Boris and the Local Elections

The Mayor of London
The Mayor of London

Last week’s local elections trundled past with leaden midterm predictability.

Clearly peeved, a significant slice of the electorate stayed at home, and those that turned out roundly rejected the Coalition parties. Labour made huge gains, largely by default.

The Tories and Lib Dems were soon scrabbling to write off palpable public discontent as typical mid-term blues. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, was extrapolating growing public trust in his leadership from the protest votes begrudgingly cast in Labour’s favour.

Behind the dubiously rose-tinted interpretations, the cold hard statistics remain grim for the government. The Tories lost 419 councillors and 12 councils. The Lib Dems suffered a second successive electoral wipe-out: they lost 44% of the seats they were defending, leaving them with their smallest amount of councillors since they first emerged from the ashes of the SDP in 1988. Labour picked up 780 council seats, but based on the lowest voter turnout in 12 years.

More grimly culturally significant, meanwhile, was Boris Johnson’s re-election as London Mayor. There are certainly Tories who pose a more immediate threat to the cuddlier aspects of modern liberal democratic capitalism. The likes of Obsorne and Gove are undoubtedly more dangerous, bare-faced free market ideologues ramming home monetarist agendas while heading up important government departments. But they are straightforwardly, forthrightly nefarious – their very barefacedness means we know exactly what to expect of them. There is no doubting what they do and don’t believe in, and the bleakly dystopian socioeconomic transformation they are looking to bring about. Boris Johnson, by contrast, has perfected a kind of media-savvy anti-political Berty and Wooster schtick, combining faintly ridiculous oldy-worldy romanticism – see his heroic quest to purge the capital of bendy buses and replace them with the old red Routemasters – with bumbling blue-blood eccentricity and good old British common sense.

He is the upper class twit, the classic English chinless wonder, amusingly rendered for the post-ironic Have I Got News For You Generation. He has greatly benefitted from a general public exasperation with politics-as-usual – people like him because he adds a splash of colour to an otherwise joylessly grey generation of senior politicos.

There’s something of the boisterous Victorian imperialist about him – you can imagine him riding an elephant in a pith helmet without much trouble – and seems to have fallen out of a time before ‘elf and safety, political correctness and elite-driven multiculturalism. The sub- Churchillian bombast certainly appeals to a sizeable pool of right-wing authoritarians, disenchanted with touchy-feely Cameroonism. Meanwhile, a lot of people under a certain age find him inanely hilarious – to a roomful of teenagers, his must be the most recognisable face of any current-day politician, including the Prime Minister’s.

He might be the mutt’s nads to pimply 17 year-olds, but Boris Johnson is now executive Mayor of Europe’s biggest city for another four years. Boris is dangerous exactly because he isn’t a bumblingly ineffectual silverback gorilla in a suit, or an anti-political, non-ideological pragmatic centrist. He might not have suckled at the teat of a think-tank before parachuting into a safe-seat as a prospective MP, but he is still basically a career politician, hopping from Eton to Oxford to editing magazines for retired Brigadiers to representing one of the most solidly Tory constituencies in the country. Behind the barrage of idiocy – no doubt finely calculated – he’s allowed to act without scrutiny, as a hard-line Thatcherite slightly watered down for London’s well-heeled lefty-liberals (as Phil Ochs timelessly observed, being liberal-left doesn’t stop a person from voting Tory when they start to feel the pinch). Among his few notable acts as Mayor have been to cut funding for rape crisis centres, ditch the anti-racist Rise Festival, and preside over skyrocketing transport fares.

As Mayor of London, Boris’s powers are limited, thankfully. But his formidable public profile and relative popularity make him, despite appearances, a serious contender for future leader of the Conservative Party. Boris has gone to significant lengths to distance himself from the unpopularity of the coalition, and he could well be one of few frontline Tories to emerge from the Cameron-era with much public standing. Which raises the fearful prospect of the Boris factor writ large, Johnson entering the general election as would-be leader of the nation, uniting the politically disenchanted, the right-wing and angry, and the easily amused in a coalition that could bat aside a limply uncharismatic Ed Miliband-type and land him the top job. Expect him to be Prime Minister this time next decade.