality. David Cameron is comfortable with modern Britain too, but, to adapt one of Mr Johnson’s own expressions, Boris zoinks off the Geiger counter of positivity. He hugs the nation and smothers it with rhetorical kisses."
Despite his reservations on seeing him ever become PM, “Bagehot” notes that Boris has been ‘broadly brilliant at shaping how people think of him.’

An ability to persuade a party that you belong to its tribe while saying things it disagrees,’ as he has skillfully managed with fawning Tories on the right, means Boris Johnson has to be taken seriously, because you can bet that behind all the bluster and buffoonery, he has his eye on the number one job in British politics.  
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 14th August 2012

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