“LOL Boris for PM!!!1!” tweeted one articulate person during the London Mayor's speech after the Olympic Games. The famously mop-headed Tory politician had declared a parade in honor of Team GB's medalists, and closed this event with a speech which many believe was setting him up for a bid for the Conservative Party leadership and ultimately Number 10. Pundits claim that he took credit for the games and that the success of the London 2012 Olympics reflects well on Boris Johnson. His visibility during the games and his savvy courting of the international media has propelled him to a new level of recognition which can only work in his favor should he decided to make a play for power. The idea of Boris as Prime Minister might not be a joke for too much longer - not the least because he out-danced Cameron's awkward shuffle during the game's closing ceremony.
Boris Johnson, or B-Jo to some, has always managed to use his status as Britain's most high profile joke to forward his career. His popularity lies in his appeal to people who are either not interested in politics or who believe all politicians to be grey suits, only marginally more interesting than accountants. He clearly believes himself to be the second most powerful person in the country, with eyes to take his unique brand of self-publicity to greater heights. The above quoted tweet is indicative of the fact that he appeals to people outside the main political debate.
I am yet to meet anyone who admits to voting for Boris for any position of power simply because he is funny, but the nagging suspicion that such a person is out there somewhere will not go away. Boris is the classic Cameron model of Tory, clearly a Conservative of the left of the party, a self-styled progressive and not a darling of the right-wing. His appeal to those who could make him leader is his ability to attract support from those who are unlikely to vote for traditional Tory candidates, primarily young people who the Conservatives have had little success in wooing. Rising youth unemployment under the Cameron government makes it unlikely that they will have much success among the under 25s in the 2015 election, but Boris Johnson as leader might make that more likely.
Let me lay out the case for Boris as party leader: the current economic stagnation is doing the Conservatives no favours electorally, and Cameron has a growing problem with the right of his party. He is seen as appeasing the Lib Dems too much and flip-flopping on key issues of immigration, welfare reform and – crucially – EU membership. All this could be brushed off, but Cameron cannot escape the growing feeling amongst Conservatives that the government is not right-wing enough and that this could cause the traditional Troy vote to stay home in 2015 or switch to a new party, such as UKIP. Tory strategists are concerned about the current leadership's effectiveness to mount a successful campaign for the next election, and Boris could make all the difference. He is internationally-known, watchable on TV and an effective user of modern political tools such as social-media. He appeals to the young, the politically central and the so-called “chattering classes”, what I will call the LOL B-Jo crowd. His connection with the Olympics brings positive thoughts to people's mind when musing on Boris Johnson. By contrast, David Cameron reminds everyone of government cut-backs and our own squeezed wallets. Boris also has experience of high office, and being Mayor of a city as diverse as London requires a special type of politician who appeals to different sections of society and fosters consensus. He is also of good Tory stock, Eton and Oxbridge educated, clearly a friend to wealthy and privileged, whose support the Tory party depends upon. Even his frequent gaffes come across as lovable buffoonery: Boris has turned his biggest weakness into his greatest strength.
However, there are reasons against making Boris party leader. He is clearly no more right-wing than Cameron, and thus unlikely to attract back the euro-sceptic support lost since Cameron became party leader. British politics are also very different from American politics and, although Boris considers himself to be Governor of the London (in more ways than one), being Mayor is an unlikely stepping stone to party leadership. Cameron's successor is more likely to come from a cabinet colleague, probably Osborne who occupies the traditional king-in-waiting role of Chancellor and is firmly to Cameron's right. However, the main reason against Boris becoming party leader is actually his clownish appearance. Britain longs to be taken seriously as a world power and everything about the London 2012 Games is a testament to this, but choosing a tousle-haired dandy as our leader does not project seriousness. The thought of a leader who might drop his trousers at a meeting of NATO has little appeal outside the LOL B-Jo crowd. Memories of how all of Italy was mocked for Silvio Berlusconi's gaffes are still fresh in people's mind.
The LOL B-Jo crowd may have their day: remember that in the early 1970s, the idea of Margret Thatcher as Prime Minister was laughable (remember Life on Mars?). However, Boris Johnson is clearly setting the agenda right now, with his appearance on David Letterman's The Late Show in America prompting Cameron to be a guest on the same late-night talk show. Recently, Douglas Alexander has written in the New Statesman that Labourshould take the idea of Boris as party leader seriously. B-Jo maybe the nation's favourite joke for now, but he is no fool. Boris Johnson's political foes (both inside and outside his party) would do well to take seriously the way he uses his public image to promote himself, and his appeal to people alienated by politics. No other politician better sums up the way Twitter has changed politics. It would not come as a shock to me if I were to read a tweet saying “LOL just voted for B-Jo for PM” in 2015.