By Estelle Shirbon
London’s Mayor Boris Johnson was campaigning on the city streets days before Britain’s general election when a young woman, thrilled to meet this political celebrity, loudly hailed him as “prime minister to be”.
Johnson, who is standing to be a Conservative member of parliament and backing party leader David Cameron to win a second term as prime minister, scuttled off without comment.
Moments later, he entered a butcher’s shop to hand out leaflets and shake hands, and faced the same question. “Are you going to be our next prime minister, Boris?” a shop worker asked. Again, Johnson moved on, leaving the question unanswered.
The scene encapsulated Johnson’s position in the run-up to the election. Popular and openly discussed as a potential prime minister, he must show unswerving support for Cameron to avoid charges of disloyalty that could hurt his chances.
Johnson, whose comic wit and dishevelled charm belie steely ambition, has batted away speculation about his ambitions for years, but even Cameron last month named him as a possible successor, along with ministers George Osborne and Theresa May.
How soon a vacancy arises depends on the outcome of Thursday’s election, which polls suggest is highly uncertain.
If Cameron remains prime minister of a coalition government, his position as party leader will not be very secure, and he has said he would not seek a third term. So a leadership contest would be inevitable well before the next election in 2020.
If opposition leader Ed Miliband becomes prime minister, Cameron would likely step down as Conservative leader. Whoever succeeded him would become leader of the opposition and, if the Conservatives won the next election, prime minister.
Either way, Johnson will finally have to show his hand.
The clearest hint that he would like the top job came in a 2013 documentary, when he used a rugby metaphor: “If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”
Since then, he has refused to answer the question, and a spokesman did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
But is a man whose humour and likeably shambolic persona have helped him shrug off past crises fit to lead Britain?
Some of the voters he met when campaigning in north London certainly thought so. “He’s honest, he’s charismatic, he’s what a politician should be, full of enthusiasm,” said Kelly Isaac, the man in the butcher’s shop.
“MORE PRECISION, LESS BLUSTER”
Known to all by his first name and easy to recognise with his tousled mop of blond hair, Johnson is received on the campaign trail more like a TV star than a politician, with people crowding around to pose for selfies with him.
Unlike Cameron, his contemporary at exclusive private school Eton and elite Oxford University, Johnson does not downplay his privileged upbringing to broaden his appeal. His comic image as a Latin-spouting upper-class eccentric is key to his success.
The campaign has not been all plain sailing for him though. A TV clash with Miliband generated excitement as a potential foretaste of things to come in the House of Commons, but some fellow Conservatives, also known as Tories, were unimpressed.
“Tory MPs somewhat down on (Johnson’s) performance, one telling me: If he wants top job he needs more precision, less bluster,” tweeted Tim Montgomerie, an influential party figure.
In Johnson’s favour, he is more popular than Conservative rivals. A YouGov poll in March found that 28 percent of people thought he should become party leader when Cameron steps down, versus 13 per cent for May and 8 per cent for Osborne.
But Anthony Wells, director of political polling at YouGov, said it was impossible to know if his popularity would hold up if there were a serious prospect of him becoming prime minister.
“It’s fine being mayor of London going down the zipwire waving flags, but would that suddenly stop being funny if there was a chance of him having his finger on the nuclear button?”
During the London 2012 Olympics, photos of Johnson stuck on a zipwire waving Union Jacks went around the world. Typically for him, this was seen as endearing rather than embarrassing.
His unique personal brand has helped him survive crises that would have ended other political careers, not least exposure of extra-marital affairs that earned him the tabloid nickname “Bonking Boris”. One affair cost him a senior job in the Conservative party in 2004.
In 2013, the Court of Appeal dismissed an attempt by a former mistress to stop publication of information about her child with Johnson, ruling that his “recklessness” was “a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office”.
“SHORT ON IDEAS”
There has been speculation that scandals that were previously brushed off would become a problem if he were in line to be prime minister, but Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, said that was far from certain.
“All the stuff is out there already, and even if it were dragged out again there’s no evidence it would do much harm.”
Critics also say Johnson is more distinctive in style than in substance and his views on policy are hard to pin down.
“You might be entertained royally but you never find out what he believes in or what he’ll do about anything,” said Sonia Purnell, author of unauthorised biography “Just Boris”.
In the past, Johnson diverged from the party line by calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been in Britain for 12 years, but more recently he has adopted a tougher tone, denouncing migrants who “leech” off the welfare state.
Asked about this by Reuters, Johnson denied that his message on immigration had changed, saying he had always been “pro-immigrant” but that “there are people who scrounge and who bludge and who loaf and who leech and I don’t want to see it”.
“There aren’t that many of those people but there are some, OK?” he said during a brief interview in between campaign stops.
Travers said one uncertainty was whether Johnson, an individualist who as a directly elected mayor has relied on his personal appeal, would be effective as a party leader, a role that required very different team leadership skills.
One Conservative member of parliament (MP) told Reuters he supported Johnson because he was a proven winner, having beaten a formidable Labour opponent in the 2008 and 2012 mayoral races.
“People will listen to him, including people who are not interested in what the party has to say. He can attract some engagement,” said the MP, who did not wish to be named due to the sensitivity of the leadership issue so close to an election.
Purnell said Johnson had many talents, but his flaws were worrisome.
“Despite being brilliant with crowds he’s not empathetic. He finds it difficult to work in a team,” she said.
“He’s short on ideas, he’s long on jokes. But joking isn’t what you need in a prime minister.”